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Why an 8-Foot Great White Shark Leapt Onto a Fishing Boat

One expert believes the story of a great white shark leaping unprovoked onto a small fishing boat, if true, would be highly unusual.

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Terry Selwood told local reporters the shark thrashed about after it landed on the boat.


Seventy-three-year-old Terry Selwood was fishing off the north coast of New South Wales, Australia, when he was reportedly injured by a shark leaping out of the water and landing on his boat. That would be a rare occurrence, an expert says, and it's possible it was related to human activity.

Selwood described the day's conditions as relatively smooth and with no fish visibly near the surface of the water. Sharks are known to typically only breach the water when hunting prey near the surface, says George H. Burgess, the director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History, which contains more than 6,000 investigated shark attack incidents reported from around the world.

Selwood could not be reached for comment but he told the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) that he was using blue pilchard to fish for snapper at the bottom of the ocean when what he registered as a blur flew about four feet over the boat.

The shark's pectoral fin then hit his forearm and knocked him to his hands and knees.

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"There I was on all fours and he's looking at me and I'm looking at him and then he started to do the dance around and shake and I couldn't get out quick enough onto the gunnel," Selwood told the ABC.

The shark reportedly weighed 440 pounds and was almost 9 feet in length, a sizable neighbor for a boat measuring only 4 and a half feet across and 14 feet long.

Great whites are often depicted bearing their multitude of jagged teeth, but Selwood's injuries were primarily from the pectoral fin.

Unlike typical fish scales, sharks have scales that are more similar to teeth. Tiny, flat v-shaped scales called dermal denticles help sharks swim quickly and quietly. For anyone unlucky enough to brush against one, shark skin is also extremely abrasive. Selwood reported to the ABC that the skin on his forearm was torn off from the incident.

Selwood was eventually rescued by marine rescue volunteers. The shark, which had to be removed from Selwood's boat using a forklift, died during the incident and was taken to the Department of Primary Industries, which will perform a necropsy to determine its age, gender, and possibly cause of death.

Burgess says the reported four-foot jump over Selwood's boat is a rare incident. Most of the jumps seen on TV and in movies are staged by dragging a decoy seal from a fast-moving boat.

Therefore, Burgess believes there are three likely explanations for why a great white would end up on a small fishing boat: The shark, for a reason that can't easily be explained, leaped unprovoked from the water; the shark was following bait that was being reeled in by Selwood; or the shark had been hooked by a fishing line and was reeled into the boat.

Burgess believes an unprovoked breach serves as the least likely explanation, while the shark getting hooked by a fishing line makes the most logical sense.

Great white sharks are a protected species under Australian law. Targeted fishing by commercial or recreational fishers is illegal, but many are still caught as accidental bycatch or fished for the illegal trade.

Without a full necropsy, which would show the presence of hook marks, in addition to more information from Selwood, researchers can only guess at why the incident occurred.

Great whites are built for speed and belong to the lamnid group, which also includes mako and salmon sharks. When hunting for prey, this species is able to rapidly warm their muscles, resulting in a short burst of speed. This rapid burst combined with their powerful tails allows them to leap out of the water.

"One way or another the shark didn't jump out to grab the human," Burgess said of Selwood's incident.

The great white shark, which the International Union for the Conservation of Nature now lists as vulnerable, was once a critically endangered species. Commercial demand for their fins and teeth saw their numbers dwindle from the 1960s to the 1980s, during which time their numbers fell by 73 percent.

As their numbers rebound and their population recovers, the chance of encounters with humans increases.

Burgess noted that the shallow waters near seal colonies are where humans are most likely to encounter shark-inhabited waters, noting, "Our playground is their dining room."