12 Fascinating Facts Most People Don't Know About Shark Feeding Frenzies

Shark hunts are often portrayed as vicious blood baths of extreme proportions. Luckily, that's pretty far from the truth. Shark food habits tend to revolve around calm, stealthy kills, prey mostly consisting of fish, and sharks eating alone. However, there is an occasional instance where all that tranquility goes out the window...and that's a shark feeding frenzy. When these frenzies happen, sharks go nuts, biting anything and everything they can get their teeth into. Even other sharks.

But even during a frenzy, shark violence still not everything you see in movies. Sharks don't go into a violent rage where they seek out people to kill. Although scientists are still uncovering more about sharks and why they go into frenzies, what they do know so far is just as fascinating as it is terrifying. 

So, whether you're still afraid to go back in the water, or you think sharks are the coolest animals out there, prepare to learn something. You'll have to decide if what you find out is scary, or just plain awesome. 

  • When In A Frenzy, The Sharks Will Appear To Lose Their Minds

    When In A Frenzy, The Sharks Will Appear To Lose Their Minds
    Photo: [.i.c.e.] / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    To the average observer, a feeding frenzy is a terrifying thing. Unlike with normal feeding habits, sharks do this in a group, with sudden and violent thrashing, and the presence of the other sharks only seem to make it more intense. Stealth is thrown to the wind, as is the usual slow circling form of hunting, making it seem like the sharks have just gone insane.

    As people have described it, the sharks look frantic, quickly moving from one part of the source of food to the other. Sharks will appear to converge, all at once, on a single point, twisting and biting, then jerk away before attacking again in the same fashion. This is done again and again until the food source is depleted. They will chase down movement, and anything that gets in the way may be bitten, including other sharks. 

  • Many Sharks Die During Feeding Frenzies

    Many Sharks Die During Feeding Frenzies
    Photo: jonrawlinson / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Unfortunately for the sharks, this feeding frenzy where they seem to throw caution to the wind can lead to serious issues for the group of sharks. While some species that go into frenzies appear to keep some sense of calm, even including a pecking order, that is not usually the case. Instead, the sharks swarm and converge all at once, and anything between them and the food is in potential danger. That includes other sharks. Sharks involved in a feeding frenzy have been known to disembowel each other, and even eat each other in their excitement over new blood spilled. If not, they can still be injured by brief bites or impacts of their fellow frenziers.

    If this kind of behavior is so potentially dangerous to sharks, then thy does it happen? Scientists aren't entirely certain on this, but there are several possible factors. 

  • Sharks May Keep Eating Even If They Are Dying

    Sharks May Keep Eating Even If They Are Dying
    Photo: Joi / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    The instinct for a shark to eat is so strong that it tends to override pretty much anything else. During a feeding frenzy, that instinct is all the stronger. Research has shown that sharks will continue to eat even after they are full, perhaps as a survival instinct going back eons. They will also accidentally eat things that are not food, even including license plates and cannonballs! During a feeding frenzy, however, concentrating only on eating can have deadly results, not just for the potential prey.

    When a feeding frenzy is happening, a shark will continue to eat even if it is injured. In fact, there are accounts of sharks being disemboweled, and continuing to try to eat and frenzy despite having a dire wound. Even if the wounded shark becomes a part of the prey during a feeding frenzy, they may continue trying to eat, even as their body is being consumed by others.

  • Sharks Are Excited By Signs Of Distress

    Sharks Are Excited By Signs Of Distress
    Photo: gaftels / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    A large number of prey in the water can also cause a disturbance in the water as the animal tries to get away. Living things give off chemicals into the water when they are panicking, and that attracts sharks. The sharks then feel vibrations and movement in the water that indicate extreme distress, and this lets them know that they have an easy meal incoming. The more the water is disturbed by panic, for example by a school of frantically swimming fish, the more excited they get. Add blood to that mixture, and the sharks will begin to attack with ferocity.

    On top of that, other sharks in the area swimming frantically and attacking things also disturb the water. This becomes a self-creating cycle, where the sharks all keep each other at a high level of excitement as they feed.

  • The More Blood, The Hungrier The Shark

    The More Blood, The Hungrier The Shark
    Photo: lwpkommunikacio / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Another large part of this has to do with the fact that sharks are hungry. All the time. They are attracted strongly to the scent of blood, and their sense of smell is superb. Because of this, once an attack begins, the sharks are spurred on by further blood filling the water because the very presence of it makes them hungry. This blood triggers a message in the shark's brain: eat, and eat now!

    This is also why shark frenzies often happen around tourist vessels and ships that offer swimming with sharks. In order to attract the sharks, they put chum in the water, which is high in blood. Because of this, sharks falsely sense that there is an overabundance of easy prey, and the collective excitement of a group of sharks rises to frenzied levels.

  • Normally, Sharks Use Stealth And Strategy Rather Than Brute Force

    Normally, Sharks Use Stealth And Strategy Rather Than Brute Force
    Photo: gaftels / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    When you think of a shark attack, you may think of scenes from Jaws, where the shark leaps out of the water or swims through the water with its fin in the air. Again, this is mostly a myth.

    When sharks hunt, which they usually do while solitary, they do their best to stay under their prey's radar. When toothed sharks go on the offensive, they do their best to silently and calmly come at their victims from below. Their dark color makes them blend in with the ocean and ocean floor beneath them, so their prey won't spot them. Then, they circle the prey, gaining in speed and violence of movements. Then, once they are close enough to be spotted, it's too late and they attack in a quick, darting motion.

    The very force of their body's impact is sometimes enough to stun or kill a fish, even if their teeth don't do the job.