Seeing a shark leap out of the ocean is a breath-taking sight to behold, but not one many people get to witness.
The great white sharks that frequent the waters around Seal Island off the south coast of South Africa are famous for this behavior, which is called breaching.
Over recent months, however, reports of great white sharks jumping out of the sea off the coast of New Zealand have suddenly increased, along with general sightings of these intimidating predators.
One local fisherman didn’t just see this phenomenon – he felt it. Dave Hope was fishing off his boat in the Bowentown Harbour early in January 2022 when a great white shark leaped out of the water, grazing the side of his “12-foot tinny.”
The experience may have taken Hope’s breath away, but it’s also made him reluctant to return to the harbor, and understandably so. People have spotted 3m-long great whites in the area. If one of those landed on your boat, you’d have little chance of survival!
Do Sharks Really Jump out of the Water?
Of the 1,000 different species of shark found in our oceans, only a handful leap out of the water. The great white sharks of Seal Island are famous for their aerial displays, but this behavior isn’t commonly seen elsewhere in the world.
The Great White Shark isn’t the only shark that breaches, however. A couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to see a Thresher shark leaping out of the water while deep-sea fishing off the Eastern Cape coast of South Africa.
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I later discovered it was hooked on my line and spent a good half hour being dragged around the boat by it. Fortunately, the line snapped before I had the chance to land it, and everyone on the boat breathed a collective sigh of relief.
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Research indicates that more species of shark breach when hooked by recreational fishermen than demonstrate a “natural breaching behavior.”
Despite that, a few years ago, researchers captured footage of basking sharks leaping out of the water off the coast of Ireland.
The giant basking shark is a plankton-eating species so lacks the aggression and hunting skills of the great white shark. It can, however, swim fast enough to erupt from the water with the same explosive energy and speed.
Spinner sharks jump with such agility that they appear to be flying. Not only do they breach, but they spin in the air as they do so, providing witnesses with a spectacular display of aeronautics.
Blacktip sharks perform a similar maneuver. They leap out of the water and rotate a few times before splashing back down. The display is so spectacular, it almost seems as though they’re jumping for joy.
Do Sharks Jump out of the Water like Dolphins?
When dolphins jump out of the water, they do so from a shallow depth. Rather than jumping out of the water to kill their prey, they use jumps to give them a different perspective.
It helps them locate prey, and potential predators, and check out the latest weather conditions.
How do sharks jump out of the water?
Sharks, on the other hand, begin their aerial leaps from depths of up to 20m and don’t bother checking the weather out while they’re airborne.
Using biologging techniques, researchers found that the great white shark start their ascent in waters where the bottom depth is between 26 to 30 meters.
It takes them around 2.2 seconds to reach their target, during which they increase their speed to approximately 10 meters per second – the equivalent of nearly 34km/h. Unsurprisingly, this gives the sharks a 40 to 55% success rate.
Dolphins usually swim at speeds of around five to 10 km per hour. When they breach, it’s a smooth, elegant affair. When a one-tonne shark is attacking prey and explodes out of the water, it’s all about power.
Why do Sharks Come out of Water?
There are various reasons a shark might decide to leap out of the water, but top researchers aren’t yet certain what drives them.
Although there is a consensus that spinner sharks leap out of the water as the shark attacks small fish, Stephen Kajiura, professor at Florida Atlantic University and director of the Elasmobranch Laboratory admits, “Why the sharks jump, we don’t know for sure.”
Kaijura suggests three possible explanations:
#1 The sharks are trying to remove parasites and shake off the remora fish that fasten themselves to the shark’s skin.
#2 Sharks use their airborne leaps to communicate with others.
It could be a form of “social signaling,” Kaijura explains, used to reveal their location to other sharks in the area and create some form of social cohesion.
#3 Like the great white sharks, spinners and blacktip sharks jump in pursuit of fast-moving prey like seals.
The consensus is that sharks jump at the end of a high-speed chase. Some suspect it’s an unintentional consequence of the momentum the shark builds during its pursuit.
Neither of these theories can apply to the basking shark, however, as it’s not a predatory species.
Natural Breaching Behavior
A study conducted in 2018 off the coast of Shetland, UK, proposed that breaching is a form of reproductive, social interaction.
Their observations lead them to conclude that male basking sharks breach as a form of competitive behavior.
Presumably, whoever leaps the highest, gets the girl. Meanwhile, “female basking sharks may breach to signal their readiness for mating.”
Great White Sharks Jump Because They Hunt
Great white sharks have perfected the art of jumping out of the ocean to catch Cape Fur Seals.
They don’t necessarily use these hunting techniques in other areas because they’re hunting different species of prey that require an alternative approach. They eat various prey like fish, birds and of course the love to eat seals
Along the central Californian coastline, for instance, the great white shark preys on turtles. This requires a different hunting strategy to the one used for seals and other pinnipeds.
