Canadian Shark Attack Registry

The Canadian Shark Attack Registry (CSAR) is the first database of all documented human encounters with sharks that have resulted in injury or death in Canada. The data are compiled, verified and updated on a continual basis by the St. Lawrence Shark Observatory (ORS). We also provide behavioural insight as well as preventive safety recommendations for anyone venturing where sharks may be present.

Please note that due to the frequent absence of key details, it is sometimes necessary to speculate based on known facts in order to attempt to determine the species and causes of certain incidents. It is also important to understand that none of the information presented herein is in any way meant to dispute the fact that shark attacks in Canada and throughout the world are very rare.
What’s in a name? Go to Attack vs. incident for justification of the term attack.

Canadian Shark Attack Registry

Edited and compiled by Jeffrey Gallant, M.Sc. | St. Lawrence Shark Observatory (ORS)
Original publication: July 25, 2022 | Last update: July 26, 2022
How to cite: Gallant, J. (2022. July 26). Canadian Shark Attack Registry (1st ed.). St. Lawrence Shark Observatory. https://geerg.ca/en/shark-attacks/.
In-text citation: (Gallant, 2022)
Download PDF edition

Canada is not known for its many shark species nor for encounters with sharks resulting in injury or death. And yet, its first written account¹ (1672) of abundant sharks and skates in the St. Lawrence, as well as the 1691 tale of a fatal shark attack, predates Confederation and climate change by centuries. There is also convincing evidence² that prehistoric encounters between Indigenous peoples and sharks, including fatal attacks, took place for millennia in the Maritime provinces, which lends further credence to our belief that the so-called return of the white shark in Atlantic Canada and the St. Lawrence is more akin to a semblance of normalcy than a significant effect of climate change. Nevertheless, the risk of being bitten, let alone killed by a shark in Canada or anywhere else remains extremely low.

⚠️ None of the information presented here is meant to dispute the fact that shark attacks in Canada and throughout the world are very rare.

However, Canadian statistics don’t tell the entire story. Were it not for the low water temperatures and the relative small number of white sharks and people in Atlantic Canada and along the coasts of the St. Lawrence, the number of incidents could potentially resemble that of other countries with a significant white shark population such as Australia, where a handful of violent encounters involving sharks occur every year³. Although such confrontations should remain highly exceptional in Canada, the risk level may nonetheless increase as the growing human population and warming North Atlantic result in more people venturing into the ocean while the white shark repopulates its former hunting grounds.

¹ Nicolas Denys. Description géographique et historique des costes de l’Amérique septentrionale avec l’hiftoire naturelle du païs. Paris. 1672.
² Betts, M. W., Blair, S. E., & Black, D. W. (2012). Perspectivism, mortuary symbolism, and human-shark relationships on the Maritime Peninsula. American Antiquity77(4), 621–645. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23486482
² Jacques Merle. Mémoire de ce qui est arrivé au P. Vincent de Paul, religieux de la Trappe ; et ses observations lorsqu’il étoit en Amérique où il a passé environ dix ans avec l’agrément de son Supérieur. Paris. 1824.
³ Australian Shark-Incident Database
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SECTIONS

Fear of sharks
Why a registry?
Are sharks dangerous?
Comparative statistics
Accident vs. incident
Prehistoric attacks
Who’s to blame?
Incident descriptions
Reduce the risk
Recommendations
List of incidents
Map of incidents
Statistics

Galeophobia: Fear of sharks

In spite of their terrible reputation, sharks are not man-eaters. In fact, shark encounters resulting in injury or death are extremely rare, especially in Canada. And yet, there are plenty of sharks in the Northwest Atlantic, Northeast Pacific, and Arctic Oceans, including the largest and most notorious of all carnivorous sharks, the white shark (Carcharodon carcharias).

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

— H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927)
The white shark is responsible for most shark incidents in Canada.

The fear of sharks, or galeophobia¹, has existed for as long as humans have been drawn to the sea. Today, shark attacks typically generate a frenzy of sensationalistic news coverage due to their rarity and because they arouse copious and equal amounts of fascination and blind terror. For most, the fear is rooted in human culture yet unjustified as they will never come close to a shark. In many cases, the man-made dread is further exacerbated by misleading documentary films and bone-chilling thrillers such as Jaws and The Shallows.

But even for some of us who enter the shark’s domain armed with knowledge and experience, the fear is nonetheless real with a few species and under certain conditions. We understand that attacks are highly unusual, but when the water is murky and white sharks are known to be lurking about, there is no room for complacency and we dive with our heads on swivels.

¹ The fear of sharks is also known as selachophobia.

Why a registry and is it detrimental to sharks?

The Canadian Shark Attack Registry was created by the St. Lawrence Shark Observatory (ORS) following a series of confirmed or suspected incidents involving white sharks in the province of Nova Scotia—including the Gulf of St. Lawrence—in 2021. As of going online in July 2022, there have already been two more reported encounters between sport divers and large-bodied sharks, at least one of which was a white shark, in the Halifax area over the last month. Such incidents, which were previously unheard of, may be indicative of a redistribution or increase of the North Atlantic white shark population, or both. No matter the reason, threatening or violent encounters past and present need to be documented and understood in order to better predict and prevent injury or death, and to promote peaceful coexistence between humans and sharks.

The registry is maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers, all scientists, and every one of us loves sharks. We began studying these maligned creatures in the 90s when most people were unaware of their presence in Canada, and long before there was any kind of organised movement to protect them. We have since conducted multiple research expeditions, published peer-reviewed studies, and accomplished several shark firsts in Canada along the way. Much of our work is conducted underwater, on scuba, and as such we have personally encountered hundreds of sharks close up in myriad situations and environments, most of which were very exciting, but also a few that were downright scary. In short, the first repertoire of shark attacks (a.k.a. incidents, interactions, bites and negative encounters) in Canada is based on decades of first-hand experience, as well as the shared knowledge of our colleagues around the world.

