Every year, visitors flock to the white sands of Panama City Beach, and each year they are joined by some 200 different species of shark. Both are drawn to the area’s crystal clear waters and abundant sea life.
The double sandbar system at Panama City Beach creates a deep water channel close to shore. This trough makes an ideal habitat for fish, and humans, seeking a protected area away from the pounding surf.
Are there sharks in Panama City Beach? The concentration of fish and other ocean life in the channel inevitably attracts apex predators, including sharks. Shark sightings are commonplace, although shark attacks are thankfully infrequent.
Recent shark sightings in Panama City Beach recorded 15 different species, most of which are non-aggressive and unlikely to attack unless provoked. Except for one, that is.
15 Sharks in Panama City Beach You are Likely to See
#1 Atlantic Sharpnose
This is one of the smaller shark species in Panama City Beach, rarely growing beyond 3’ long. Despite its size, the Florida Museum of Natural History says, the Atlantic Sharpnose shark poses “a moderate threat to humans.”
Preferring shallow waters close to shore, they naturally come into regular contact with humans. Fortunately, although these feisty little sharks might bite, they won’t cause critical injury and certainly won’t endanger your life.
Although they can’t live in freshwater, like the bull shark, Atlantic Sharpnose sharks can tolerate less saline water than many other species. That means you’re likely to find them close to shore, especially during the spring and summer months.
#2 Blacknose Shark
A little larger than the Atlantic Sharpnose, the Balcknose is easily distinguishable by the black spot at the end of its snout. This marking is more evident in juveniles and fades as the shark matures.
Measuring around 4’ long, Blacknose sharks primarily feed on smaller fish and the occasional octopus.
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While the Blacknose shark takes a defensive stance if confronted by humans, it’s not known to attack.
Divers have described the Blacknose hunching its back and raising its head at them, apparently to either warn them off or intimidate them. Nonetheless, it has never been associated with any shark attacks on humans.
#3 Blacktip Shark
Arguably the most common species of shark in Panama City Beach and the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Blacktip can be seen in the region all year round.
These timid sharks usually avoid contact with humans but have been responsible for 28 unprovoked attacks and 13 provided shark attacks since 2008.
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As blacktip sharks hunt in waters less than 100ft deep, they often come close to humans.
When visibility is poor, they may mistake a human foot or hand for a fish, resulting in a painful case of mistaken identity. Responsible for around 20% of all shark attacks in Florida, blacktip sharks should be considered “unintentionally dangerous.”
#4 Bonnethead Shark
The smallest of all the hammerhead sharks, the bonnethead is a common inshore visitor in temperate and subtropical seas. Also known as the shovelhead, it is the only known omnivorous shark species, feeding on large amounts of seagrass, as well as crustaceans and fish.
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Bonnethead sharks are docile creatures that are rarely known to bite. Although I found claims of “one recorded unprovoked attack attributed to this shark species,” when I checked the International Shark Attack File, there was no corroborating evidence.
Maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t, either way, the chances of it happening again are extremely remote.
#5 Bull Shark
Some experts consider the bull shark more dangerous than the great white, partly because it spends so much time in the same shallow waters that humans frequent.
Capable of living in both fresh and salt water, the versatile bull shark seems just as happy eating garbage as it is gulping down fish. Sadly, that means the bull shark will attack almost anything that moves, including a human.
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Bull sharks have been responsible for six fatal, unprovoked attacks, including one in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, where the victim was a 14-year-old girl.
Even with its reputation for aggression, attacks by bull sharks are few and far between. Nevertheless, you wouldn’t find me going for a swim off Panama City Beach at dusk or when the murky waters increase the chances of mistaken identity.
#6 Finetooth Shark
Another species of requiem shark, the Finetooth is sleek and slender, measuring around 6 feet long. These sociable sharks form large schools when hunting and frequent extremely shallow waters less than 33-feet deep in summer.
If captured, the Finetooth shark becomes extremely violent, thrashing and snapping at its captors. At all other times, it’s considered docile and unaggressive, and no attacks on humans have ever been attributed to this species.
#7 Great Hammerhead
One of the most recent shark sightings in Panama City Beach involved what looked like it was going to be an unprovoked shark attack by a great hammerhead.
In the video, the shark swims directly towards a swimmer before turning away at the last moment. On closer inspection, it seems to be targeting a small fish that was using the man as a shield to escape its inevitable demise.
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Traveling at around 40kph, the hammerhead is an aggressive hunter, and, at up to 20’ long, this shark species is certainly capable of killing a human. Despite that, only 16 unprovoked attacks have ever been recorded, none of which were fatal.
#8 Nurse Shark
Nurse sharks seem amicable enough, lounging around on the seafloor, but they can deliver a vicious bite if accidentally stepped on or provoked. Nurse sharks are unwilling to let go once they get their teeth into you, but they rarely cause serious harm.
Although nurse sharks can reach up to 10 feet in length, most attacks seem to involve juvenile sharks just a couple of feet long. Something of the sloth of the sea, the nurse shark spends most of the day loafing around and resting.
It’s only during the twilight hours that they become active, using their suction-feeding technique to suck conches out of their shells.
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#9 Oceanic Whitetip Shark
The Oceanic whitetip shark is one of the top 10 most dangerous sharks in the world. As such, it should be “treated with extreme caution.” An opportunistic feeder, the whitetip can be unpredictable around humans, as the species’ 15 unprovoked attacks suggest!
