Are There Shark Attacks in San Francisco Bay?

Are there (Great White) Sharks in San Franciso Bay area? San Francisco Bay is reputedly home to some of the world’s most shark-infested waters.

It sits in the middle of the so-called “red triangle” where around 40% of the country’s great white shark attacks have taken place.

The red triangle starts in Bodega Bay, extends out beyond the Farallon Islands, and down to Monterey Bay.

Despite that, the nearly landlocked estuary itself has seen only a handful of attacks.

Are There Great White Sharks in San Francisco Bay Alcatraz Island?

While there is a sizeable population of great white sharks close to the Farallon Islands and Monterey Bay, they rarely enter San Francisco Bay itself.

Are There Shark Attacks in San Francisco Bay?

There have been great white spotted close to Alcatraz Island, however. A few years ago, David McGuire of the non-profit organization Shark Stewards saw a mature male great white swimming beneath “hundreds of swimmers doing the famous Escape From Alcatraz Swim.”

Despite that, great white shark sightings are infrequent in the area. There are plenty of other sharks to encounter, but the most dangerous ones seem to keep their distance.

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Has There Ever Been a Great White Shark Attack In San Francisco Bay?

The Bay Area is home to around 11 different species of sharks. As they share the region with some 880,000 people, the occasional shark attack is almost inevitable.

Thankfully, many of the most dangerous species of shark prefer the open waters outside the Bay, keeping the Bay itself relatively safe.

In the past 100 years or so, there have only been a few attacks, the most severe of which happened close to San Francisco, but not in the Bay itself.

Has There Ever Been a Great White Shark Attack In San Francisco Bay?

How Many Shark Attacks Happen in San Francisco?

Historically, there have been just five attacks within the Bay Area, the last of which took place in 1962. That year, three inmates of Alcatraz decided to attempt a daring escape but found themselves confronted with something far more frightening than armed guards.

John and his brother Clarence Anglin, along with Frank Lee Morris escaped from Alcatraz Island on the night of 11 June 1962. Using a rubber raft, they valiantly tried to paddle to freedom. The men were never seen again, although a wallet belonging to one of the brothers subsequently washed ashore.

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The incident is listed in the Global Shark Attack File but whether it occurred or not is difficult to say. Clarence Anglin’s grandson claims that his grandfather was the only inmate to survive the escape.

According to him, “Two of the guys did die. They were eaten by sharks.” Clarence survived the ordeal but, his grandson says, “had two toes of his right foot bitten off.”

Whether or not this is true, we’ll never know, but some people believe the escapees are still alive and well, or at least, were in 2015!

Today, shark attacks in San Francisco are infrequent, and those that do occur usually take place outside the Golden Gate. The most recent fatal shark attack to take place near San Francisco happened at Manresa State Beach in 2021.

The victim was a 26-year-old surfboard designer called Ben Kelly. Kelly was surfing just 100 yards from shore when the attack took place. The shark responsible for the attack was never identified, although there were sightings of great whites in the days before the attack.   

Since then, there’s been just one person attacked by a great white in the area. In June 2021, a 35-year-old surfer was bitten on the back of his right thigh while enjoying the waves at Gray Whale Cove.

The victim managed to swim to shore, where first responders offered advanced life support measures before transporting him to the trauma unit at Zuckerberg San Francisco general hospital.

The man survived the attack despite sustaining “about 10 lacerations to the back of the right thigh,” according to Brian Ham, battalion chief of the San Mateo fire department.

Do Great White Sharks Enter San Francisco Bay?

Great white sharks hardly ever enter the Bay Area. The most recent sighting was three years ago when a boat captain accidentally hooked a 6 to 8-foot great white close to Alcatraz.

The shark towed the fisherman’s 26-foot boat around for some two and a half hours while they struggled to reel it in. Once close enough, the fishermen cut the line and set the shark free.

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The fact that there haven’t been more great white encounters in the Bay is somewhat surprising given that researchers have identified a group of around 300 white sharks living in the red triangle area.

After a seven-year study, marine ecologists estimate there are around 266 great whites in the San Fransico Bay area.

The sharks aren’t particularly interested in humans as they have plenty of other prey species to keep them occupied. Since the ban on hunting seals, sea lions, elephant seals, and other animals, the San Francisco Bay ecosystem has improved significantly, creating a more inviting habitat for the shark.

As a result, these great whites prefer hanging out in the surf zone off the Farallon Islands, rather than heading under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the estuary.

There have been some pretty exciting sightings from Alcatraz Island, however. This video was taken by tourists in 2015 and shows an impressive predation event involving a great white and a seal. You can imagine the outcome, but check out the video anyway!

Aside from the great white, there are plenty of other shark species in the area, each of which has its own intriguing characteristics.

11 Sharks in San Francisco Bay

#1 Leopard Sharks

The leopard shark is the most common shark in the area and one of its full-time residents.

Growing to around 6 feet long, the leopard shark is easily distinguishable by its colorful pattern of dark spots on a grey or silver body.

leopard shark

Friendly and harmless to humans, the leopard shark feeds on crustaceans, shrimp, and worms that it digs up from the seafloor.