Our goal is straightforward: to protect humans and sharks by painting a picture of what has been, what is happening now, and what is likely to come in the near future. We believe that the general public needs to better understand sharks and the risk they pose on humans entering their domain. Sharks need to be accepted, not feared, for what they are: predators, not of humans, but beasts of prey nonetheless, and incidents will happen no matter how much we love or loathe them. Predicting that occasional bumps and bites are increasingly inevitable is neither clairvoyance nor fear-mongering. It is a realistic assumption based on an understanding of basic shark behaviour related to specific environments.

Like it or not, the white shark appears to be making a comeback in Atlantic Canada and the St. Lawrence; its physical environment is changing under the effects of global warming¹; and increasing numbers of humans are entering the shark’s world every year. As much as we would like to tell people to go about their business as usual, we believe that the risk of agressive shark encounters in Canada has increased, and that it will continue to rise concomitant with the white shark’s protected status and the ecosystemic changes presently occurring in the North Atlantic.

The white shark’s resurgence is a good thing for North Atlantic ecosystems, including Atlantic Canada and the St. Lawrence, which need megafauna such as the white shark for all species big and small to thrive. However, we need to adapt ourselves to this renewed reality. We have to be proactive and focus on knowledge and prevention in order to keep the risk of shark incidents in check, and to better react when the odd bite happens. Let’s get the facts straight while we are cool-headed, and before another incident and the ensuing media frenzy set the cause of shark conservation back another 50 years.

Our long experience working with government agencies, fishers, coastal communities, conservation groups, the general public and the media, have given us a clear understanding of the many stakes and varying interests that influence our respective appreciation of the ocean and of one of its key inhabitants, the shark. But it has also taught us that when everyone’s needs are genuinely understood and appreciated, most people care about sharks and are willing to contribute to their continued existence. The key to moving forward is simple: when dealing with such diverging interests, being truthful and transparent at all times is indispensable in order to establish trust and effect positive change. The same goes for shark conservation.

Hiding reality with slanted statistics or gratuitous claims that sharks are not dangerous or pose no threat to us helps no one, including sharks. We nonetheless expect that some may perceive the Canadian Shark Attack Registry as portraying sharks in a bad light and perpetuating their terrible reputation by reminding us of their infrequent wrongdoings. But we firmly believe that this initiative is in fact one of many currently being undertaken by different groups devoted to the cause of shark conservation across the country. In the words of our late friend and colleague who greatly inspired the careers of many an ichthyologist,

“if we are going to continue entering the shark’s domain, rather than clearing the sea of sharks, it makes much more sense to become familiar with the ways of sharks — to become Shark Smart.”

— Aidan. R. Martin, Shark Smart (1995)

¹ Le golfe du Saint-Laurent a eu chaud en 2021. La Presse. 19.01.2022. Online
Aptly titled cover story of the first pelagic shark dives in Canada off the coast of Halifax in 2000.
GEERG shark observation cage on the frozen Saguenay Fjord during Operation Skalugsuak II, in 2002. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | ORS.
GEERG captured the first non-intrusive images of free-swimming Greenland sharks in 2003. Contact was at all times initiated by the sharks under natural conditions without the use of bait or hook & line. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | ORS

Are sharks dangerous?

Short answer: yes… but there’s more to it than meets the eye. What really matters is the risk level associated with each species, individual personalities (not all sharks from a same species or gender behave alike), as well as compounding factors such as the presence of other sharks competing for the same food, a shark’s age¹ (juveniles may be more indiscriminate biters), sea conditions, and human activity such as fishing or surfing. In other words, when a shark’s judgment isn’t impaired by adverse conditions, inexperience or competition, there is very little chance it will bite you.

Clearly, sharks do not seek out humans as prey and the risk of being bitten is infinitely small, but the combination of their predatory nature, their formidable offensive capabilities, and known environmental variables such as the presence of seals and bad visibility make some of the larger species dangerous. There is nonetheless a tendency among well-meaning activists to trivialise the risk posed by sharks in order to sway public opinion. This is understandable as many shark species are highly threatened, but who would want to protect mindless killers? Once vilified as demonic man-eaters, their reputation has thus—in some circles—gone a full 180 to be portrayed as harmless fish going about their business while constituting no real threat to humans. However, it is our opinion that overgeneralising the risk posed by all 500+ shark species in the world to suit conservation efforts is counterproductive since every new incident reignites the never-ending debate—Are they dangerous or not?—whereas violent encounters involving other animals have long been considered normal, i.e. they are expected to happen.

“The need to protect sharks is real, but denaturing their character and trivialising the risk of attacks in the name of conservation does them—and us—a disservice.”

— Jeffrey Gallant, ORS

Wildlife and natural history productions have taught millions to care for animals known to attack humans, including the hippopotamus. And yet, hippos kill an estimated 500 to 3,000 people every year², making them the world’s deadliest mammal after humans ; nearly twice as deadly as lions, and at least fifty times deadlier than sharks. Sharks thus suffer from interspecific discrimination when more dangerous animals are deemed worthy of our protection, but sharks are not. Likewise, deadly encounters with white—polar—bears are even rarer than shark attacks, and yet there is no question that the white bear is dangerous to humans. In other words, like sharks, it occasionally kills people, but it is nonetheless a poignant and popular symbol of climate change. Why the double standard? What is it about sharks that makes them so unloveable that we have to change the narrative to generate compassion?

Mollycoddling sharks to support conservation efforts also leads to a false sense of assurance and people letting their guard down, which thus increases the risk, be it ever so small, of dramatic encounters. When the inevitable tragedy befalls an unfortunate victim, the ensuing media mayhem and lack of public awareness on sharks typically lead to sensationalistic and alarmist headlines, calls for culls, and worst of all, continued indifference to the ongoing extermination of sharks resulting from the illegal fin trade.

