It’s easy to think of sharks only as the fearless killers portrayed in the media. But it seems that even these fearless apex predators are sometimes…afraid.
Sharks may avoid loud noises and bright colors, which can signal danger or disrupt the dark environment they’re used to.
They may also avoid certain foods if they associate them with a negative experience, but are not inherently afraid of anything and will only act on their instincts and past experiences.
From predators to unexpected sounds or electrical signals, you might be surprised to learn just how many things can make sharks swim away in apparent fear. So, read on, and we will answer, “What Are Sharks Afraid Of?”
9 Things Sharks Are Afraid Of
As we consider “What Are Sharks Afraid Of?”, it’s worth remembering that around 500 species of these elasmobranch fish live in our oceans today.
It probably goes without saying that a giant whale shark, or one of the potentially dangerous top-level predators like a great white, tiger, or bull shark, will have different concerns than one of the smallest shark species, like a tiny dwarf lanternshark.
However, once we’ve looked at the predators that make sharks scared, we will see a surprising number of things, including environmental factors, that almost all sharks can be said to be “afraid of.”
Sharks have a highly evolved sensory system and may appear to show “fear” to avoid stimuli their instincts perceive as threatening, confusing, or dangerous.
As we work down our list, we should remember that, like every other animal, sharks are simply trying to survive in their natural habitat.
#1 Killer Whales
To answer “What Do Sharks Hate the Most?” we’ll start at the top and look at what animal can kill almost any shark outright.
The infamous great white sits at the top of the shark hierarchy like the lion does in the jungle.
So, you probably think nothing can kill a great white adult, right?
Scientists in South Africa, California, and Australia have discovered that killer whales can hunt in packs to ruthlessly kill great whites and remove and devour the unfortunate victim’s liver.
Incredibly the whales will then leave the rest of the carcass to gruesomely sink to the ocean floor or wash up on shore uneaten, as it doesn’t contain enough nutrients for them to be interested.
The liver-eating habit was first observed in South Africa when scientists discovered the bodies of multiple broadnose seven-gill sharks with the organs removed.
The orca will even attack the biggest fish in the oceans, the whale shark, and is also quite happy to make whole smaller sharks a large part of their regular diet.
So, with that knowledge, are sharks scared of killer whales? Yes, they are.
Scientists tracking tagged sharks in South Africa and California have recorded the animals fleeing their favorite food-rich waters when orcas appear.
Such is the apparent fear that the sharks stay away from the area for several months at a time, presumably to make sure the killer whales are definitely gone.
So, a killer whale routinely eats smaller sharks and can take on and kill even the most traditionally scary big sharks.
It’s pretty easy to understand why the orca could be the marine animal sharks fear most.
Why are sharks afraid of dolphins? Well, when the pod is large enough, the dolphins can gang up on the shark and give them quite a fight.
If dolphins feel threatened, perhaps because youngsters or sick individuals are present or just because a potential enemy has appeared, the pod will work together to drive the shark away violently.
Along with strength in numbers, the dolphins are feisty warriors.
Dolphins will attack a threatening shark from all sides using their superior maneuverability, speed, and intelligence to outflank the lone predator.
Pod members will repeatedly jab their hard snouts into the shark’s belly and potentially cause fatal internal injuries.
Sharks typically leave an area if their senses detect the presence of a large pod of dolphins and appear to act cautiously, even around a single specimen.
What eats a lot of smaller sharks? Bigger sharks!
If you’re a small or young shark minding your own business, one of the things you’ll be most afraid of is larger sharks.
Not all sharks are apex predators, meaning some species are more likely to be prey than predators.
For example, the aggressive bull shark is known to hunt and devour significant numbers of smaller sharks. They’ll even eat lesser-sized members of their own species.
All this means you can expect small or medium sharks to flee if a larger, aggressive species appears.
In some areas of the world, sharks have other exotic predators to be scared of and avoid.
Crocodiles in Australia have also been seen eating sharks. One was even captured cheekily stealing a shark from an angler’s fishing line.
With wide, powerful jaws filled with teeth, you can see why a typical shark might fear these giant aquatic reptiles.
With lurid stories of shark attacks in the media, you could reasonably assume sharks aren’t scared of people.
But let’s be honest. Sharks also have good reasons to be scared of people.
