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New Zealand Shark Attacks: What to Know for 2024

Perched atop the esplanade overlooking St. Clair Beach, one of New Zealand’s premier surf destinations, you might notice a tall post topped by a large bell.

This is St. Clair’s infamous shark warning bell - installed after a string of high-profile attacks rocked Dunedin, a coastal city on the South Island’s southeast coast from 1964-1971.

The perpetrator, believed to be a rogue Great White Shark at over 13 feet in length, attacked five beach-goers and claimed the lives of three during this seven year span. This sent shockwaves through the Dunedin community and across the nation, earning Dunedin the unfortunate title: “the shark attack capital of New Zealand”. 

The brisk waters of New Zealand’s far south were long thought to be too cold for Great Whites, which is why the attacks came as such a shock.

However, considering that Dunedin is home to large colonies of fur seals, sea lions, and penguins, it’s no surprise that mature Great Whites lurk in the waters around the Otago Peninsula.

And, throughout the rest of New Zealand, especially in the warm waters of the north, dozens of other species of sharks enjoy and contribute to the rich marine ecosystems. 

Unfortunately, however, this means inevitable human-shark interactions - posing risks to swimmers, kayakers, and surfers around the country. 

How Many Shark Attacks Happen in New Zealand? 

There is no official count on the exact number of shark attacks that have occurred in New Zealand. Unofficial records, however, estimate that there have been about 120 attacks since 1840, a historical average of less than one attack per year.

While the yearly average has increased to around three attacks in recent years, the total rate is extremely low, making it tough to identify any significant trends. 

In any case, many of these “attacks” would be better classified as encounters, and likely occurred as a result of curiosity.

For instance, a 2022 encounter saw a Thresher Shark place its head atop a longboard, without biting or attacking the surfer. Similarly, many attacks describe sharks prodding or nudging kayaks, or simply result in minor puncture wounds or lacerations that are non life-threatening to surfers or swimmers. 

In fact, the most recent fatal attack on a surfer occurred all the way back in 2000.

And since 1840, there have only been 16 fatal attacks, an occurrence of less than one every ten years. 

In light of this, it’s important to remember that sharks tend to be relatively passive, and are far from the greatest danger when entering the ocean. For instance, in 2021 alone, there were 90 drownings in New Zealand waters, compared to just one fatal shark attack. So while sharks certainly pose real threats to surfers in New Zealand, we worry about them far more than we probably should.

What Kind of Sharks Live/Migrate In New Zealand? 

New Zealand is home to at least 113 species of sharks, many of which are protected.

These include Whale Sharks, Basking Sharks, Mako Sharks, Smooth Hammerheads, and the infamous Great White.

However, a majority of sharks are typically found on the upper continental slope - about 650 to 6,000 feet underwater, far from where humans typically spend time in the ocean. 

You are more likely to encounter species that inhabit shallow coastal waters year round, such as School Sharks, Rig Sharks, and Spiny Dogfish.

These species are small and non threatening to humans. 

What Months are Sharks Most Active in New Zealand?

Encounters with large, more threatening sharks are more common during the summer months, from December through March, when they migrate close to shore to feed and give birth.

Unfortunately, summer also sees peak human activity in the ocean, increasing the potential for a human-shark interaction.

A quick glance at the data shows that historically, there have been 98 shark attacks during the summer months, and only 28 during the rest of the year. 

How to Protect Yourself From a Shark Attack in New Zealand

It’s necessary to remember that by entering the ocean, we are placing ourselves within a shark’s natural habitat and assuming some level of risk. But it’s just as important to remember that sharks usually never target people - the rate of attacks in New Zealand is extremely low, and fatalities are even lower. 

However, it can never hurt to take precautions when entering the water. 

Sharks are most active at dawn and dusk, when they tend to feed. It might not be a bad idea to avoid surfing at those times, especially if you are alone. 

And, surfing alone probably isn’t smart either. Having another set of eyes in the water, especially in the case of an encounter might mean the difference between life and death. 

Additionally, you might consider leaving the water if you spot a seal or a sea lion, as Great Whites have been known to patrol the waters near seal or sea lion colonies. Depending on where you surf however, this might be unrealistic - I spot sea lions almost every time I surf in Dunedin

Surfing with open wounds should also be avoided at all costs. Sharks have a keen sense of smell, and can detect blood from hundreds of feet away. If you start bleeding out in the water, make sure to exit the ocean as quickly as possible.

Finally, I would recommend removing any jewelry or shiny objects that might catch the eye of a nearby shark.

This is especially important in New Zealand, with such an abundance of sharks along the coast, although it likely won’t be an issue in the far south, where you’ll be covered from head to toe in thick neoprene for most of the year. 

What To Do If You Witness a Shark Attack in New Zealand

If you are unfortunate enough to witness an attack from the water, it’s necessary to keep calm and if you can, help the victim to shore. In severe cases, help apply a tourniquet about 2-3 inches above the wound while waiting for help to arrive. This can be done with a shirt sleeve, pant leg, or any other piece of fabric, and should apply even pressure around the limb. 

If you witness an attack from the shore, dial 111 to call an ambulance and help alert beachgoers and surfers who may be unaware of the attack. 

While there’s only so much you can do as a bystander, quick action can, and will save lives. 

Shark Attacks in New Zealand

Sharks are an inevitable part of surfing in New Zealand, and potential encounters are risks that we choose to take each time we paddle out.

Many, however, including myself, take solace in the fact that sharks rarely attack people, and if they do, it’s likely an accident. 

Oh - and remember Dunedin, the so-called shark attack capital of New Zealand, infested with Great Whites? 

In the 56 years since the last fatal attack in 1968, there has not been a single shark related fatality - a remarkable record, and a testament to the fact that sharks (yes, even Great Whites) do not intentionally target humans.


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