Q: I bought a former scuba kayak and have retrofitted it into a fishing kayak. I transformed the underside into what appears to be the underside of a killer whale (orca) because I figure if I’m going to be spending lots of idle time fishing, I don’t want — in any way — to attract the attention of great whites.

Carrie Wilson

Carrie Wilson

The underside was totally white, but now the outer edges are black with a small black patch at the rear so that it looks just like the characteristic underside of a killer whale. I also rigged up my two fins to drag out the back of the kayak in case I ever find myself in dire need.

My reasoning here is killer whales and great whites are natural enemies, so if I paint the bottom like an orca, any great white within several hundred yards will take off. As I thought more about this aspect, though, I now wonder if while I’m sitting in this thing for long periods of time, will I be more apt to be a target rather than a threat? Has there been any evidence of great whites attacking dead killer whales just like they attack dead regular whales? I’m wondering now if I am a soon to be “dead duck” instead of a brilliant kayak engineer! Please advise. (Mark)

A: Well, I can safely say I’ve never gotten a letter and questions quite like yours, but it’s a refreshing change from the many regulation questions. I applaud your kayak engineering prowess. However, I’m not sure painting the hull of your kayak to resemble the underbelly of an orca, along with attaching fins that mysteriously drag out the back, will spook a white shark or prevent an attack.

Most attacks on humans most likely have been the result of mistaken identity when they resembled seals or sea lions (pinnipeds), the white shark’s prey preference. The sharks queue in on outlines or shadows of objects at the surface that they think resemble a prey item, and this is often in murky water. White sharks are ambush predators and usually attack unsuspecting prey with a charge from below. Orcas are white sharks’ only predators, but whether your kayak hull painting actually will resemble an orca to a white shark spying it through murky water, and then alter its behavior, will be your experiment.

Keep in mind that sharks are curious animals without sharp eyesight, but they do have an exceptional sense of smell for detecting attractive odors (blood and dead things), even in small quantities. They also have acute senses for detecting through the water even the slightest movements they associate with prey or distressed creatures.

Given this, the presence of an orca-appearing structure floating motionless at the surface may not increase the likelihood that a shark will mistake your kayak for a dead orca or an easy meal. However, if your fishing is successful and you hang lots of wiggling dying fish on a stringer over the side or put a bunch of fish blood in the water, well, then your kayak just might appear more intriguing to them.

Although it happens, attacks on kayaks are very rare, and if all white sharks knew how lousy kayaks tasted, they probably wouldn’t ever bother them.

Once a white shark has bitten its prey and found it unappealing (e.g. skinny humans, kayaks or other nonmarine mammal items), they will often move on in search for something with fatty blubber that’s more caloric. Unfortunately, it takes only one inquisitive “sample bite” from an inexperienced or curious white shark to do great harm to most people.

Finally, you must realize that white sharks inhabit coastal waters year-round and may be swimming around you all the time, even if you don’t see them. However, I would think the less your kayak looks like a seal or sea lion (thus, remove those trailing swim fins), the lower your chances are of a negative white shark encounter via mistaken identity. Even if you make your kayak look like something completely outlandish that you think would frighten any white shark off completely, there are no guarantees of anything unless you just stay out of the ocean. And you don’t want to do that now, do you?

Click here for more information on white sharks.

— Carrie Wilson is a marine biologist with the California Department of Fish & Game. She can be reached at cwilson@dfg.ca.gov.