Apryl Boyle always expects the same question from her non-surfing friends when she shares her love for riding waves.
“Aren’t you afraid of sharks?”
As a California surfer who has enjoyed the ocean’s playground for decades – the past 20 years at El Porto off Manhattan Beach’s coast – she’s seen plenty of sharks out in the water while waiting for waves, she said. As a scientist, she started wondering: How many other surfers have come across sharks and how do they feel about it?
Boyle and Brianna Le Busque, a researcher out of Australia, co-authored a recently published paper, “Sharing the waves: An exploration of surfer and shark interactions” in the peer-review journal ScienceDirect. Their paper explores the unique relationship between surfers and sharks, asking those surveyed questions such as whether they’ve seen a shark out in the water, if it prompted them to end their surf session or whether they know anyone who has been bit by a shark.
For many, the thought of sharks sharing the same sea space conjures feelings of fear and hesitation in going out into the water – thanks in part to movies such as “Jaws” and popular shows such as “Shark Week.”
In recent years, especially across Southern California, shark interactions have become more common as more people use the ocean and populations of species such as the great white rebound due to protections of both the sharks and their prey, shark experts believe.
Combine that with drone footage and more videos capturing sharks in their natural environments, sometimes coming close to beachgoers without them even knowing, and the perception of sharks is shifting.
Boyle contends they’ve always been there, we’re just paying more attention now.
“We always see sharks in the water, over half of the surfers we surveyed saw sharks in the water,” she said. “We see them all the time. We’re not out there getting eaten.”
While there have been shark bites off local waters, including one off Manhattan Beach in 2014, another in Corona Del Mar in 2016 and another off San Onofre a year later, such occurrences are rare when considering how many people use the ocean year round.
The online survey included 391 people who frequently surf in 24 countries. Most were from the USA, many from the South Bay and across Southern California.
About half, or 51.3%, of the surfers surveyed reported seeing a shark while surfing, while 17.2% had personally been, or know someone who had been, bitten by a shark while surfing.
Of the surfers who had seen a shark while surfing, the most reported shark species was white sharks at 39% reported and 23 different shark species were reported as being seen.
Some 60% of the surfers responded they are not afraid of sharks when surfing, and 44% said spotting a shark would not stop them from going in the water. A quarter of respondents said they would be afraid.
“There is a need for further research into this space, to understand how frequent ocean users, such as surfers, view sharks and the potential implications this has for shark conservation and management policies,” the researchers wrote.
Surfers, such as those in Southern California, understand the role sharks have in ocean health, and for the most part believe that shark conservation is good or necessary, the researchers found.
In other areas of the world, shark mitigation strategies attempt to reduce human-shark interactions, they noted.
Non-lethal mitigation techniques are employed including shark spotting from small airplanes, like in Australia, or human “spotters” with binoculars in South Africa. Lethal shark mitigation techniques are also still employed, such as shark culls, drum lines and shark meshing, which can have adverse environmental impacts, particularly because of the other marine life that can be caught up in the efforts, the study found.
The surveys happened online from January 2019 to 2021, pulling from popular social media groups such as Women Who Surf and environmental science students at USC and UC San Diego’s Center for Surf Research.
About 44% said spotting a shark would not prevent them from going in the water, while about 25% said it would prevent them from going in for a short period of time. One in 10, said a shark in the water would stop them from going entering.
“This provides preliminary evidence that while surfers interact with sharks frequently, many are not afraid of sharks and will not alter their surfing behaviors,” the study says.
About 40% of participants who have personally known someone killed by a shark do not go into the water after a shark sighting. However, between 40% and 67% of people who have had personal interactions, or personally know people who have had interactions with sharks, said they would still go into water after a shark sighting.
“Surfer’s experiences are important, as mitigation techniques, including lethal mitigation, are used in part to protect frequent ocean users such as surfers,” the researchers note.
Boyle said she believes surfers are sharks’ best advocates.
“I found that same sentiment around the world – surfers have always known they are out there,” she said, noting there’s more than 400 species of sharks. “You only hear stuff when you hear it’s a white shark.”
One of the goals is to normalize people’s reactions to sharks being in the water, because guess what, they live there, she quipped.
“Anybody just realizing they are that close to us has not been surfing in the water,” she said. “They’ve always been out there, we’ve just not had the technology we have today.”