Blindly dismissing or exaggerating the danger posed by sharks are equally unhelpful. What is needed is a mature and straightforward understanding of sharks to better predict and help prevent bites. Only then will most incidents rightfully go down as very rare instances of bad luck, i.e. being at the wrong place at the wrong time. In short, sharks deserve our respect, not our scorn or derision.

¹ Ryan LA et al. 2021. A shark’s eye view: testing the ‘mistaken identity theory’ behind shark bites on humans. J. R. Soc. Interface 18: 20210533. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2021.0533
² Encyclopædia Britannica. 9 of the World’s Deadliest Mammals. (Referenced on September 15, 2021).
Hippos are feared but protected even though they kill an estimated 500 to 3,000 people every year², which is 50 to 300 times more than sharks. Sharks play an equally important but largely misunderstood role in maintaining their own ecosystems, yet they are usually portrayed and seen as monsters. Image by Kenya Wildlife Service

Comparative statistics: Are toasters really more dangerous than sharks?

Short answer: no. Statistics only work when the data sets on both sides of the comparison are equal. If the numbers¹ are true, toasters—by fire and electrocution—may indeed kill more humans than sharks on a yearly basis (±800 to ±10), but millions more people are exposed to toasters hours on end every single day. The same goes for most other comforting comparisons and confirmation bias often used to minimise the risk of being attacked, let alone killed by a shark: heart attacks, cancer, dogs, bees, car accidents, lightning, falling coconuts, etc.

Stand-alone annual numbers should suffice to convince anyone of the extremely low risk posed by sharks. On an average year, approximately 10 people die from 100 attacks, a.k.a. incidents, reported worldwide.

And what about falling coconuts?

This is one of the most oft-used statistics to put down people’s fear of being attacked by a shark. But how is it relevant to anyone entering the ocean in Canada, where there are no coconut trees? And therein lies the conundrum: unless such comparisons equally pertain to every place at any given time, they are baseless and serve only to reassure people who would better understand the true risk if they were instead offered straightforward information related to the time and place of their aquatic activities.

If you need peace of mind, forget the slanted statistics and remember this: white shark attacks are extremely rare, but you can further reduce the risk to an absolute minimum by arming yourself with basic knowledge on the white shark’s seasonal migration and behaviour in Canadian waters. You must also acknowledge that the white shark is back² and that it is a statistical certainty that more shark incidents will occur in Canada, especially if ocean enthusiasts do not adjust their habits to the ecological changes currently taking place therein.

Toaster fatality statistics reveal nothing about shark behaviour but may lead to oikophobia.
Falling coconuts in Canada?

According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF, 2022), the lifetime risk of being killed by a shark in the United States is 1 in 3,748,067. This does not take into account the fact that millions of Americans do not live anywhere near the seacoast, i.e. someone who lives in Kansas and who never visits the ocean obviously does not have the same lifetime risk as a surfer or diver from California. On a global scale, the risk level also varies depending on location and aquatic activities. The highest measured³ risk in the world was documented off the southern coast of Western Australia. In springtime, when the water is cool and whales and their calves move close to shore, the risk of a fatal bite to scuba divers (50 metres from shore and more than 5 metres deep) may reach 1 in 15,000, which is still extremely low. Likewise, if you spontaneously decide to swim or dive near a seal rookery off Lunenburg in mid-August, the odds of being stalked then bit by a white shark will still be very small, but nowhere near as low as the global estimates used to make shark attacks appear insignificant. Put differently, no one statistic applies to all locations and situations. They depend on multiple variables such as time, location, shark species, shark personalities, shark age, number of sharks, sea conditions, human activity, and the oft-predictable proximity of regular, i.e. normal, prey. At any given location, this varies on a seasonal, daily, even hourly basis, and we believe that local authorities, and especially self-preserving beachgoers and divers should have the knowledge required to conduct a basic risk assessment to help avoid potential trouble.

In conclusion, rather than trivialising the risk with skewed comparisons, a general understanding of local sharks and conditions could significantly reduce the risk even further, save human lives, and save endangered sharks since even rare attacks may result in more bad press or destructive deterrents.

Mirror display of The Most Dangerous Animal in the World at the Bronx Zoo in 1963. “You are looking at the most dangerous animal in the world. It alone of all the animals that ever lived can exterminate (and has) entire species of animals. Now it has the power to wipe out all life on earth.” Photo by the Illustrated London News, England, June 8, 1963.
¹ Liljegren Law Group. What are the Most Dangerous Appliances in Your Home? Accessed online 12.10.2021. https://www.liljegrenlaw.com/what-are-the-most-dangerous-appliances-in-your-home. Note: We have been unable to find any corroborating statistics or credible evidence for the number of worldwide fatalities caused by toasters.
² G. BastienA. BarkleyJ. ChappusV. HeathS. PopovR. SmithT. TranS. CurrierD.C. FernandezP. OkparaV. OwenB. FranksR. HueterD.J. MadiganC. FischerB. McBride, and N.E. Hussey. (2020). Inconspicuous, recovering, or northward shift: status and management of the white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) in Atlantic Canada. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences77(10): 1666-1677. https://doi.org/10.1139/cjfas-2020-0055
³ Sprivulis P. (2014). Western Australia coastal shark bites: A risk assessment. The Australasian medical journal, 7(2), 137–142. https://doi.org/10.4066/AMJ.2014.2008

Attack vs. incident: A case of semantics or political correctness?

According to Oxford Languages (Oxford University Press), an attack is an aggressive and violent action against a person or place, whereas incident* can be used to describe anything from a chance encounter to all-out war and everything in between. Although proponents of seemingly benign terms such as incident, interaction or negative encounter do present valid arguments, a shark bite, be it accidental, exploratory, defensive or predatory, is always an aggressive and violent action that occasionally results in death. Likewise, when a person accidentally kills another, it is called third-degree murder or manslaughter, which are far less conciliatory terms than the vague and exonerating incident, and even more sinister than the contentious attack.

