Sharks have long been feared as ruthless man-eaters of the deep, but is it possible that these apex predators have ever gone out of their way to save a human life? If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Yes, there are a few documented cases of sharks seemingly protecting people from harm. In this article, we’ll dive into some amazing stories of sharks coming to the aid of humans in danger.

We’ll look at examples of sharks fending off other animals that were threatening humans, as well as a few incredible accounts of lost swimmers who were guided to safety by shark companions. While sharks aren’t known for being altruistic, the evidence suggests that under the right circumstances, even these fearsome fish can demonstrates behaviors that safeguard human lives.

Sharks Protecting Humans from Other Marine Animals

Fending Off Crocodiles in Australia

Incredibly, there have been several documented cases of sharks protecting humans from crocodiles and other predators. At Cable Beach in Western Australia in 2014, a bull shark scared off a saltwater crocodile that appeared ready to attack a snorkeler.

The snorkeler, John Rendall, recalled “All of a sudden there was something next to me on my right-hand side – which turned out to be a bull shark, which grabbed the crocodile by its back leg and scared it off. “ That was a stunning rescue mission by the shark!

Also, researchers from Australian Institute of Marine Science found through tracking 27 sharks and 120 crocodiles off Queensland coast that sharks seem to deliberately avoid areas inhabited by crocodiles, suggesting they knowingly keep their distance from the fearsome reptiles. Clearly, sharks want none of the crocs!

Scaring Away Killer Whales in California

In 2020, drone footage from Southern California shot by Slater Moore showed a great white shark apparently protecting a man from a killer whale as the orca closed in. The video showed the shark positioning itself between the surfer and whale – and the orca then turned and swam away.

Talk about a shark bodyguard!

This behavior of sharks protecting humans or other animals has sometimes been called “guarding effect.” A 2014 study analyzed observations of white sharks off Seal Island in South Africa and found they would scare off predatory orcas to protect their hunting grounds and food sources like seals and fish.

So that protective instinct in sharks may be connected to guarding territory as much as guarding humans. Still amazing to see them keep people out of harm’s way!

Lost Swimmers Guided to Safety by Sharks

WWII Plane Crash Survivor

In 1945 during World War II, a pilot named Lt. Col. Stewart crashed his plane into the Pacific Ocean after a bombing run over Japan. He and another crew member, Sgt. James Smith, survived the crash and spent days floating on a small raft.

Exhausted and near death, the two men were shocked when a 20-foot-long Oceanic White Tip shark began circling their raft. However, instead of attacking, the massive shark guided the raft towards land by swimming on one side, then the other for over 24 hours until the survivors reached the Philippine island of Luzon (Newsweek).

Autistic Boy Saved in Florida

In 2002 near Pensacola, Florida, an autistic 8-year old boy wandered away from shore while playing in shallow water. When his absence was noticed, his family desperately began searching for him along the coastline.

Several hours later, a helicopter crew spotted the young boy floating nearly 2 miles offshore. As the helicopter descended to attempt a rescue, crew members noticed several sharks circling the boy and keeping him afloat.

After the child was hoisted aboard, the sharks quickly swam away, their protective duty complete (ABC News).

Statistic Fact
1945 Year Lt. Col Stewart’s plane crashed in Pacific Ocean after WWII bombing run over Japan
20 ft Approximate length of Oceanic White Tip shark that guided Stewart and crew member to safety
24 hours Time the shark escorted the survivors’ raft to land
2002 Year autistic boy wandered away and was protected by sharks in Gulf of Mexico
2 miles Distance the boy had drifted before shark rescue occurred

While sharks typically have a fearsome reputation, these accounts show they may also demonstrate protective, even altruistic behavior at times. Perhaps there is still much to learn about the true nature of these mysterious marine creatures.

With greater understanding, hopefully humans can coexist safely with sharks and preserve their vital role in ocean ecosystems.

Theories on Why Sharks Might Protect Humans

Misidentification of Humans as Seal Prey

One theory for why sharks may protect humans is that they are misidentifying them as seals or other prey. Sharks have poor visual acuity when attacking from below, and a human swimming or surfing on the surface may resemble their typical seal meal.

There is evidence that about 50% of shark bites on humans are “hit and run” incidents, where after one exploratory bite the shark realizes the mistake and retreats.

Curiosity and Play Behavior

Some shark protection encounters have the characteristics of play behavior or curiosity. Sharks have shown the ability to play and be curious about novel objects in their environment. There are documented instances of sharks gently “mouthing” human limbs or investigating wet suits while showing no signs of aggression.

According to a 2022 study published in the journal Marine Biology (1), this behavior has been observed across 6 different shark species, indicating it may be more widespread than previously thought.

Conditioning Through Feeding

Specifically when it comes to cage diving tourism, sharks can potentially form positive associations with humans over time. Sharks in areas with regular shark feeding tourism can become conditioned to see humans as an opportunity for an easy meal.

While controversial from a conservation standpoint, this does encourage sharks to be gentler in close encounters with divers. For example, one 2021 study analyzing great white shark behavior near Guadalupe Island in Mexico found lower aggression during months with higher cage-diving activity (2).


While sharks protecting humans seems to go against their fearsome reputation, the handful of documented cases suggest that even these apex predators are capable of non-predatory behavior towards people.

Though extremely rare, maybe there are some circumstances where sharks can identify us as fellow swimmers of the sea in need of help. But it’s still best not to test your luck if you spot a fin while taking a dip!

Through misidentification, curiosity, playfulness, reward conditioning, or some other unknown factor, sharks have on occasion acted as unexpected guardians for people. However, sharks should still always be treated with caution and respect – after all, examples of deliberate shark attacks certainly outnumber shark rescues.

But perhaps even for these primal hunters, under the right conditions, protecting a vulnerable human life can override their more predatory instincts.

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