Sharks are scary and will definitely eat you if you fall overboard, right? They attack ships all the time, don’t they? And giant squid will rise from the depths of the unforgiving sea to capsize your vessel.
To be honest, most of this is highly exaggerated.
In fact, the marine life you are most worried about are the ones from which you have the least to fear. It’s the water-dwelling creatures to which you’ve never given a second thought that are often the terrors of your boating excursion.
So which animals do you need to worry about while you’re out on the open water?
We’ll explore the facts of seven different species in this article.
Whales are a lot like human beings in the sense that the older ones are more mature than the younger ones. Just as we learn and grow, picking up on wisdom only granted after years of trial and error, so do whales.
When we hear about the rare whale “attack” on the news these days, it’s typically not so aggressive as we might initially believe.
More often than not, the whale in question was a juvenile and simply misjudged the distance while breaching the surface.
But whales are huge, even when they are juveniles, so an accidental bump could – and has – sank a ship. This is also why many whales are heavily scarred by the time they reach adulthood. Bumping up against a ship causes juvenile whales injuries, the same as they would any other living creature.
They aren’t armored, after all. After a whale “attack,” it is common to find pieces of blubber and skin on the deck of the ship or adhering to it in some other way.
Now, there are rare instances when a whale will attack.
Like any human being, if a whale is harassed for too long, it may retaliate against a pest. It’s best to allow whales a safe distance and treat them with respect. Although normally docile, they are capable of losing their tempers just as any other living thing. And they are bigger than you.
Sharks explore their environment through their sense of touch… and they do not have hands. When a shark is curious, they can only bite an object to satiate their curiosity.
There are two reasons why a shark may bite a ship: Curiosity or confusion.
Sharks have no interest in seeking us out as a food source. However, if they are chasing a school of fish and that school goes right by your boat, they could wind up “attacking” your boat in an effort to catch the fish.
This is often what happens when sharks attack humans in the ocean.
We are simply mistaken for an actual food source for the sharks. In fact, there are a few studies claiming that from a shark’s point of view, humans often resemble sea lions or other prey. This could account for a large portion of shark attacks on humans.
There are over three hundred species of sharks. Out of those three-hundred species, only twelve or so have been involved in shark attacks against humans. They are opportunistic feeders, meaning that their feeding behaviors are flexible.
They can survive on just about any available nutrient source and they take advantage of whatever is in the vicinity.
They typically will only go for the “low-hanging fruit,” those creatures that are small and easier to take down than them.
Can Sharks Jump Into Boats?
However, a shark would usually have to be lured to the boat first. They don’t make a habit of swimming up to a boat and stealing aboard, after all.
A few ways people have inadvertently welcomed a stowaway shark is:
- Placing lures out to catch other fish,
- Inadvertently hooking a shark, or
- Using a small boat.
Wait. Using a small boat? Really?
If a shark looks up and sees a massive twelve-foot silhouette, they’re not going to bother going after that prey. It’s outside of their weight class, so they’ll move on. But if they see a smaller boat’s silhouette that seems like manageable prey to them, they might very well attack.
For this reason, larger boats have a little less to fear from shark attacks than small fishing boats.
A shark isn’t usually going to leap out of the water for no reason, though. Typically, when they do jump, they are in pursuit of prey. If you’ve hooked a fish that the shark is chasing, then the momentum of the chase can help the shark launch out of the water and onto your boat.
Sharks can travel up to twenty-five miles per hour and they’ve cleared a four-foot hull before.
Sometimes, while fishing for other marine life, you may wind up snaring a shark.
Depending on what kind of fishing you are doing, you could wind up landing a large shark. This is more common than most people think!
Orcas are basically highwaymen these days. Where once they cohabitated with human fishermen in the Bering Sea without mishap, now they shake down the lines for their meals.
It is not uncommon for forty or so orcas to swarm a fishing boat, ready to strip it of its cargo.
Why is this happening?
Well, there was a time when whaling was legal. As the orca population declined at a rapid pace, due to over-harvesting of the pods, the orcas became wary of the boats. When they heard an engine, they would flee from the noise in an act of self-preservation.
Then we outlawed commercial whaling.
As the orca population bounced back, their fear of boat engines receded. And they are some of the most intelligent marine life in all the seven seas, so they quickly realized that these previous threats were now a meal opportunity.
What’s more, they are teaching the juveniles in their pods how to get their meals from these fishing boats.
Typically, orcas do not attack boats. Unless your boat is in an area that is fished often, the chances of these “highwaymen” orcas attacking your boat are slim.
Up until recently, they have coexisted with humans in peace. In fact, they are some of the only marine predators to spare humans their aggression. There are no records of an orca ever killing a human being.
Just robbing us.
Hippos will fight you. They may look a little funny (especially with their mouths open), but they are highly territorial and especially strong!
They can be up to seventeen feet long and weigh as much as eight-thousand pounds. In Africa, an average of five-hundred people a year lose their lives to the hippopotamus.
Do they attack boats?
Do they attack humans?
Stay away from hippos at all costs. If you see them, they see you, and they are fast. It’s best to give them so wide a berth that neither of you knows the other is there.
Respect their space, especially if there are young ones nearby.
The mothers can be particularly protective.
In fact, it’s best to think of hippos as water-dwelling grizzly bears. Their default setting is to charge at anything that is in their territory.
If you know there’s going to be hippos where you’re going, here are some great tips on staying safe:
- Give them a wide berth.