In the waters around South Africa, however, African Shark Eco-Charters see great whites performing three distinct breaching techniques when hunting. These are:
The vertical or Polaris breach – the shark rushes up from the ocean floor, accelerating towards its chosen target and using its caudal, or tail, fin, to launch itself out of the ocean. If successful, it has a seal in its mouth as it emerges.
The aerial breach – the great white emerges from the sea with such power that its entire body becomes airborne. The momentum is so great that the shark will often perform a 360° horizontal twist in midair.
The surface breach – not as spectacular as either the Polaris or aerial breach, the surface breach sees just the upper part of the shark leaving the water.
What Sharks can Jump out of the Water?
Not all species of shark jump. The nurse shark, for instance, spends most of its time languishing on the bottom of the ocean and moves slowly, rarely exceeding speeds of 2.4 km/h.
Hammerhead Sharks Can’t Jump
Similarly, the hammerhead rarely makes an appearance above the surface. This video shows footage of a hammerhead hunting blacktip sharks in the shallow waters off the coast of Palm Beach County. As you can see, although the shark breaks the surface, it’s not breaching as such.
According to Kajiura, this is because, unlike the blacktip, the dorsal and caudal fins of the hammerhead can neither generate lift nor provide thrust when they breach the surface.
Hammerheads are far more efficient underwater, which, in this instance, gives the blacktips a welcome reprieve.
Sharks That Jump Out Of The Water
The great white, spinner sharks, mako sharks, and thresher sharks all jump out of the water with surprising regularity. Basking sharks also breach more than anyone would have imagined, and the blacktip isn’t opposed to the idea either.
Sharks have to expend a lot of energy to propel themselves out of the sea, which is why it’s a relatively uncommon event.
A research article published in the journal, Biology Letters in 2018 estimated that to jump to a height of 5m, a 2,700-kg basking shark would need to expend mechanical energy at a rate of 5.5 W kg. This equates to around “1/17th of the daily standard metabolic cost for a basking shark.”
When your diet consists of nothing but zooplankton, that’s a lot of energy, and a jumping basking shark will need to consume millions of the little critters to make up for it.
Where Do Sharks Jump out of the Water?
The great whites of Seal Island, South Africa might be the most famous for their aerial skills, but that’s not the only place you can watch sharks jumping.
In recent years, the great white shark has been demonstrating their aerial maneuvres to New Zealand fishermen.
When Aucklander Andre Vousden hooked a 3-meter-long great white in Kaipara Harbour in December 2021, he was rewarded with a series of impressive leaps.
Coast of Australia
Mako sharks performs their jumping acts off the coast of Australia, in the Coral Sea. They’ve also been seen in the Bay of Plenty off the coast of New Zealand.
East Coast South Africa
I saw a Thresher shark breach off the East Coast of South Africa, not far from the coastal town of Port Alfred.
Others have also spotted them in this area and further north, close to Christmas Rock in the Eastern Cape.
Coasts North America
Thresher sharks frequent the coasts of North America and are regular visitors to the warmer waters of the Mediterranean.
Despite their preference for temperate waters, one was seen jumping off the coast of Torbay in South Devon a few years ago.
Spinner sharks are common residents of the western Atlantic Ocean and other nearshore, temperate and tropical waters. They are often seen jumping off the coast of Florida and along the southern African coastline from Mozambique and to the Eastern Cape of South Africa.
Blacktip sharks frequent similar areas to the spinner sharks and, because of their similarities, the two species are often confused. The spinner is more streamlined than the stocky blacktip, but it’s not easy to tell the difference when they’re flying through the air at over 70 kph.
The best place to go to see a basking shark leap out of the water is off the shores of Ireland, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Scotland, although their distribution is near-global.
How High Can a Shark Jump out of Water?
Footage from the study in Ireland showed basking sharks leaping “near vertically” to heights of around 1.2 meters.
This is nothing compared to white sharks, however, which has been filmed performing leaps of over 4.5m high.
The spinner shark is even more agile and adept at flying. They’ve been recorded making jumps over 6 meters and spinning through the air like silver torpedos.
The thresher shark can manage similar aerial acrobatics, using its 3-meter-long tail to propel itself to heights of around 6 meters.
When it comes to the shark high jump competition, however, there can only be one winner. The mako shark.
The fastest shark species in the world, the short-fin mako sharks, reaches speeds up to 74 kph. It’s also been recorded performing leaps of over nine meters high!
Watching a great white shark explode out of the water to catch fast moving prey, is an unforgettable sight. Unless you’re a seal, that is.
Only a handful of the world’s shark species perform these aerial displays and Mako sharks jump the highest.
Scientists are still unsure what motivates them. Leaping from the ocean uses up a significant amount of energy, which means the behavior must serve a critical role in the shark’s life.
Whether a shark is to breach in pursuit of prey, to dislodge parasites, or indicate to other sharks its readiness to reproduce, there’s clearly a significant reason behind it. They’re not just jumping for joy!
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.