How Great White Sharks Work

Great White Shark Attacks

Great white with open mouth
Let's hope this isn't the last thing you see.
Brandon Cole/Visuals Unlimited/Getty Images

The great white shark has been involved in some of the most chilling attacks on humans. In 1985, Australian Shirley Ann Durdin was torn in two and then devoured by a white shark. Rodney Fox had his lungs and stomach ripped open and required more than 360 stitches in a 1963 attack [source: Rodney Fox]. In 2008, Dave Martin was killed in California when a great white bit off his legs.

The great white shark does outrank all other sharks in the number of shark attacks. As of May 2020, the great white had racked up 326 unprovoked attacks, resulting in 52 fatalities; this far outpaces the runner-up tiger shark (129 unprovoked attacks and 34 deaths) and the third-place bull shark (116 unprovoked attacks and 25 deaths) [source: International Shark Attack File].


Why are the numbers so high? One factor to keep in mind is that great whites are easily recognizable, particularly if they leave a tooth or two in their victims. This means that more attacks are specifically attributed to them than other, less identifiable species [source: Carey]. There may also be a mind-set that great white sharks are guilty in a shark attack until proven innocent. Whether this bias is fair or not, scientists are quick to remind us that the odds of actually being attacked by any shark are very small.

Are humans especially delicious to great white sharks? Probably not, according to scientists who've studied the stomach contents of these sharks. Humans, because of their muscle content, aren't a very good meal for great whites, who crave fatty blubber. Many shark attack victims live to tell their tale because the shark takes a bite, as if to taste it. While this will be small comfort to anyone ever trapped in the mouth of a shark, it may just be a case of mistaken identity. Think about someone lying on a surfboard, their arms and legs out to the side to paddle and kick. From below, this shape might resemble a seal.

The great white is no doubt dangerous, but if you're trying to decide whether to go swimming, it might be worth remembering that elephants are more deadly than great whites [source: Carey]. A common adage in the shark world now is that man is a much greater danger to sharks than sharks have ever been to man. These sharks are hunted for sport and also for their parts, including their teeth and their fins.

But what does the great white shark hunt, if not humans? Find out next.