The Most Infamous Shark Attacks in History | History Hit

The Most Infamous Shark Attacks in History

Harry Sherrin

18 Feb 2022
A cropped portion of 'Watson and the Shark' by John Singleton Copley. 1778 oil painting. It depicts the rescue of Brook Watson from a shark attack in Havana, Cuba.
Image Credit: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Fatal shark attacks are relatively rare: in the United States, it’s estimated that a fatal shark attack occurs once every two years, on average.

Nonetheless, for as long as humans have been wading, swimming and diving into sharks’ habitats, attacks have occurred. The earliest surviving record of a shark attack dates to 1749, and in the centuries since, humans have endured countless devastating incidents involving sharks.

In 1945, for example, the sinking of the American warship USS Indianapolis saw dozens, if not hundreds, of men mauled to death by sharks. And in 1984, the notoriously gruesome attack of mother Shirley Ann Durdin occurred in Australia.

Here are 6 of the most notorious shark attacks in history.

1. Brook Watson (1749)

The first documented shark attack in history occurred in 1749 when the British seaman Brook Watson went for a swim in the waters off Havana Harbor, Cuba. According to contemporary accounts, Watson’s dip was interrupted by a shark who violently attacked him, backed off and then circled around to strike again.

Watson was heaved out of the water by his crewmates, and though he lived to tell the tale, he lost a leg in the incident. Nonetheless, Watson returned to Britain, became a Member of Parliament and was eventually sworn in as London’s Lord Mayor.

2. Jersey Shore attacks (1916)

During a heatwave in 1916, the Jersey Shore witnessed a string of brutal shark attacks along its beaches. 25-year-old Charles Vansant was the first to be attacked that summer. He was out swimming when at least one shark – possibly more – attacked him, leaving the skin of his leg torn to shreds. He died from blood loss.

Less than a week later, 27-year-old Charles Bruder suffered a similar fate when his abdomen was slashed open by sharks.

On 12 July 1916, two further attacks took place. Lester Stillwell, aged 12, was dragged underwater by a shark. And when 24-year-old Stanley Fisher dived into the depths after him, the shark turned on Fisher. Both died.

3. USS Indianapolis (1945)

Survivors of Indianapolis on Guam in August 1945.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On 30 July 1945, during the final days of World War Two, the USS Indianapolis was sunk during an attack by a Japanese submarine. Some 300 sailors and marines perished as the ship sunk, but it’s thought around 900 men survived the initial sinking.

Adrift in the Philippine Sea for days, the survivors were forced to cling on to whatever rafts and debris they could find, battling dehydration, hypothermia and a slew of violent shark attacks.

Survivors recalled the “blood-curdling” screams of people being attacked by sharks. One survivor, Woody James, later said, “everything would be quiet and then you’d hear somebody scream and you knew a shark had got him.”

Just 316 people survived the sinking and subsequent days adrift. The disaster is thought to be the deadliest mass shark attack in human history.

David Boyle's latest book, Lost at Sea: The story of the USS Indianapolis, combines his interest in naval history with his interest in great management disasters, because the story of the disappearance of the Indianapolis combines the two.
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4. Rodney Fox (1953)

Rodney Fox was just 13 in 1953 when he suffered a devastating shark attack. Fox was out spear-fishing off the coast of Australia when a great white viciously pulled him underwater with its teeth.

Fox gouded at the shark’s eyes, and it backed off. But the great white circled back to him and attacked once more. Fox miraculously escaped, but the attack left him with shattered ribs, an exposed artery, gaping wounds across his stomach and a torn lung.

When the doctors were finished with him, Fox had been given 462 stitches and had a shark’s tooth removed from his flesh.

Rodney Fox displays his wounds after the attack in 1963.

Image Credit: Jeff Rotman / Alamy Stock Photo

5. Pacific coast attacks (1984)

America’s Pacific Coast witnessed a slew of vicious shark attacks over the course of a fortnight in 1984.

Omar Conger, an abalone diver in his late 20s, was the first victim. He had been in the water near a floating dive mat one day when his friend, Chris Rehm, spotted the unmistakable outline of a shark approaching Conger. Conger was dragged underwater by the shark – thought to have been a great white – and violently shaken and slashed.

Conger was eventually released, and Rehm managed to heave him onto the dive mat. By the time they reached the shore, however, Conger had died from blood loss.

6. Shirley Ann Durdin (1985)

The attack of Shirley Ann Durdin in 1985 is infamously recognised as one of the most gruesome shark attacks in history.

Durdin was 33 years old at the time and had been diving for scallops in Peake Bay, South Australia, when a great white shark attacked her. Described by some witnesses as being “20 feet long”, the shark tore Durdin in half as her husband and children watched on helplessly from the shore.

As the attack unfolded, Durdin’s husband allegedly shouted, “she’s gone, she’s gone,” from the coast.

It’s a crossover with Jaws and Open Water that we never expected, but a 3,000 year old corpse has thrown a surprising topic into the mix: shark bites. The body, found in the prehistoric Tsukumo hunter-gatherer burial site in Japan, unexpectedly presented evidence of traumatic injuries compatible with a shark bite, making it the earliest known victim of a shark attack. Following this discovery, Tristan spoke to Alyssa White from the University of Oxford. Alyssa was part of the team who studied body No. 24. She explains how they came across No. 24, the evidence which led them towards the cause of death, and the archaeological science and forensic techniques used to recreate the misfortune of this early shark victim.
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Harry Sherrin