With its warm waters and rich marine life, the Gulf of Mexico is a haven for all kinds of sea creatures, including sharks.
Estimates vary regarding how many sharks can be found in the region. Some say it’s around 30. Others argue that it’s more like 50.
Some of those sharks spend the entire year in the area while others, like the great white shark, move into the area in winter and depart again as the water temperatures begin to rise in spring.
Does The Gulf of Mexico Have Sharks?
Gulf of Mexico sharks come in various shapes and sizes, from athletic spinner to slow-moving whale sharks. The most common shark species include:
#1 Atlantic Sharpnose Shark
These requiem sharks are one of the smallest of the species found near Panama City Beach and along the Northern Gulf.
Measuring between two to three feet long, they’re not big enough to inflict a fatal injury but come into regular contact with humans due to their preferred habitat.
The Gulf of Mexico has a healthy population of Atlantic sharpnose sharks, especially during spring and fall when they frequently enter shallow waters in search of prey species like menhaden and wrasse.
The Atlantic sharpnose is more commonly preyed upon by humans than the other way around and is, so I’m told, one of the best-tasting sharks you can fish for.
#2 Blacktip Shark
Not to be confused with the Blacktip reef shark, blacktip sharks are larger and more aggressive.
These active predators are fast and streamlined. But, like the shortfin mako shark, they also propel themselves out of the water during high-speed pursuits.
Blacktip sharks are usually quite shy but, despite that, are also considered “the shark most likely to bite humans.”
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These bites are rarely intentional and are thought to occur when cloudy waters make it difficult for them to identify their prey correctly.
One of the most abundant coastal species in the Northern Gulf, the blacktip shark is often found in shallow waters close to bays, river mouths, and mangrove swamps.
Like the bull shark, the blacktip has a higher tolerance for brackish waters than many species and will even enter freshwater environments.
#3 Blacknose Shark
This streamlined shark species grows to around 4-foot long and prefers shallow waters less than 200-feet deep.
The population found in the Gulf of Mexico behaves slightly differently to the blacknose sharks found in the Atlantic, breeding every year instead of biennially. They also mature later.
Females in the Atlantic reach sexual maturity at around 4.5 years old, whereas those in the Gulf take an extra two years to reach the necessary length of 33 to 39″.
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Although not a particularly aggressive shark, the Blacknose will perform a threat display when confronted.
By raising its head and lowering its caudal fin, blacknose sharks will make it quite clear if you’ve come too close, but they’re unlikely to attack.
#4 Blue Shark
One of the most common sharks in the Gulf, the blue shark is also one of the most graceful and among the fastest in the ocean.
This highly migratory species traverses vast distances, performing a clockwise migration pattern around the Atlantic yearly that sees them cover over 9,200 km yearly.
Naturally inquisitive, the blue shark is attracted to the electromagnetic fields emitted by cameras making them appear naturally photogenic.
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You might not want to get too close, however. According to the International Shark Attack File, blue sharks have been known to attack humans and are capable of causing fatal injuries.
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#5 Bonnethead Shark
One of the smallest of the nine hammerhead sharks, the bonnethead is the only shark known to eat plant material and animals.
Scientists originally thought this behavior to be accidental. Subsequently, they found enzymes in the shark’s gut that indicated that the bonnethead can effectively break down and get nutrients from its meals of seagrass.
Within the Gulf of Mexico, the diet of Bonnetheads varies, with those in the Tampa Bay area eating more crab than those further north.
Regardless of what they eat, bonnetheads flourish in the area, especially during the winter when they seasonally migrate to warmer waters.
Due to their size and timidity, Bonnethead sharks haven’t considered a danger to humans.
#6 Finetooth Shark
This coastal shark avoids deeper waters, preferring to stay close to shore in water less than 30 feet deep.
Unlike other types of requiem sharks that are generally solitary, the finetooth is a gregarious species that hunts and migrates in large schools.
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Conversely to the blue shark, the finetooth shark of the Gulf of Mexico matures earlier than its Atlantic cousins and grows more quickly.
Growing to just under 2 feet long, the finetooth shark is neither aggressive nor does it pose a threat to most humans.
If caught when shark fishing, however, the finetooth shark will fight ferociously, snapping and thrashing at anything within range.
#7 Lemon Sharks
The lemon shark is a protected species in Florida, but in Texas it’s fair game for fishermen and, apparently, makes good eating. This is something of a shame considering its seemingly friendly nature.
Research indicates that lemon sharks seek out one another’s company for no reason other than “social attraction.”
They’re also quite friendly towards humans, although they have been known to attack on occasion.
With their yellow coloration, lemon sharks are well camouflaged against the sandy seafloor and spend much of their time there, waiting to ambush passing prey.
#8 Shortfin Mako Shark
Also known as the bonito shark, the shortfin mako is the fastest shark in the ocean. It dashes around the Gulf of Mexico at speeds of up to 50kph.
Blamed for at least nine attacks on humans, the shortfin mako is one of the more dangerous sharks in the region.
These aggressive sharks are apex predators that combine speed with agility and power. Nick Wegner of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography likens the shortfin mako to the cheetah but says it’s “bigger and with larger teeth and more muscle.”
#9 Spinner Shark
Famous for its acrobatic leaps out of the water, the spinner is one of the most common sharks in the Gulf of Mexico.