What’s in a name?

While we share the significant concern that the word attack may inadvertently perpetuate the shark’s undue reputation as a man-eater, we nonetheless believe that it best describes the end result of such rare but brutal encounters with any toothed predator, no matter what the circumstances. We also hold that it is the right term for this database since passive encounters—which are much more frequent—are of lesser importance for education and prevention. We have nonetheless included suspected stalking incidents since they also present valuable insight into shark behaviour and risk assessment.

As mentioned in the preceding section on the danger posed by sharks, we believe that avoiding words depicting violence for the sake of conservation may lead to a false sense of assurance, indifference, and complacency. It is thus our opinion that public safety and awareness are better served by straightforward basic education on shark behaviour and distribution than by minimising the risk with politically correct and confusing terminology. If the goal of rebranding the shark’s comportment is to change public perception, we could also champion its usually non-belligerent nature with a new—and factual—idiom of improbability. Instead of as rare as hens’ teeth, why not as rare as a shark attack? In other words, as extraordinarily rare as they may be, shark attacks do in fact happen and they need to be called as such out of respect for the shark’s power and apparent sense of restraint.

“When a person accidentally kills another, it is called third-degree murder or manslaughter, which are far less conciliatory and more sinister terms than the vague and exonerating incident, which is nowadays used to describe a shark biting—and sometimes inadvertently killing—a human as an object of curiosity, a competitor, or a potential prey item.”

— Jeffrey Gallant, ORS

Why do sharks bite?

Because sharks lack hands, they use their teeth to test potential food items, to outright feed, or fight. No one word—including attack—thus describes every type of shark bite or slash. They may be predatory, defensive, territorial, or exploratory, but many are quickly attributed to mistaken identity in order to whitewash the purported clumsy perpetrator. And yet, not all transgressing sharks may be as gaffe-prone as commonly believed¹.

The feeding preferences of sharks were determined long before the appearance of humans. After millions of years of evolution, many sharks are instinctively wired to travel long distances and congregate² at known—to them—foraging grounds where they seek out and recognise specific and safe prey items offering a high ratio of sustenance and not much of a fight, such as seals. In short, the shark must absorb more energy than it expends to hunt, feed and travel. Since the anatomical characteristics of humans usually don’t meet this basic requirement, people have thus never been part of any shark’s normal diet. This may partly explain why most sharks only bite or slash once before swimming away from an incapacitated and bleeding human victim. Is it because the shark realises that it has made a mistake, or could it be that it simply wanted to rout a perceived competitor impervious to its repeated warnings?

It has recently been suggested¹ that the still-developing visual skills of juvenile white sharks may cause them to mistakenly bite objects or people resembling their regular prey, namely pinnipeds. This should be of particular interest to residents and visitors to Atlantic Canada and the St. Lawrence where increasing numbers³ of young white sharks may be migrating every year. This is not believed to be the case with adult white sharks, who are fives times fewer to cross the border into Canada than juveniles and sub-adults†, and whose highly tuned senses and experience may allow them to more easily recognise their prey except under the most adverse environmental conditions.

In short, not all shark incidents qualify as outright attacks. Some may be the result of an accidental bump in poor visibility, curiosity, or bad judgment. Likewise, it is difficult to determine whether a shark is stalking potential prey or merely being curious when no confrontation occurs. Or is a stalking shark being territorial and attempting to ward off a persistent yet oblivious intruder until an invisible line is crossed and a fight ensues? Whatever the situation, take heed: Benign incidents that appear over can quickly take a turn for the worse if the shark remains nearby and the perceived provocation, threat, or its interest in you does not cease. When in the presence of a shark getting too close for comfort, it is best to head back to your boat or the closest shore in order to avoid any incident, interaction, negative encounter, or even a rare bonafide attack.

Note: As independent researchers, we are not a governing authority on the terminology or lexicology of shark-related words and thus speak only for ourselves. Feel free to use whatever terms best reflect your own opinion when discussing sharks.

* Meanings of the term incident by Oxford Languages: (a) an event or occurrence, (b) a violent event, such as a fracas or assault, (c) a hostile clash between forces of rival countries, (d) a case or instance of something happening, (e) the occurrence of dangerous or exciting things.
† Dr. Heather D. Bowlby, Mr. Warren N. Joyce, Miss Megan V. Winton, Mr. Peterson Jacob Coates, and Greg Skomal. Conservation implications of white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) behaviour at the northern extent of their range in the Northwest Atlantic. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1139/cjfas-2021-0313
¹ Ryan LA et al. (2021). A shark’s eye view: testing the ‘mistaken identity theory’ behind shark bites on humans. J. R. Soc. Interface 18: 20210533. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2021.0533
² Semmens, J., Payne, N., Huveneers, C. et al. (2013). Feeding requirements of white sharks may be higher than originally thought. Sci Rep 3, 1471. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep01471
³G. BastienA. BarkleyJ. ChappusV. HeathS. PopovR. SmithT. TranS. CurrierD.C. FernandezP. OkparaV. OwenB. FranksR. HueterD.J. MadiganC. FischerB. McBride, and N.E. Hussey. (2020). Inconspicuous, recovering, or northward shift: status and management of the white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) in Atlantic Canada. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences77(10): 1666-1677. https://doi.org/10.1139/cjfas-2020-0055

Fear and apathy bite deeper than any shark…

  — Jeffrey Gallant, ORS

Not just pretty faces, sharks play a critical role in North Atlantic ecosystems, but they are under increasing threat due to their unfair reputation and a lack of public awareness. Please donate to help us study and protect the sharks of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Canada before it’s too late.