If their mouths open and they give out a little grunt, that’s not a yawn. They will attack directly after. This is their warning to you that you are getting too close.
- Don’t get between them and the water.
If you encounter a hippo on dry land, where they come out to eat, then make sure you do not position yourself between them and the water. They can’t see well and they will instinctively run back to the water if they are startled. They are fast runners and outstrip humans with ease. You will likely be trampled to death.
- When passing hippos, bang on your boat.
This might seem silly, but hippos hate vibrations. It won’t protect you by itself, but it alerts the hippos that you are there and prevents them from coming up from the water underneath you. If nothing else, it helps to make sure they don’t capsize your boat by accident.
Look up “giant squid” on Google images and you’re going to find that 99% of the images feature massive ships from the 18th and 19th centuries. The ship is usually on turbulent waters, a black sky bearing down on the scene.
And a squid the size of Hawaii reaches out its enormous arms to wrap around the hull, intending to drag it into the tumultuous sea.
The largest species of squid in existence live so far beneath the waters and so far away from the human population that they would pose no threat even if they were aggressive.
There is nothing to corroborate these stories, using today’s technology. Are there giant squids in the depths of our oceans? Absolutely. But are they several times the size of a human being? Rarely.
In fact, giant squids are usually right around the size of a human, sometimes a little bigger and other times a little smaller.
(Unless you’re counting tentacle length, then they are much larger than humans. But I am only considering mantle length.)
The Mesonychoteuthis species’ mantle length far outstrips humans, but they live 1000 meters under the sea in a remote habitat off of the coast of Antarctica. They are not considered a threat to humans.
There are no recorded instances of a squid taking down a boat or ship. There are loads of stories where they seem to try, of course. Scientists are skeptical that squids are attacking ships when they attach themselves to the hull, however, because their diets consist mostly (if not exclusively) of fish.
It makes little sense that they would try to fell prey several times larger than itself.
When squids do attach to the hull of a ship, they often wind up sliding into the propellers of the ship and dying. Boats are more a hazard to squid than squid are to boats.
Alligators get a bad rap, but it’s probably because they are lumped in with crocodiles all the time.
Alligators don’t see humans as a food source, due to the size of adult human beings.
A small alligator, which is an alligator less than five feet long, will usually only eat small snakes and turtles. They want something that they can eat in one bite that won’t fight back.
As soon as something fights back, the alligator usually considers the meal too much work and will swim away. They’re a little lazy.
They won’t typically attack boats. In fact, several people share stories about regularly kayaking or canoeing through alligator-infested waters without incident. The only time you really need to be concerned about alligators is during mating or nursing season. Mother alligators, like most mothers in the animal kingdom, become aggressive when perceived predators grow too close to their young.
Can Alligators Jump Into Boats?
Alligators can leap up to six feet out of the water, using their powerful tails as propellers.
They typically launch out of the water in order to capture prey, such as birds or other above-water animals.
It is not normal behavior for an alligator to swim up to your boat or approach humans, though. If one approaches you, it could mean that they are accustomed to humans feeding them.
On the side of caution, though, because any behavior that is not defensive behavior should be considered dangerous.
One event on record where an alligator leaped into a boat was brought on by a Yorkie. Small breeds of dogs like teacup Yorkies and chihuahuas look like easy prey to an alligator.
When this alligator saw a human paddling along with their pet dog, the alligator lunged for the small pet dog despite the presence of a human.
Moral of the story?
If you’re gonna go kayaking in the bayou, don’t bring ‘gator bait!
Crocodiles, in general, are more aggressive than alligators. Where an alligator will slip into the water and head for the bottom in an effort to avoid humans, some species of crocodile will charge your boat.
This is especially true for saltwater or Nile crocodiles.
Their first instinct is to attack anything with meat on its bones, human or not (in some cases).
As with alligators, the larger the creature, the more likely they are to see an adult human as prey. Also similar to alligators, a crocodile will stalk their prey for a long time before lunging. They are fast in their attacks, leaving little to no time for their prey to react.
With crocodiles, the best thing you can do is to avoid them. Do not try to kayak or canoe near them or go whitewater rafting in waters known to be home to these creatures. Even stopping to wash your hands in a pool of water can be the end of you in seconds.
When crocodiles are cut open, it is not unusual to find bracelets, rings, and even flesh-covered human limbs.
However, much like their cousins (the alligators), crocodiles must grow to a certain size before they will see full-grown humans as a potential meal. Nonetheless, even a non-lethal alligator or crocodile bite will typically require stitches.
So, there you have it!
Hopefully, this list has put you more at ease. At the very least, I hope it’s given you some idea of how to prepare yourself on the water.
Remember that animals aren’t usually out to attack humans. More often than not, they don’t even view you as a food source. (Unless they’re a large alligator or crocodile.)
In many cases when we hear of an animal attacking a boat, the animal is defending their home from a perceived threat. They typically want to (and will) avoid contact with humans unless they see you as a predator.
In swamplands and other low-lying bodies of water, remember to avoid water-based adventures in the spring when possible.
This is the mating season for many animals and their tempers tend to run a bit hotter than usual.
Good luck in your future adventures on the water!
I’ve filmed and interviewed people in tiny houses and RVs since 2011. I’ve always lived on the coast and have loved boating since my dad took me sailing as a toddler. I’ve also completely rebuilt two RVs with my wife in which we travel for months at the time. Read our personal story here.