Like the finetooth shark, spinners hunt in groups and perform high-speed pursuits that see them fly nearly 20 feet into the air.
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Earlier this year, a Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation researcher filmed a huge congregation of spinner sharks in the Gulf of Mexico, indicating that the area’s fish population is healthy and abundant.
Although its powerful jaws make it a potentially dangerous shark, only two official attacks are on record.
Spinner sharks have small teeth and target small prey species, like bony fish and crustaceans, making them relatively harmless to humans.
#10 Thresher Shark
There are three species of thresher shark, all of which love the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The common, pelagic, and bigeye thresher sharks can all be found in Gulf waters at varying depths.
These highly migratory sharks utilize deeper waters as well as coastal regions where they visit well-known cleaning stations. Here, hungry cleaner fish clear up the irritating parasites the sharks pick up on their long journeys.
The bigeye thresher shark only visits the Gulf of Mexico sporadically while the common thresher is a more regular visitor.
The Three Most Aggressive Sharks in the Gulf of Mexico
When shark attacks occur, it’s almost always one of the following species responsible:
#1 Bull shark
Bull sharks are aggressive creatures that move almost seamlessly between marine and freshwater environments.
Because they are so frequently found close to shore, the bull shark is often to blame when shark bites occur.
A mature bull shark measures between 7 and 11.5 feet long, making it considerably smaller than the great white.
However, what it lacks in size makes up for in strength. Research suggests that the bull shark’s bite force is proportionally greater than other shark species.
The bull shark’s diet consists primarily of bony fish, other sharks, sea birds, and the occasional smattering of sea turtles.
They don’t target humans directly but often come into contact with them due to their shared habitat.
#2 Great White Sharks
Great white sharks are responsible for the most shark attacks in the world. The International Shark Attack File has 354 official attacks attributed to the great white, of which 57 proved fatal.
These statistics don’t reflect the latest attacks either, of which there have been a few, including one fatality in Australia, and another in South Africa.
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Great white sharks aren’t particularly common in the Gulf of Mexico but have been tracked in the area recently.
A couple of months before writing this, a 12-foot-long great white shark known as Scot was identified off the Gulf Coast.
Even more recently, one was thought to have entered Long Island Sound, showing how far they travel.
#3 Tiger sharks
Tiger sharks are often seen off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and amateur fishermen often target the species.
These apex predators are less discerning than most sharks and will eat almost anything.
Although it doesn’t count humans amongst its favorite meals, the tiger shark is aggressive and opportunistic enough to pose a real threat.
With over 100 attacks to its name, the tiger shark is second only to the great white in terms of aggression.
Although normally a nocturnal hunter, tiger sharks are “out more during midday in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Researchers believe this could be because different shark species try to avoid each by hunting in shifts.
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However, that should have little impact on the tiger shark’s hunting regime. After all, as one of the bigger species, they can presumably hunt whenever is best for them, leaving the smaller species to work around them.
Other shark species that utilize the Gulf waters but aren’t as common include:
- Great hammerhead shark
- Longfin mako shark
- Nurse sharks
- Oceanic white tip shark
- Sandbar shark
- Sand tiger shark
- Scalloped hammerhead
- Silky shark
- Whale shark
Are Shark Attacks Common in the Gulf of Mexico?
Despite the large population of sharks, shark attacks in the Gulf of Mexico are surprisingly rare but could be on the rise.
Statistics suggest that “shark attacks increased worldwide in 2021” after three years of decline.
International Shark Attack File researchers say the year-on-year increase is of little significance, point out that the “73 bites in 2021 more closely align with the five-year global average of 72.”
Many beaches were closed for much of 2021 due to the pandemic. With the beaches reopening, places like Florida have seen a surge of visitors, most of whom are drawn by the same things attracting sharks – warm waters and plentiful marine life.
However, there have been shark attacks in the Gulf of Mexico, and one occurred not that long ago, in September 2021.
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Rather than being a visitor to the area, the victim was a local fisherman who fell overboard while trying to untangle his fishing nets from the boat’s propeller.
The attack partly amputated the man’s leg and he was in critical condition when rescued by the Coast Guard.
Is it Safe to Swim in the Gulf of Mexico?
If you’re concerned about sharks in the Gulf of Mexico, don’t be. The Gulf waters may not be particularly safe, but that’s primarily because of the bacteria that thrive there, rather than the shark population.
The salty water of the Gulf of Mexico makes it difficult for such bacteria to survive, so the front Gulf beaches are still perfectly safe.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that you won’t bump into a shark, but the chances of it biting you are extremely small.
According to some, you’ve got more chance of being swallowed by a sand hole than you have of being attacked by a shark.
Rip currents also make the beaches along the northern Gulf potentially dangerous, as does the presence of other dangerous sea creatures, like the Portuguese Man-Of-War jellyfish.
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Sh sharks should be the least of your worries if you’re willing to take on those potential threats!
While there are plenty of sharks in the Gulf of Mexico, attacks on humans are extremely rare.
Few sharks see humans as potential prey and most attacks occur purely due to mistaken identity. Therefore, staying out of the water when it’s murky or cloudy is a good way to avoid an accidental bite.
There are sharks of all varieties and families in Gulf waters, from slow swimmers like the whale shark, to speed freaks like the shortfin mako shark.
This natural abundance of sharks should be celebrated as it indicates a healthy and diverse ecosystem.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.