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Prehistoric shark attacks

The white shark was no stranger to the prehistoric peoples of the Maritime Peninsula, including the Mi’kmaw First Nation who knew it under several names such as wabinmek ‘wa. Unlike Canadian society today, sharks were well known and held special significance to the indigenous peoples of the peninsula, which encompassed the Maritime provinces, the St. Lawrence Gulf and Estuary, and parts of New England. This relationship lasting for thousands of years is evidenced¹ by the presence of shark teeth, which are commonly found in mortuary and ritual contexts dating from ca. 5000 B.P. to 950 B.P. (B.P. = Before Present) (Present = 1950)

Shark teeth, especially from white sharks, have been discovered¹ at burial sites throughout the Northeast and as far inland as present-day Montreal. To hunter-gatherer peoples of the Maritime Archaic, it is believed that the teeth may have represented a creature with awesome and respected predatory abilities. They may also have been a symbol of their society’s seafaring way of life. From a spiritual perspective, the teeth may have held mystical powers. Trading valuable shark teeth may thus have been a way of reinforcing relationships between groups throughout the peninsula, including at inland locations such as the St. Lawrence Valley where no sharks were present.

This millennial relationship between the native peoples and Carcharodon carcharias is further proof that the white shark’s presence in Atlantic Canada and the Gulf of St. Lawrence is more likely associated with a recent population increase than with climate change, i.e. the white shark was believed to be relatively abundant thousands of years before the advent of global warming.

Mi’kmaw petroglyph tracings of two seafaring hunters in a canoe possibly lancing what appears to be a porpoise. Image reproduced from the Nova Scotia Archives.
Artist’s impression of the Mi’kmaw lifestyle, including sea-going “humpbacked” and masted canoes typical of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, painted circa 1850. Image: National Gallery of Canada

Wabinmek ‘wa

The Mi’kmaq were skilled seafarers who went on lengthy voyages² across open water to reach distant settlements and seasonal hunting grounds, such as the Magdalen Islands and southern Newfoundland. They even built a canoe specifically designed³ for sea travel. In addition to environmental threats such as perilous sea conditions, storms, and overcast skies, which made for difficult or dangerous navigation, the Mi’kmaq were allegedly also pursued and attacked by sharks, most likely of which was the white shark. The attacks were apparently so frequent and deadly, that the seafarers carried specially made weapons and deterrents designed to fend off their voracious attackers.

The following map of New France in 1678 by French cartographer Jean-Louis Franquelin illustrates the Mi’kmaq as a seafaring people. The Mi’kmaw canoe illustrated in the North Atlantic just south of present-day Bay of Fundy is clearly located in prime white shark habitat.

Map of New France in 1678 by French cartographer Jean-Louis Franquelin. Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France (gallica.bnf.fr)

On what is now Prince Edward Island circa 1731, a Mi’kmah shaman named Lkimu (a.k.a. Arguimaut) told of bad fish that devoured his people to Father Pierre-Antoine-Simon Maillard (1710-1762).

“They often travel at great risk, making considerable journeys with their bark canoes, like four, five, six, sometimes seven leagues to go from one shore to another […] These are considerable journeys for us. Even if we make them in calm or good weather, the bad fish that often infest these seas do not allow us to travel without worry and without fear. It happens all too often that this malicious spawn comes and attacks our canoes so suddenly from behind, that it suddenly causes them to sink with those who are in them. Some who swim well escape the peril; but there are always some who fall prey to these carnivorous and extremely voracious fish. When we have time to see them bearing down on us, we immediately stop paddling, so that we may take a wooden pole tipped with a very hard and pointy bone, and we stab, if we can, the animal, which as soon as it feels injured, ceases to pursue for a little while. We take advantage of the brief respite to paddle with all our might; and if the animal returns, we repeat the same manoeuvre until we have reached shore. There is little we can do when two attack a canoe. When we happen to be without our spears and while shaking with fright, we throw from time to time, pieces of meat or fish if we have any, to distract the animal which pursues us, while the one who is in front of the canoe paddles slowly without stopping. When we have no more food to throw, we remove our furs ; we often throw even our animal skin hats to our pursuers. Finally, when there is nothing more to throw away, we tie some of the sharpest and longest bones that we always carry in our canoes to the ends of our paddles, or else we join several arrows together, bringing the points very close to each other, and tie the bundle to the top end of a paddle or an oar with one of our belts. We then we wait for the animal so we can stab it, which is not as easy as with the spear, since the paddle is never long enough. However, we have often been able to make good use of this makeshift weapon. Finally, when we have go on a new journey, which is rare due to these formidable animals, we furbish the stern of our canoe with several leafy branches, which protrude approximately two feet above the rim. We know by experience that when these fish see and smell the foliage, they withdraw and do not approach, apparently believing this is a piece of land where they could become stranded.” [Translated by Jeffrey Gallant, ORS, 2022]

— Maillard, Antoine-Simon. (1863). Lettre de M. l’Abbé Maillard sur les missions de l’Acadie et particulièrement sur les missions micmaques. À Madame de Drucourt [1746], Les Soirées canadiennes, Québec, Brousseau et frères, vol. III, p. 289-426.

Some historians² have tentatively identified the much-feared ‘bad fish’ as the orca, Orcinus orca (a.k.a. killer whale), which remains to this day a rare resident of the Gulf. However, unless the orca’s well-documented and benevolent behaviour towards humans* was inexplicably different before there were written records, and because the natural prey of the orca such as fish (North Atlantic Type 1 orca) and marine mammals (North Atlantic Type 2 orca) were highly abundant during prehistory, it is our determination that the attacker was more likely the white shark. As further evidence, we have been unable to find a recorded Mi’kmaw term for orca, while there exist several words for shark, including the aforementioned name of the white shark, wabinmek ‘wa. If the orca was in fact the ‘bad fish’ that terrified and predictably killed native seafarers for up to 5,000 years, one would presume that it would have a name and still take the odd bite…

Jacques Merle, a.k.a. Father Vincent de Paul (1768-1853), described an incident which took place during a canoe trip from Tracadie (St. Georges Bay, NS) to the Strait of Canso in a memoir dated 1824, which may have involved the same attacker:

