What is the worst shark attack of all time?

USS Indianapolis after her final overhaul and repair of combat damage at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, on July 10, 1945. Photo credit: U.S. Navy

By Blaise Jones

Sharks. Few things fascinate us more than these great creatures of the deep, and it’s easy to understand why. Sharks are among the top predators of their ecosystems. Many grow larger than the biggest land predators, and their aquatic nature shrouds them in a watery veil of mystery. The thought of a predator the size of a car swimming gracefully beneath the surface without so much as a ripple to indicate its presence is enough to send even the bravest of souls breaking out into a cold sweat.

Last voyage of the USS Indianapolis.
Last voyage of the USS Indianapolis.

The air of dread and mystery that surrounds sharks is further bolstered by how most people hear about these animals, which is often through stories about shark attacks on the news.

In this modern day, animal attacks are rare. Humans have been on top of the food chain for so long that it’s inconceivable to many people that an animal may be able to prey upon us. Therefore, whenever such a thing happens, it strikes deep into the primal part of ourselves that still remembers what it was like to be hunted. While most shark attacks that occur are isolated incidents, there have been exceptions, including the worst attack in recorded history during and after the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.

On July 26, 1945, the USS Indianapolis completed a Top Secret mission: delivery of the world’s first atomic bomb to the island of Tinian in the South Pacific. The vessel was en route to the Philippines when it was struck at night by two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine, forcing its crew to abandon ship. Of the 1,196 crew on board at the time of the attack, 900 escaped the doomed ship before it sank. But the ordeal for the survivors would soon worsen with only 317 of them surviving the massive shark attack that lasted days.

Almost immediately, the survivors were set upon by sharks. The first night the sharks focused on the dead, temporarily ignoring the survivors. But the explosion of the ship, the blood in the water, and the desperate splashes of the surviving men attracted more sharks, until all the dead bodies had been devoured.

The sharks then turned to the wounded, tearing into the screaming men while their compatriots could only watch, powerless to help. Attempts at driving off the sharks only served to attract more of them and the sailors’ frenzied attempts to beat the sharks resulted in splashing the water like an aquatic dinner bell. The situation was so dire that there were reports of wounded men being pushed away from the bigger groups, in an attempt to rid themselves of what attracted the sharks most.

The men were only in the water for four days, but in that time they lost three-fourths of their numbers. Although many of the fatalities were due to dehydration and starvation, it is estimated that as many as 150 men were killed by the sharks. Therefore, the sinking of the USS Indianapolis is not only considered the worst maritime disaster in U.S. naval history, but also the worst shark attack of all time.