#2 Spiny Dogfish Shark

This aggressive little shark only reaches lengths of 4 feet but is a tenacious and opportunistic hunter nonetheless.

Spiny Dogfish Shark

One of the most prolific shark species in the ocean, it’s too small to present much of a threat to humans.

#3 Broadnose Sevengill Shark

The Bay is home to one of California’s largest broadnose sevengill nursery grounds. Females return to give birth each year, leaving their pups to mature in the comparative safety of the bay.

Broadnose Sevengill Shark

The sevengill shark can be aggressive if provoked and is therefore considered potentially dangerous.

According to the International Shark Attack File, the broadnose sevengill has attacked people on five different occasions, although none of the attacks were fatal.

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#4 Brown Smooth-hound Shark

This small and slender shark species is one of the most common along the Californian coast.

Brown Smooth Hound Shark
Photo Credits: D Ross Robertson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Abundant in shallow bays with muddy or sandy bottoms, the brown smooth-hound is quite at home in the protected bay area of San Francisco.

With an average size of around 1.6 to 2.3 feet long, this small shark isn’t a threat to humans.

#5 Pacific Angel Shark

With its flat body and habit of hiding on the seafloor, waiting to ambush its prey, the Pacific angel shark looks and behaves more like a ray than a shark.

Generally docile, the angel shark will retaliate if aggravated or provoked.

Angel Shark

Measuring around 3 to 4 feet long, angel sharks eat bony fish, crustaceans, skates, and cephalopods.

Pacific angel sharks are abundant in shallow waters less than 150 feet deep and are often targeted by both commercial and sport fishermen.

#6 Soupfin Shark

Also known as the tope or school shark, the soupfin is an important part of the San Francisco Bay ecosystem.

It preys on bony fish and invertebrates and is, in turn, preyed upon by the broadnose sevengill and great white shark.

Highly prized for its fins and its liver, which is rich in vitamin A, the soupfin shark is harvested extensively along the coast of California.

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#7 Salmon Shark

This large shark species looks very similar to the great white and is often confused with its more aggressive cousin.

Occasionally spotted at Fisherman’s wharf and close to the actual beach, salmon sharks are potentially dangerous due to their large size and aggressive nature.

Almost identitical to the Porbeagle, the salmon shark grows to around 12 feet long and is at the top of the food chain. As it’s name suggests, it feeds primarily on salmon, but will also eat other types of fish as well as squid and, occassionally, sea otters and marine birds.

#8 Blue Shark

If you take a whale-watching trip to Monterey Bay in summer or fall, you stand a good chance of spotting a blue shark.

Something of a wanderer, the blue shark isn’t a permanent resident. Performing long migrations, the blue shark is “one of the most widely distributed of all shark species.”

Blue Shark

Bright blue, with a sleek, graceful build, these beautiful sharks have been heavily exploited for shark fin soup. It’s believed their population has declined by almost 80% since the 1980s, leaving the blue shark vulnerable to extinction.

#9 Basking Shark

The second-largest fish in the sea behind the whale shark, basking sharks were once seen in California in groups numbering over 500.

Since 2000, those numbers have been declining, a trend researchers blame on fishing and culling.

basking shark

With a long lifespan and a gestation period that lasts an estimated 2 to 3 years, it’s not easy for the basking shark to bounce back.

The process has been so gradual, however, that experts like NOAA fisheries biologist Heidi Dewar fear that, “People have lost track of the fact that basking sharks used to occur in really high numbers off of California.”

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#10 Swell Shark

One of the area’s most unusual visitors, the swell shark is a timid creature that mainly avoids human interactions.

Spending most of its time motionless at the bottom of the ocean, the swell shark waits, with its mouth open, hoping for unsuspecting fish to wander in.

Swell Shark

If attacked, the swell shark swallows water until it nearly doubles its original size, a curious defense strategy that makes the shark almost impossible to bite.

When taken out of the water, they use a similar mechanism to suck in air. As a result, they can survive for nearly 24 hours on dry land.

#11 Pacific Sleeper Shark

This slow-moving, deep ocean shark species has the potential to harm people but rarely does.

Armed with a large mouth, powerful jaws, and sharp teeth, the Pacific sleeper is closely related to the Greenland shark. Its body is covered in rough, hooklike denticles that give it a bristly texture.

Pacific Sleeper Shark
Photo Credits: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Like the Greenland, the meat of the Pacific sleeper is mildly toxic, containing “high levels of trimethylamine oxide.”

When digested, this breaks down into a poisonous trimethylamine compound, causing intestinal problems and symptoms more commonly associated with excessive alcohol consumption. 

Conclusion

There are plenty of sharks in the San Francisco Bay area, but it still doesn’t deserve its reputation for shark-infested waters.

Great whites hardly ever enter the Bay, and those sharks that do frequent the area, are largely harmless and non-aggressive.

Caution is still required when swimming, not only because of the presence of sharks, but also due to the strong rip currents that can quickly drag swimmers underwater.

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