In reality, sharks generally perceive humans as potential threats or predators and will go out of their way to avoid contact with us and our activities.
Scuba divers often wonder if sharks are scared of them, and generally, the answer is yes.
Divers make odd noises, have flashing cameras, and flap around in an unidentifiable way that could be potentially dangerous to the shark. This typically causes it to make a swift exit.
The exception is usually where shark feeding is allowed, and in this case, sharks overcome their natural wariness as they now associate the odd neoprene-clad creatures with a free meal.
Amongst the incredible array of senses that sharks use to hunt, the Ampullae of Lorenzini is among the most interesting.
These electroreceptors in the shark’s snout are generally used to detect the electrical signals given off by the muscle contractions of a potential meal.
Sharks can find fish and other food by locating the electrical pulses in low visibility or even when the prey is buried in the sand.
However, the sensitive organ can work against the shark in the presence of electrical devices that give off specific frequencies.
For example, shark-repellent units are designed to overload the shark by presenting just the right frequency to give it a headache and scare it away.
Loud and Sudden Noises
Although sharks can’t make a sound themselves, they are very sensitive to noise and pressure waves and can be scared by them.
The shark’s hearing and lateral line organs detect vibrations and pressure changes caused by sound and movement in the water over long distances and are one of its primary methods for hunting.
Loud and sudden noises can scare a shark that’s evolved to listen out for much quieter sounds, and they’ll usually react by moving away from the source of the noise.
However, sharks often get used to consistent noises, almost no matter how loud, especially if food is around.
Sharks have excellent eyesight that is as much as ten times more effective in low light than a human’s.
This means that sudden bright lights can irritate a shark and perhaps even scare it away.
However, it’s worth knowing that scuba divers are often told not to use camera flashes repeatedly on the same shark.
Although the flashes may scare the shark away, they can also cause an aggressive response as the shark seeks to stop the annoyingly bright lights.
What smell do sharks hate? The smell of killer whale poo!
Remember we said that sharks flee the area when orcas appear? Well, it’s thought that one of the ways that the shark knows the hunters are coming is by detecting the smell of their poop.
The shark’s famously excellent sense of smell can detect chemicals, including blood, over incredibly long distances.
So when they smell the scent of orca dung, or anything like it, they start swimming.
Do Sharks Hate Certain Colors?
No scientific evidence suggests that sharks hate or are repelled by any specific color.
While sharks have an excellent overall sense of vision, they’re believed to have generally low color sensitivity.
So why are snorkelers and scuba divers often advised to avoid colors like yellow or white?
It’s because sharks can effectively detect contrast, and patches of highly contrasting colors on a diver may potentially resemble attractive prey to the shark.
So, while it’s possible that some colors could attract sharks, there don’t appear to be any that they hate.
What Do Sharks Fear the Most?
Larger predators give sharks the most fear. These could be killer whales, bigger sharks, a significant pod of dolphins, or even an alligator.
Sharks also fear and avoid anything they don’t recognize or understand.
For this reason, sharks generally avoid contact with humans and their activities.
What Animal Can Kill a Shark?
Several sharks are apex predators and don’t have many natural predators.
Other marine animals that can kill sharks include other sharks, large fish such as marlin and swordfish, crocodiles, and alligators.
However, each year by a considerable order of magnitude, most sharks are killed by humans.
Human activity is driving many species of shark to extinction, not the natural behavior of other marine animals.
As we’ve looked at what sharks are afraid of, we’ve seen that the fearsome ocean predators are not necessarily as invulnerable as you might have thought.
Whether it’s other predators, including the formidable killer whale, or environmental changes like loud sounds or bright lights, there’s plenty that can scare a shark.
It’s worth considering that many experts believe that applying human characteristics like “fear” or “being scared” to animals isn’t an especially great idea.
It can lead to a belief that the animal is acting consciously and with active thought rather than just following the instincts that have kept its ancestors safe throughout evolution.
This can cause some people to believe, for example, that sharks aggressively attack people rather than understanding that accidental or inquisitive contact can occur.
Sharks, like all animals, are just trying to stay safe and get on with their lives.
Fortunately, their highly tuned senses let them react cautiously to unknown or threatening circumstances.
So, while a shark may not, in reality, be “scared” in our sense of the word, their instincts will cause them to flee unnerving situations naturally.
British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.