Great White Kayak Attacks: The Color Question

Seeing red: Doug Prather's colorful Hobie Adventure sports several holes and cracks after a great white shark attack in 2007. Photo by Doug Mar.

Seeing red: Doug Prather’s colorful Hobie Adventure sports several holes and cracks after a great white shark attack in 2007. Photo by Doug Mar.

By Paul Lebowitz

Yesterday we tallied up California great white shark attacks on kayaks (the waters off of Central and Northern California are dubbed the Red Triangle for good reason). The apex predators have tossed 17 kayakers into the drink since 1989. About a dozen of those are since 2007. Has kayak color played a role?

Before we go any farther, this note: the last suspected great white fatality of a kayaker took place way back in 1989. Every kayak angler hit in California waters has suffered only minor physical injuries. Most were entirely unhurt. Standard rescue skills got them through.

There have been 17 great white shark on kayak attacks off California's coast, beginning in 1989. The pace of incidents has picked up dramatically since 2007. Chart by Paul Lebowitz.

There have been 17 great white shark on kayak attacks off California’s coast, beginning in 1989. The pace of incidents has picked up dramatically since 2007. Chart by Paul Lebowitz.

Everyone knows yellow is supposedly yum-yum to sharks, right? The theory derives from a 1970s US Navy study that dressed dummies in yellow, red, black and blue lifejackets. Yellow won, err, lost.

Is your kayak color on the list? I wouldn't worry. Chart by Paul Lebowitz.

Is your kayak color on the list? I wouldn’t worry. Chart by Paul Lebowitz.

The Mythbusters famously tested shark color preference during a Shark Week special. Watch the video – it’s cool – but let’s cut right to the chase. They declared the preference for yellow plausible.

In 2011 researcher Nathan Scott Hart of the University of Western Australia shook up that thinking when he determined many if not most sharks are likely colorblind. The sharks in the earlier studies “were probably attracted to [yellow] because it would have had a very high contrast against the surrounding water.”

How does that stack up with the reality of the 17 kayaks great whites have chewed up in California waters? There are a couple yellow kayaks on the list, including Adam Coca’s Ocean Kayak with its home-applied zebra striping camouflage. Mel Camu’s Hobie was the other one.

RELATED: Great White Kayak Attacks: Paddle Vs. Pedal

How about dead red? Not so deadly. Every one of the three kayakers aboard red boats survived their attacks uninjured. The kayaks not so much. Dan Prather’s Hobie Adventure nearly submarined. Ken Kelton was left with a tooth stuck in his Dancer’s river hull. The nose of Duane Strossaker’s home-built custom sea kayak was entirely in a shark’s mouth.

Let’s pick up the pace. Two white kayaks are on the hit list, as well as three tan / olive boats. Blue is the surprise leader in the clubhouse with four attacks. I couldn’t locate photos or descriptions of three of the 17 kayaks.

Conclusion? Inconclusive. There’s no decisive edge. The colors are all over the spectrum. If you have an observation about color contrast, please share it in the comments.

Kayak anglers who choose yellow or other bright hull colors are going for improved visibility. In wide open waters, that’s probably a good risk calculation. Reminder: great white sharks haven’t killed a kayaker since 1989. It’s sadly much easier to find instances of boaters plowing over and killing paddlers. I’ll take orange. That’s a color that pops. Notice? It isn’t on the shark strike list – so far.

James Adamopolous and his 10-year-old son Gus were aboard this sit-in kayak when a boat driven by Steven Morse struck it. Photo: Courtesy of The Republican and Masslive.com.

James Adamopolous and his 10-year-old son Gus were aboard this sit-in kayak when a boat driven by Steven Morse struck it. Photo: Courtesy of The Republican and Masslive.com.

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Comments

fishinjay
October 10, 2014 1:31 pm

C’mon Paul, your first paragraph asks “has kayak color played a role?” Then you go through the numbers, which cannot even begin to address the question. I’d buy your “neutral numbers” statement it if this was an article that only counted the number of attacks, but you can’t lead off with that first question and then pretend the numbers have nothing to do with trying to answer it. You also make statements about the colors like red isn’t so deadly. Really, based on what? Not these numbers, they can’t tell you that. I’m sorry if you take offense to calling this junk statistics, but when you present the numbers and then make statements based on them beyond what they say (which is just a count), that’s what this is.

I’ve got great respect for you Paul, and I enjoy reading your articles. But in this case I think you’ve over-reached with the data.

Paul Lebowitz
October 9, 2014 11:01 am

Junk statistics? The information is neutral. While we can’t conclude that one kayak color is more likely to be hit than another based on the available information, we can safely say what colors HAVE been hit. Riding a blue boat is demonstrably no guarantee of shark avoidance. If that realization causes one kayak angler to improve his or her basic safety skills, this discussion has done some good.

fishinjay
October 9, 2014 7:54 am

Thanks for pulling this together Paul, and also for emphasizing that it’s far more important to be visible to other boaters than to worry about sharks. But…

These types of statistics are completely invalid without also knowing how many of each type/color of kayak are on the water during this time frame. For any type of statistical significance you’d have to be able to make comparisons that say “of an estimated X number of yellow kayak hours on the water during this time period, X number were attacked” and then make comparisons across the various colors. Looking at the data above there’s no way to know if there’s a preference for attack. There were two attacks on white kayaks, but maybe there were also a very small number of hours on the water for white kayaks. Is two attacks a lot, or less than average? There’s no way to know.

Granted, that data would be nearly impossible to acquire, but that doesn’t mean that we should throw around junk statistics simply because we lack the data to do it right.

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