Another time when I was going to do missionary work at this same cape (Cape Breton), the Mi’kmaq who were taking me in a canoe saw three monstrous fish called maraches, and were afraid of them, because they are very dangerous. Their teeth are like gardeners’ knives for cutting and sawing; they are like slightly curved razors. They are extremely voracious, and often pursue boats and attack them with violence. Bark canoes cannot resist them; they split them wide open with a single bite, and they sink to the bottom; that is why the Mi’kmaq fear them so much. But fortunately these fish did not pursue us. We arrived, thank God, in good health. [Translated by Jeffrey Gallant, ORS, 2022]

— Jacques Merle, dit Vincent de Paul. (1824). Mémoire de ce qui est arrivé au P. Vincent de Paul, religieux de la Trappe ; et ses observations lorsqu’il étoit en Amérique où il a passé environ dix ans avec l’agrément de son Supérieur, publiée dans Relation de ce qui est arrivé à deux religieux de la Trappe, pendant leur séjour auprès des sauvages (Paris).

This account provides an important clue as to the identity of the attackers. The description of the teeth (knives, sawing and razors) matches that of the white shark and resembles in no way the dentition of the orca. The ‘slightly bent’ appearance may refer to the angle of the teeth as observed from a canoe or other vessel. The name marache is also very close to maraîche, which is the French name of the porbeagle shark, Lamna nasus, a species frequently mistaken for the white shark. Marache is also a Basque word for shark. Since the Mi’kmaq had already been in contact with the Basques for hundreds of years when Paul wrote of the incident, the term may thus have also been used for the white shark, which to most observers, would appear to be a very large porbeagle.

* There are no records of the orca attacking, let alone killing and devouring, humans in its natural habitat.
¹ Betts, M. W., Blair, S. E., & Black, D. W. (2012). Perspectivism, mortuary symbolism, and human-shark relationships on the Maritime Peninsula. American Antiquity77(4), 621–645. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23486482
¹ Keenlyside, D.L. (1999). Glimpses of Atlantic Canada´s past.
² Martijn, Charles, A. (1986). Les Micmacs et la mer. Recherches amérindiennes au Québec, Montréal. 343 p.
³ Adney, Edwin Tappan and Chapelle, Howard I. (1964). The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. Bulletin of the United States National Museum. 1–242, 224 figures.

Who is to blame?

Unprovoked attacks are incidents in which violent contact occurs without any human provocation.

Provoked attacks are incidents in which violent contact occurs due to voluntary or involuntary human provocation, such as touching, grabbing, feeding or attacking a shark, spearfishing, diving outside a cage while chumming, or physically impeding a shark’s forward movement.

Some believe that all incidents are simply the result of people ‘trespassing’ into the ocean where they may incite or irk its dominant species.

“For all we read and hear about unprovoked shark attacks, I’ve come to believe that there’s no such thing. We provoke a shark every time we enter the water where sharks happen to be, for we forget: the ocean is not our territory, it’s theirs.”

— Peter Benchley (Shark Trouble, 2002)

CSAR Incident Codes

Various classifications are used by different organisations to describe shark incidents although the actual motive of many events is often unknown. We thus propose a simplified classification based on the most probable cause. With the exception of stalking and scavenging, we consider these incident types as attacks, which we define as a violent action against a person or object regardless of intent.

Hit & Run (HR): Improvised and spontaneous attack resulting from an immediate response to stimuli in adverse environmental conditions such as low visibility and surf, or in the presence of other sharks or prey such as seals, i.e. the shark must react quickly or risk missing an opportunity to feed or defend itself. The shark usually realises that it has made a mistake and thus ends the confrontation. In light of the millions of humans encountered or detected by sharks without incident, attacks due to mistaken identity that are not caused by poor environmental conditions or the presence of competitors or regular prey may in fact be very rare.

Premeditated (PRE): Methodical and deliberate attack preceded by observation or prolonged stalking, and sometimes a threat display or bumping. The shark sees a target and means to bite or slash in order to investigate, feed (predatory), or fight off a competitor or potential aggressor. Even shark species considered harmless to humans may bite when an object of interest, including a food source, is threatened

Unlike a hit and run case of mistaken identity, the shark may attack repeatedly. Where environmental conditions do not hamper the shark’s vision or other senses, the shark may bite to explore potential prey after a period of observation. Many deliberate bites on humans may in fact be of an investigative nature, which has led some to avoid describing these events as attacks.

Defensive (DF) : The shark bites someone or something that it perceives as an aggressor. Even shark species considered harmless to humans may bite when provoked or threatened, i.e. touched, grabbed, chased, speared, or its movements impeded.

———

The following are not attacks since no violent action takes place.

Scavenging (SC): Shark consumes a dead body resulting from a shipwreck, drowning or other circumstances.

A shark stalking (ST) people without confrontation is best described as an incident. Although such events do not always result in physical contact, they nonetheless present valuable insight into shark behaviour and risk assessment. Informative cases that could have led to confrontation are included in the Canadian Shark Attack Registry.

Reducing the risk

Self-preservation is the first law of nature for humans as well as the wildlife with whom we share what remains of the untamed world. As such, few people in the know would venture into white bear country without a loaded rifle, but most of us enter the ocean without a care, relying only on comforting statistics to ward off the unreasonable fear of encountering any kind of threatening sea life, let alone a shark. And yet, one need not be armed with a speargun or bang stick for protection when basic knowledge and common sense can help prevent most clashes with sharks.

Diving with spiny dogfish, which sometimes travel in shivers of hundreds. Video still © Jeffrey Gallant | ORS

Encounters between swimmers and sharks are rare in Atlantic Canada, with only one suspected incident reported to this day.

