Are shark attacks in Costa Rica common? At roughly the size the West Virginia, Costa Rica isn’t a large country, but it is home to a diverse array of creatures.
From the slow-moving sloths that inhabit its rainforest to the endangered prickly sharks that roam some 2000ft below sea level, Costa Rica has an abundance of wildlife to explore.
While the prickly shark might be one of the country’s most recent discoveries, it’s by no means the only shark species found in the region.
Local diving operations frequently encounter reef sharks on their expeditions. They also bump into a few dangerous species, including the notorious tiger shark.
There are around 10 different species of shark frequenting Costa Rican waters, yet shark attacks are reassuringly rare, although they have increased in recent years.
How Common are Shark Attacks in Costa Rica?
According to the international shark attack database, just 10 unprovoked shark attacks occurred between 1900 and 2020. That works out to an average of one incident every 12 years. To put that into perspective, around 936 people died from drowning in Costa Rica between 2001 and 2019 alone.
While shark attacks may be rare, experts have noted an increase in recent years. In its 2016 shark attack review, the International Shark Attack File said this was due to the increasing human population and the concurrent upsurge in “aquatic recreation.”
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The most recent shark attacks in Costa Rica occurred in 2003, 2011, and 2017. There was also an unprovoked attack earlier this year. Three of these four attacks were fatal.
One of the most dangerous areas around Costa Rica is the Isla del Coco. It’s nowhere near as treacherous as Florida’s Cocoa Beach, however. Cocoa beach shark attacks number over 150, whereas there have been just a handful off the Isla del Coco coast.
The last recorded attack in the Cocos Island region occurred on 30th November 2017. Rohina Bhandari, a 49-year-old Wall Street financier, was diving with a group of 18 others, including an instructor, at the world-renowned diving site of Manuelita.
At some point during the dive, the instructor noticed a tiger shark approaching the group and tried to scare it away. Sadly, his efforts were fruitless, and by the time the group surfaced, Bhandari had sustained severe bites to both her legs.
The dive instructor, known only as Jiménez, was also bitten as he tried to help the shark’s first victim.
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Although Jiménez survived the ordeal, Bhandari was pronounced dead at the scene.
The tiger shark believed to be responsible for the attack has since been tagged – a move that will enable researchers to better understand its habitat use and potentially avoid further shark attacks in the future.
There was another shark incident at Cocos Island in 2018, but the diver escaped unscathed.
Since the incident in 2018, there have been no further Cocos Island shark attacks, although a fatal attack took place off the island of San Andreas earlier this year. Situated around 360km from Costa Rica, San Andreas is a popular destination amongst scuba divers and snorkelers.
Italian tourist, Antonio Roseto Degli Abruzzi, was attacked by an eight-foot tiger shark while swimming in the calm, clear waters of La Piscinita in March. The 56-year-old sustained several bites to his right thigh, and although he was rushed to the nearby Clarence Lynd Newball Hospital, doctors were unable to save him.
If you’re now wondering, “Are there a lot of shark attacks in Costa Rica?” rest assured that statistics remain low, especially in popular diving spots like Caño Island, where no attacks have been reported in the past 50 years.
You can also minimize the risk of shark attacks by following the advice at the end of this article.
The Sharks in Costa Rica You Might Encounter
While there are some dangerous sharks in Costa Rica, you’re unlikely to run into the biggest predator of them all – the great white.
Great whites are rarely seen in Costa Rica, preferring the cooler temperatures of the deep ocean to the tropical waters of the Caribbean.
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7 Common Species of Sharks in Costa Rica
The following seven species are the most common Costa Rica sharks:
#1 Bull Shark
This potentially aggressive and somewhat unusual shark species occurs in large numbers around the Bat Islands, or Islas Murcielagos, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coastline.
Known for their somewhat antagonistic nature and ability to live in freshwater, bull sharks are often found in the murky waters around river mouths and estuaries.
Reaching between 7 and 11 feet long, bull sharks feed on fish, other shark species, and sea turtles. Although humans are not among their usual prey species, bull sharks are opportunistic hunters that may attack, especially when visibility is poor.
In 2011, a bull shark attacked 15-year-old surfer Kevin Moraga in Costa Rica’s famous surfing spot of Playa Grande, Guanacaste. Although Moraga survived the initial attack, he died four days later.
Swimming with bull sharks in Costa Rica is possible as experts say they “will not harm scuba divers who respect them and keep their distance.”
#2 Tiger Shark
Another potentially dangerous specie, the tiger shark has been responsible for more attacks on humans than any other species except the great white.
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Tiger sharks grow to an average length of between 10 to 13 feet. They have vertical stripes on their sides that resemble the stripes on a tiger, making them relatively easy to identify.
A type of requiem shark, the tiger is a migratory species that travel as far as 64km a day in search of food. With its undiscerning palate, the tiger shark will eat almost anything that comes its way, from crabs and crayfish to sea turtles and skates.
#3 Silky Shark
One of the most common sharks in Costa Rica, the silky shark is also one of the least dangerous. Since 1580, just two recorded attacks have been attributed to the silky shark, which more commonly feeds on pelagic fish like mackerel and tuna.
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These inquisitive sharks often approach divers, especially around Cocos Island, but quickly retreat once they’ve satisfied their curiosity.
