Jaws v. Boats: Why Do Some Great White and Bull Sharks Attack?

The internet is filled with videos of sharks attacking boats. As more people have access to cameras, more footage is released—but why do some sharks attack, while others do not? Scientists think personality may be at play, with some individuals being more aggressive than others.

In Jaws vs Boats—an upcoming National Geographic documentary premiering during Sharkfest 2022—marine biologists Mike Heithaus and Sara Casareto, set out to discover why there are so many viral videos of sharks attacking boats, and what is causing this behavior.

In the programme, which will air on July 17, Erika Almond, describes her experience of a 14 to 16ft great white shark attacking the boat she was on.

"We've all seen jaws and we know the outcome of that," she says in the film. Almond said she could almost hear the teeth scraping against the metal of the engine of the boat, when the shark attacked.

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Over the last decade, several studies have found sharks do appear to have personalities. One paper, published 2014, found that spotted catsharks in captivity have different personalities, with some displaying significant sociability, while others preferred solitary lifestyles. In 2016, researchers found some Port Jackson sharks were shy, while others had bold personalities.

A stock photo shows a shark breaching the surface of the water. Researchers suspect some may have more aggraggressiveesive personalities. Peter_Nile/Getty

In terms of aggressiveness and attacks on boats, Heithaus told Newsweek that it is possible that personalities are at play.

"We are finding more and more that sharks do have personalities," Heithaus said. "Little baby bull sharks that we study up these rivers, you got bold individuals where they take risks to get a meal and others that are shy, and they stay in safe spots where it may be harder to get a meal, but hey, that's fine.

"And you know, even when you talk to people who are doing these tourism swims with sharks every day, they can pick out individuals and tell you about how they are going to behave and interact. So this is no surprise to anyone who has a cat or a dog that animals can have personalities.

"It's certainly possible that shy animals are probably less likely to come to a stimulus that's novel."

Jaws vs Boats
Sara Casareto films multiple sharks to observe how they react to the electronic pulse. National Geographic/Mike Heithaus

However, he said there can be lots of reasons why a shark may attack a boat. "It can vary from motivated by food, wanting their own space or maybe their sensory system is getting overwhelmed and so part of it could be the personality and whether a shark gets annoyed and or turns the other way," he said.

"Unfortunately, we don't have all the science to back that up yet."

Bull sharks are also known for boat attacks. The species is one of the 'big three'—along with great whites and tiger sharks—for posing the greatest risk to humans. This is due to their large size and their being found in regions where humans swim and fish.

Carl Torresson was on a 40ft fishing boat when an "angry" bull shark attacked in March 2018. The YouTube video of the event has been viewed over 1.7 million times.

"Carl approached the bull shark and it went completely insane!" the caption to the video, posted by BlacktipH Fishing, said. "The bull shark attacked the boat seven times, relentlessly. This was the most aggressive shark behavior I've ever seen!"

Torresson said the shark rammed his boat aggressively, adding it had "nothing to do" with other factors, such as the electricity sounding through the waters. This was just an "angry, angry shark," Torresson says.

In the programme, Heithaus and Casareto dive into bull shark infested waters to observe the species for themselves.

While the bull sharks appear to want their own space, they do not seem to mind the scientists being in the water with them. In the programme Heithaus says that he does not see any aggressive behavior, just "normal curiosity."

Jaws vs Boats
Mike Heithaus is pictured surrounded by sharks while on a kayak in a rough ocean. National Geographic/Joseph Lupo

Casareto told Newsweek: "I think sharks overall are very misunderstood. They are predators, there is no denying that. They deserve the respect and deference that all predators and animals should be afforded.

"Bull sharks are unique in that they have a tolerance for waters that are low in salinity. This puts them in scenarios that many other sharks don't find themselves in, potentially interacting with humans in and around both saltwater and freshwater."

Why some sharks attack boats is still a mystery.

"[The reason they attack] can be very context dependent and there is no way of knowing what an animal may be thinking or responding to in that moment," Castareto said. "There is no blame-game here, however, there just needs to be an awareness that when you go out in the ocean, much like if you were to go for a walk in the jungle, that there is the possibility of encountering a predator."

The 10th anniversary of SharkFest kicks off on National Geographic and Disney+ on July 10.

Jaws vs. Boats premieres July 17 on National Geographic.

Jaws vs Boats
Sharks are pictured swimming next to a boat. The documentary aimed to find out why sharks attack boats. National Geographic/Mike Ladissa