This species is believed to have been responsible for the “worst shark attack in history.” When the US Indianapolis sank after being hit by a Japanese torpedo in August 1945, 900 survivors struggled in the water, staving off thirst and exposure.
Sharks swarmed around them, attracted by their struggles and the smell of blood. Eventually, the survivors were dragged from the water after four days. Only 317 men remained. Of the deceased, between “a few dozen to almost 150” were thought to have been killed by sharks – primarily the Oceanic whitetip.
#10 Sandbar Shark
Anglers and fishing charters in the Panama City Beach area frequently target and catch sandbar sharks. As their name suggests, they’re drawn to the area’s white sands and double sandbar system. Averaging approximately 6-feet long, the sandbar shark is big enough to harm a human but not aggressive enough to make this a common occurrence.
Although the sandbar shark will move into harbors, river mouths, and estuaries to feed, it tends to avoid the areas frequented by humans. As a result, it poses little threat, although it’s believed a sandbar shark was behind a rare attack on a 12-year-old girl in Ocean City last year.
#11 Scalloped Hammerhead
Like their cousins, the great hammerhead, scalloped hammerhead, and bonnethead are all frequent visitors to the Panama City Beach area. They are also so shy that scientists struggle to get close enough to study them, so the chances of being bitten by one are extremely remote.
Scalloped hammerheads occasionally perform threat displays when close to divers but more frequently ignore any humans they come into contact with.
Unlike most shark species, which are found closer to the shore after dusk, the scalloped hammerhead moves towards the beach during the day and hunts in the deeper, offshore waters at night.
#12 Shortfin Mako
Capable of reaching speeds of over 50 kph, the Shortfin mako is the fastest shark in the world. One of the shark species targeted by shark-fishing operations in Panama City Beach, it’s large, fast, and potentially dangerous.
Usually found in deep waters far from shore, the Shortfin mako is not regarded as a serious threat to humans, but is nevertheless responsible for nine shark attacks, including one fatal bite.
#13 Spinner Shark
Spinner sharks are easy to identify when they leap out of the waves and spin through the air like out-of-control torpedos. Another popular game fish, the spinner shark is regularly targeted by shark fishing operators.
Similar to the blacktip in appearance, the spinner shark frequently comes into contact with people as they prefer warm, nearshore waters, just like those found off Panama City Beach.
Although not generally aggressive, spinner sharks are responsible for 16 attacks on humans. As their teeth are designed to grasp smaller prey rather than tear into larger creatures, being bitten by a Spinner shark is rarely life-threatening.
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#14 Thresher Shark
The thresher shark has a long upper lobe on its caudal fin, which it uses to stun fish into submission. Generally shy around humans, the thresher is a large, yet non-aggressive shark with an almost worldwide distribution.
Feeding on small, schooling fish, the thresher shark can reach lengths of up to 14-foot long, but their “small mouths and teeth” mean they’re unlikely to attack a human.
Are there Shark Attacks in Panama City Beach?
Despite the abundance of sharks found in the area, attacks are very infrequent, with the last known shark bite occurring in 2013.
Seven-year-old Ethan Cobb was bitten by a shark while paddling in water just a few inches deep. The species of shark was not identified, although the plastic surgeon that attended to Cobb believed it to be either “a small hammerhead or nurse shark.”
A rather more mysterious shark attack occurred in 1959 when a 26-year-old lieutenant in the US Army disappeared while on a spearfishing trip with friends. One of the other divers reported seeing a Shortfin mako shark nearby, as well as a 12’ blue shark.
When he surfaced, the sharks were nowhere to be seen – nor was Lt. James Neal. The next day, divers recovered much of Neal’s equipment from the sea, including his tattered clothes. His body was never found.
Although it’s possible that Neal died from a shark attack, it’s also possible that he drowned and was subsequently scavenged by sharks and other marine predators.
How Many Shark Attacks have there been in Panama City?
Since 1900, there have been just eight shark attacks off Panama City Beach.
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Panama City Beach Sharks FAQ
Are there Great White Sharks in Panama City Beach?
Great white sharks are not commonly seen in the Gulf of Mexico, preferring colder waters where their prey of choice, the earless seal, are easier found. Despite that, a tagged great white known as Miss Costa has been visiting the area frequently since 2016.
This sub-adult great white measures approximately 12’ long and spent several months coasting along the Panama City Beach coastline between January 2018 and May 2019.
Are there Hammerhead Sharks in Panama City Beach?
There are 10 different types of hammerhead sharks, many of which hang out around Panama City Beach.
The bonnethead, great hammerhead, and scalloped hammerhead are all frequent visitors to the Gulf of Mexico, coming close to shore as they hunt down squid, octopus, crustaceans, and fish.
Although they aren’t generally aggressive, hammerheads will attack if threatened.
Is it Safe to Swim in Panama City Beach?
Most of the time, it is safe to swim in Panama City Beach, and, when it’s not, it’s usually because of strong currents, riptides, and high surf.
Flags on the beach warn swimmers if there are potential dangers in the area, including dangerous sea conditions and potentially hazardous marine life, such as jellyfish, sharks, and stingrays.
Despite frequent sightings in Panama City Beach, shark attacks are extremely rare. Visitors to the area should be more cautious about the potentially dangerous sea conditions, than the possibility of a shark attack.
Having said that, some of the most dangerous shark species in the world spend time off Panama City Beach, including the bull shark, the Oceanic whitetip, and the Shortfin mako.
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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.