This long, slender shark is covered in densely packed denticles that give it a glossy finish. Although it enjoys a global distraction, the silky shark is “at risk of extinction” due to over-fishing and high bycatch fatalities.
#4 Whitetip Reef Shark
The most common shark in Costa Rica, the whitetip reef shark occurs all along the Pacific Coast, from the Bat Islands to the Osa Peninsula.
Night dives off the coast of Manuelita Island reveal “a mesh of whitetips” hunting for reef fish, crustaceans, eels, and octopus.
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With their broad head and the distinctive white markings on their caudal and dorsal fins, the whitetip is relatively easy to identify, especially in comparison with other reef sharks.
Although generally non-aggressive, the whitetip reef shark has attacked humans on a handful of occasions. Whether those attacks were provoked is difficult to ascertain as details of the incidents are scarce.
#5 Scalloped Hammerhead Shark
The iconic scalloped hammerhead frequents the shallow waters around Cocos Island and the deep-water gulf of Golfo Dulce. It spends its days languishing close to shore before using the cover of night to hunt for stingrays, crustaceans, and other sharks.
Researchers have identified several hammerhead shark nurseries around Costa Rica, the main one being in the tropical fjord of Golfo Dulce.
Here, thousands of baby hammerheads are born every year and spend their first few years sheltering in its protected waters.
Cocos Island is one of the world’s top destinations for diving with hammerheads.
Although their size and temperament make this species potentially dangerous to humans, attacks are few and far between. The last known attack by a hammerhead shark happened so long ago the details have been lost to history.
#6 Whale Shark
While encountering whitetip reef sharks is a daily occurrence when diving at Cocos Island, you need a bit of luck to encounter a whale shark.
The best time to see these gentle giants is between June and September, when the increased sunlight and abundance of nutrients cause their favorite food, plankton, to multiply.
Swimming or snorkeling with whale sharks is an unforgettable encounter and one I was lucky enough to experience off the Mozambican coast some years ago.
This migratory species uses the underwater mountain range of Cocos Ridge to traverse the Pacific Ocean, traveling over 100 km in 48 hours. Despite these vast distances, the whale shark is one of the slowest shark species, moving at an average speed of just four kph.
#7 Nurse Shark
The nurse shark is another specie of Costa Rican shark that utilizes both the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines.
Mostly nocturnal, they can be seen resting in sandy areas close to shore during the day. At night, they head into deeper waters to hunt for bottom-dwelling fish like the yellowtail snapper, skates, and sea urchins.
Generally timid, the nurse shark occasionally attacks humans but rarely causes serious injury. It will, however, use its large pharynx to latch onto its prey, making it difficult to remove.
The nurse shark has a long caudal fin that makes up approximately 25% of its body length. It also has large, rounded pectoral fins, which it uses to “walk” along the ocean floor.
This unusual species is commonly seen around Caño Island and other pelagic and reef shark species.
Other Species of Costa Rica Sharks
In addition to the seven most common sharks in Costa Rica, a handful of other species sometimes visit these tropical waters.
Deep-water species like the prickly shark lurk in depths of between 600 and 1250 feet, so are rarely seen by humans. This little-known species was filmed off the coast of Cocos Island in 2007.
The endangered Galapagos shark also pops into Costa Rica’s so-called “underwater Jurassic Park” from time to time but is often mistaken for other species of reef sharks.
Although potentially dangerous and sometimes aggressive, the Galapagos shark rarely attacks humans.
One other species of shark found in Costa Rica is the blacktip reef shark. This common species is found throughout the world in tropical and subtropical waters and looks much like the whitetip, but without the white tips!
Somewhat more aggressive than the whitetip reef shark, the blacktip reef has been responsible for 14 attacks on humans, none of which were fatal.
Can You Swim With Sharks in Costa Rica?
There are many places to swim with sharks in Costa Rica, although Cocos Island is the best destination. Situated some 340 miles off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, it’s one of the world’s top locations for swimming with whale sharks.
However, if the idea of a 36-hour boat trip doesn’t appeal, why not try the Islas Murcielagos on the northern coast of Costa Rica? Here you can encounter the tenacious bull shark, along with manta rays, moray eels, and sea turtles.
How to Stay Safe when Swimming with Sharks in Costa Rica
As we mentioned earlier, the choppy waters and fast currents around Costa Rica are far more dangerous than the sharks that frequent the region.
Whether you opt for a quick dip at Playa Espadilla or head to the Osa Peninsula, there’s always a chance you could encounter a shark. To protect yourself against potential attacks and stay out of harm’s way, follow these five crucial safety tips:
- Avoid swimming in river mouths where bull sharks like to hang out
- Don’t swim alone
- Don’t enter the water at dawn or dusk
- Avoid swimming in murky water
- Don’t swim if sharks have been seen in the area
Many spectacular sights are awaiting you in the tropical waters around Costa Rica. From sloths and sea turtles to sharks, Costa Rica is a paradise for wildlife and humans.
The nearby island of Cocos is one of the world’s top destinations for swimming and diving with sharks, but that status also comes with an element of danger.
Shark attacks have occurred in the region, and as shark populations increase, they’re liable to intensify.
For the most part, swimming and diving with sharks in Costa Rica is a safe experience, especially if you keep your distance and show these apex predators the respect they deserve.
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.