  • Swim within the cordoned area at patrolled beaches and check signage.
  • If not at a controlled site, don’t swim far from shore.
  • Swim with a buddy and look out for each other.
  • Avoid swimming at dawn, dusk or at night.
  • Watch for diving birds which may be a sign of bait fish (and sharks).
  • Keep fish waste and food scraps out of the water where people swim.
  • Do not swim in the vicinity of fishing activities (boats or piers).
  • Swim in clear water.
  • Do not swim near seal haul-outs or rookeries.

Encounters between surfers and sharks have been reported in Nova Scotia, including a recent incident at White Point.

  • Get out of the water in a relaxed manner—if possible—when you see a shark.
  • Avoid surfing at feeding time (dawn and dusk).
  • Pay attention to your surroundings at all times.
  • Avoid deepwater channels between the beach and breakers. Sharks use them to ambush prey from beneath.
  • Stay away from seal haul-outs or rookeries.
  • Avoid river mouths where the water is murky and sea life gathers.
  • Surf with others and form a group.
  • Don’t flail or you may look like an injured seal.
  • Stay away from dead marine mammals.
  • Avoid wearing anything shiny that might reflect light.
  • Do not surf in the vicinity of fishing activities (boats or piers).

At least one confirmed fatal encounter with the white shark has resulted from attacks on boats. Small or fragile craft such kayaks, canoes, dories and inflatables are most at risk.

  • Do not touch a shark from any vessel. Sharks are highly flexible and move quickly, so you could easily be caught off-guard.
  • Do not lean over a rail or get into precarious positions to observe or photograph a shark. A shark could leap at you or a wave could make you fall overboard.
  • If a shark is present, do not jump into the water to impress your social media followers.
  • Do not intentionally block the path of a shark swimming at the surface, and be wary of your propeller(s) injuring a shark passing under the boat.
  • When aboard an inflatable boat, do not linger if a white shark makes a direct approach and takes an interest in your engine or the boat itself.
  • If in a kayak or canoe, calmly head for shore when you see a shark.
  • Do not kayak near a seal rookery or haul-out when sharks are in season.
  • If you are shipwrecked or have fallen overboard, refrain from struggling or splashing until you are able to climb aboard a liferaft or floating structure (overturned boat, etc.).

Encounters between scuba divers and sharks are rare in Atlantic Canada. Aside from intentional observations conducted by scientists, meetings with sharks are usually brief and often unbeknown to the diver. The sharks most often seen by divers are the spiny dogfish, basking shark, and porbeagle. From 2003 to 2010, the Greenland shark was predictably observed by divers near the city of Baie-Comeau, in the St. Lawrence Estuary. The first confirmed chance encounter (Case #27) between divers and a white shark occurred near Halifax in November 2021, and it was followed by at least two more encounters in the same area in July 2022. It is likely only a question of time before scuba divers unexpectedly run into the white shark at other locations, including the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Encounters with white sharks are very rare throughout their entire range but they occasionally lead to confrontation.

  • Do not dive in murky water when sharks are suspected in the same area.
  • Do not dive close to a seal haul-out or rookery when sharks are ‘in season’ or suspected in the same area.
  • If in the presence of seals that suddenly scurry, there may be a large shark nearby.
  • Never block a shark’s path. A shark cannot swim backwards so if you get in its way, it may feel cornered or threatened and attack.
  • Do not harass sharks in any way. Grabbing or even touching a shark, no matter the species, may provoke a defensive attack, and lead to charges from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) when involving endangered species.
  • In the presence of an approaching white shark, do not turn your back and rush to the surface. Keep your eyes on the shark at all times and avoid letting the shark approach you from behind or below. Whenever possible, wait until the shark hasn’t been seen for a few minutes before heading back to the surface. Once at the boat, do not linger or flail in the water.
  • Do not seek out an improvised encounter with a white shark. If you see a dorsal fin, ignore the urge to jump into the water to have a look or take a photo. Unless the shark is just passing through, it may be at your location due to prey or another attractant that you are not aware of—including yourself—and its predatory instincts may thus be on full alert.
  • Do not bait or chum for sharks. Several sharks in Atlantic Canada and the St. Lawrence are endangered species. Introducing attractants into the natural environment with the aim of luring these animals may only be done under scientific permit from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and with an animal care protocol sanctioned by a member institution of the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC).
  • Do not improvise cage diving. Cage diving operations conducted without professional dive safety and animal care protocols may result in serious or even fatal accidents to divers and sharks. Cage diving with endangered species without a scientific permit from DFO may also lead to charges.
  • Use strobe and video lights sparingly as their blinding effect and electrical discharge may irritate a shark and trigger—provoke—an aggressive reaction.

No matter what the activity, do not rely on the Gregorian calendar to guesstimate when sharks have left for the season, or you may be in for a big surprise. White sharks remained in the St. Lawrence and Maritime provinces well into November (2021), possibly due to unusually warm water temperatures¹.

¹ Le golfe du Saint-Laurent a eu chaud en 2021. La Presse. 19.01.2022. Online

Canadian Shark Attack Registry Database — List

LAST UPDATE: 25.07.2022

The Canadian Shark Attack Registry is the only verified database¹ of all documented incidents from Canada. Unconfirmed and discredited reports are also included—in red—in order to dispel the same stories presented as factual elsewhere. Each entry includes a detailed incident assessment accessible by clicking on the case number in the first column (#27, #26, etc.). There may be more incidents from modern history that were never recorded, and there were likely multiple cases—including fatalities—from prehistory since there is much evidence suggesting a complex and long-standing relationship spanning thousands of years between the Indigenous peoples of the Maritime Peninsula—Maritime Provinces and the St. Lawrence—and some of the same shark species known to populate the area today². Please note that due to the frequent absence of key details, it is sometimes necessary to speculate based on known facts in order to attempt to determine the species and causes of certain incidents. This is a work in progress with new and historical incidents being added as information becomes available. To submit additional incidents, please contact us.

