How Shark Attacks Work

Anatomy of a Shark Attack

A great white shark tried to make a meal out of Kenny Doudt and his surfboard.
A great white shark tried to make a meal out of Kenny Doudt and his surfboard.
Photo courtesy Carl Roessler

The thing about a shark is, he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn't even seem to be livin'. 'Til he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then..." - Quint, "Jaws"

There is rar­ely any warning. The surfer or swimmer is paddling along with no idea what is about to happen. Sometimes their first indication that something is wrong is a look of terror in the eyes of a nearby friend. More often, the first sign is a sudden, massive impact as the oncoming shark propels itself into the victim. Great whites are known to attack sea lions with such force that they leap completely out of the water with the prey held in their jaws. In the book "Shark Attacks," pregnant lifeguard Dawn Schaumann recounts her attack, which happened about 100 yards off the coast of Florida in 1993: "A shark hit me so hard it felt like a huge truck," she said. "My first thought was: my time has come."

Surfer Kenny Doudt was attacked by a great white shark off the coast of Oregon in­ 1979. He describes the attack in his book, "Surfing With the Great White Shark": "I heard a muffled roar as the shark's massive jaws clamped across my back, pressing the board to my chest...The shark pulled me two feet under water, but couldn't hold me under due to the buoyancy of the surfboard...I felt tremendous pressure on my chest and heard ribs snapping and the crunching of the underside of the board."

The attack started out as if the shark was feeding normally -- great whites attack sea lions from below, taking a single massive bite and dragging the prey below the surface. They then allow the disabled prey to float in the water and bleed to death, returning to finish their meal a few minutes later. In Doudt's case, the shark was unable to accomplish its initial bite because of the surfboard, but kept trying for about 20 seconds. "I felt totally helpless, as my entire body was lifted high above the water, then slammed back down beneath the surface," he recalls.

In the next section we'll look at shark attack patterns.