¹ Includes suspected stalking incidents and boundary waters. Single boundary case in Maine (#22) is associated with bordering province (New Brunswick).
¹ Although stalking incidents do not result in physical contact, they nonetheless present valuable insight into shark behaviour and risk assessment.
¹ Unconfirmed and discredited incidents are included in red to counter reports posted elsewhere.
² Betts, M. W., Blair, S. E., & Black, D. W. (2012). Perspectivism, mortuary symbolism, and human-shark relationships on the Maritime Peninsula. American Antiquity77(4), 621–645. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23486482
² Martijn, Charles, A. (1986). Les Micmacs et la mer. Recherches amérindiennes au Québec, Montréal. 343 p.

Total number of cases (confirmed and unconfirmed): 27
Total number of confirmed or plausible incidents: 20
Total unconfirmed or discredited cases: 7

 

Click on case numbers in first column (#27, #26, #25, etc.) for incident details

 
Click
👇
DateLocationProvinceSpeciesIncidentResult
272021.11.09Chebucto HeadNSWhite sharkDivers stalked by sharkNo injury
262021.09.12Sable IslandNSWhite sharkGlider disabled by sharkDamage
252021.08.13Margaree IslandNSWhite sharkSwimmer bitten by sharkInjury
242019.09.12White PointNSUnknownSurfers stalked by sharkNo injury
232012.07.19TofinoBCUnknownSurfer bitten by sharkInjury
222010.10.23Eastport, MENBPorbeagle sharkDiver charged by sharkNo injury
212007IngalikNUGreenland sharkChild stalked by sharkNo injury
202004.06.20Baie-ComeauQCGreenland sharkDivers stalked by sharkNo injury
192000.12.05DigbyNSPorbeagle sharkDiver bumped and dragged by sharkNo injury
181961.08.17Esperanza InletBCWhite sharkFishing gear attacked by sharkDamage
171953.07.09FourchuNSWhite sharkShark attacks boatFatality
161940.04.04Île aux BasquesQCGreenland sharkShark attacks boatNo injury
151936.08.11Georges BankNSWhite sharkShark attacks boatNo injury
141932.07.02DigbyNSWhite sharkShark attacks boatNo injury
131925.01.08Burrard InletBCUnknownDiver attacked by sharkNo injury
12<1924Grand BanksNLUnknownFisher bitten by sharkInjury
111920.06.27HubbardsNSWhite sharkHarpooned shark attacks boatNo injury
101905.07.07False CreekBCUnknownChild stalked by large sharkNo injury
91891.08.30Cabot StraitNSUnknownSharks kills man overboardFatality
81888.08.27Baie des Ha! Ha!QCGreenland sharkShark killed by beachcomberNo injury
71888.08.14Sable IslandNSUnknownShark attacks shipwreck victimFatality
61874St. Pierre BankNLWhite sharkShark attacks boatNo injury
51860Cape CansoNSUnknownShark kills shipwreck victimsFatalities
41859Pond InletNUGreenland sharkHuman leg found in sharkNo injury
3<1846Moisie RiverQCWhite sharkAttack on CanoeFatality
2<1846NunavutNUGreenland sharkAttack on kayakFatality
1<1691GaspéQCUnknownSwimmer killed by sharkFatality
👆
Click
DateLocationProvinceSpeciesIncidentResult

The Canadian Shark Attack Registry is is a work in progress with new and historical incidents being added as information becomes available. To submit additional incidents, please contact us.

Canadian Shark Attack Registry Database — Map

LAST UPDATE: 25.07.2022

The Canadian Shark Attack Registry map includes all of the documented incidents¹ from Canada, including unconfirmed and discredited² reports with individual assessments. Each entry includes a detailed description accessible by clicking on the shark icon. New and historical incidents are added as information becomes available. To submit additional incidents, please contact us.

¹ Includes suspected stalking incidents and boundary waters. Although stalking incidents do not result in physical contact, they nonetheless present valuable insight into shark behaviour and risk assessment.
² Unconfirmed and discredited incidents are included to counter reports posted elsewhere.

Click on shark icons for observation details

 

Canadian Shark Attack Registry Database — Statistics

LAST UPDATE: 25.07.2022
(1) Includes suspected stalking incidents and boundary waters. Single boundary case in Maine (#22) is associated with bordering province (New Brunswick).
(2) Although stalking incidents do not result in physical contact, they nonetheless present valuable insight into shark behaviour and risk assessment.
(3) Unconfirmed and discredited incidents are included in red to dispel reports posted elsewhere.
To submit additional incidents, please contact us.

Number of incidents by province

Confirmed cases only.
New Brunswick case is from boundary waters in Eastport, Maine.
White shark is most likely suspect in all fatal cases.

Total (Canada): 20
Non-fatal: 16
Fatal: 4

Number of incidents by species

Confirmed cases only.
White shark is most likely suspect in most unknown cases.

White shark: 9 (45%)
Unknown: 5 (25%)
Greenland shark: 4 (20%)
Porbeagle: 2 (10%)

Fear and apathy bite deeper than any shark…

  — Jeffrey Gallant, ORS

Not just pretty faces, sharks play a critical role in North Atlantic ecosystems, but they are under increasing threat due to their unfair reputation and a lack of public awareness. Please donate to help us study and protect the sharks of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Canada before it’s too late.

Donations to ORS/GEERG, an all-volunteer charitable not-for-profit organisation, are tax deductible in Canada.
Canada Revenue Agency #834462913RR0001

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CRA #834462913RR0001

Jeffrey Gallant, M.Sc., is the Scientific Director of the St. Lawrence Shark Observatory (ORS) and of the Greenland Shark and Elasmobranch Education and Research Group (GEERG). He is also the author of the Diving Almanac and a contributing editor of DIVER Magazine. Jeffrey dove with his first shark, a spiny dogfish, off Halifax (Nova Scotia) in 1991.