Sharks are some of the most misunderstood animals on the planet. But this doesn’t make shark attacks any less horrific, as the most brutal instances from the last century show.
Statistically speaking, it is more common to be struck by lightning than it is attacked by a shark. Things we do every day – such a drive to work or take a walk through the park – are vastly more dangerous (statistically) than enjoying a beach or saltwater swim. Ocean diving, surfing and fishing come with risks that may increase the likelihood of a shark encounter or attack, however, as history shows.
And then there’s complete freak acts of nature, such as the hundreds of oceanic whitetip sharks descending onto the shipwrecked crew of the USS Indianapolis. But man can be far more cruel than nature, as the Pig Basket Atrocities illustrate.
All of the above factor into the top 10 most brutal shark attacks of the last century, of which we’ll begin with the most recent.
2023: Manual Lopez’s Head Bitten off by 19-foot Great White
Manuel Lopez was scuba diving off the western coast of Mexico near Benito Juárez in Sonora while collecting ax tripe mollusks. He had been warned by local officials prior of great white sightings in the area, but chose to continue with his dive. Lopez wanted the income from the mollusks, weighed his risks, and took the dive regardless.
On January 6 at 11:30 AM, a 19-foot great white shark attacked Lopez as local fishermen watched helplessly from the Tobari Bay shore. “He was diving when the animal attacked him, ripping off his head and biting both shoulders,” said local fisherman Jose Bernal, who witnessed the attack in real time.
2022: Sydney Peace Broken By Horrid Shark Attack
Prior to 2022, the last fatal Sydney shark encounter had taken place in 1963 (per Taronga Australian Shark Incident Database). Sydney takes great pride in beautiful, peaceful beaches as a result of this track record. Or they did, until that peace was ruptured by a massive shark.
Crowds of Sydney beachgoers and local fishermen watched as a shark appeared next to a divesuit-clad swimmer. Then, the water went completely red. A great thrashing broke out, in which the victim’s body began lashing about the water’s surface. As dozens watched, the swimmer was then dragged beneath, then disappeared.
“When he went down there were so many splashes. It was terrible, I am shaking. I keep vomiting, it’s very upsetting. Everyone was looking around, trying to work out what was going on. There were still people in the water. I’m never getting in again – no way,” one witness said to ABC after the attack.
Sydney police then located human remains in the water. “Unfortunately this person had suffered catastrophic injuries and there was nothing paramedics could do,” the case’s spokesperson said.
2004: Randall Fry’s Severed Head and Body Found after California Shark Attack
In 2004, Cliff Zimmerman and Randall Fry went diving for abalone off the California coast. But Fry’s life was tragically cut short as the dive turned into a shark attack.
Zimmerman turned from his friend to dive, then heard a “whooshing sound.” The water surrounding him moved with great force “as if a boat went by,” he told authorities. When he turned back around, Fry was gone – his body replaced by the massive fin of a shark passing through a cloud of blood.
Zimmerman was able to escape with his life. Only the severed head and body of Randall Fry remained. Both were found separately the following day.
1985: Shirely Ann Durdin Eaten Alive in Front of Husband & Children
Regarded by many as the most brutal eye-witness account of a shark attack, the tragic death of Shirley Ann Durdin took place in 1985 in Australia’s Peake Bay. There, her husband and their four children watched as the mother was set upon by a 20-foot great white shark.
As Shirley dove for scallops, her husband saw her body torn in half by the great white’s first strike. As the bay turned red, the family alerted rescue officials. By the time they would arrive, all that remained was Shirley’s severed torso floating off shore. Before rescue crews could enter the water, the great white surfaced again to consume what remained of Shirley.
“She’s gone, she’s gone,” Mr. Durdin exclaimed from the coast as he held their four children.
1984: The Pacific Coast Shark Attacks
In 1984, a string of four shark attacks unfolded within a two week period off California’s Pacific Coast. What would become known as the Pacific Coast Shark Attacks began with the tragic, gruesome death of Omar Conger.
28-years-old at the time, Conger was diving for abalone with his friend, Chris Rehm. As the two took a break on the surface, a great white shark shot up from the depths.
“It grabbed him from behind, and while shaking him violently, pulled him under the water,” Rehm told researchers. For an unknown reason, the great white would resurface and release Conger as Rehm watched in horror. Acting fast, he grabbed Conger and pulled him atop their dive mat. The pair were able to escape further shark attack, but Conger had bled to death before they could receive medical support.
1959: Giant Shark Attacks, Consumes Robert Pamperin Whole
In 1959, Robert Pamperin took a summer dive for sea snails off the coast of California’s La Jolla Cove. That June excursion would be his last.
Gerald Lehrer accompanied Pamperin, and as the two went about their dive, Lehrer heard screams for help. As he turned to find the source, he witnessed Pamperin’s entire disfigured body thrust upward out of the water as if it was being held there by a force beneath the surface. Leher swam to help, but there was nothing he could do. Before he reached Pamperin, the ocean turned red as his friend’s body was pulled beneath the surface in an instant.
Lehrer didn’t give up. He dove underneath the cloud of blood to retrieve his friend… Only to watch an enormous great white shark drag him to the depths of the ocean.
A single swim fin was found by the U.S. Coast Guard as they searched for Pamperin’s remains.
1953: Young Rodney Fox’s Unprecedented Survival
By the time Rodney Fox was 13-years-old, he was an Australian spear fishing champion. In an effort defend his title, Fox set back for the next championship in 1953. Still 13 at the time, Fox entered the ocean only to be met with a brutal shark attack.
A great white shark grabbed Fox by the torso, clamping down around his entire ribcage. Knowing what to do in this scenario, Fox began gouging the shark’s eyes. The great white released him, but circled back to continue the attack. As it did, Fox thrust his arm down into the shark’s massive maw to deter it. But when he pulled his arm free, the flesh was ripped clean off.
Still fighting, Fox entered a third altercation with the great white as it slung him across the ocean floor. Managing to break free again and surface, a nearby boat pulled the teen to safety. There, his entire ribcage was exposed, alongside his lungs and stomach. Fox’s unprecedented luck held his main arteries intact, however, and he would survive one of the most unbelievably brutal shark attacks in history after 462 stitches and the removal of a shark took from inside his body.
1952: 17-Year-Old Barry Wilson Eaten Alive at Lover’s Point
Remembered as a kind teen and talented tuba player, Barry Wilson was 17-years-old when he was attacked by a shark in Lover’s Point off the California coast.
As witnesses would describe of that day in 1952, Wilson was heard screaming in the water as a crowded beach looked on. Then, dozens watched in horror as the teen was jerked from side to side. Before he could be reached, the shark swam around to his front and surfaced to clamp down on Barry, then drag him beneath the waves.
But Barry didn’t give up, and neither did bystanders. As he resurfaced in screams of agony, five good samaritans fought to free him from the shark’s attack. Onlookers watched as a 30-minute-long battle for Barry’s survival ensued. Tragically, Barry would bleed to death before the swimmers could reach shore.
1945: Pacific Sharks Consume Hundreds of Sailors in USS Indianapolis Disaster
Perhaps the most famous of all shark attacks, the story of the USS Indianapolis is a harrowing one. The WWII American warship was crewed by over 900 men, all of which were subject to the horror of the Indianapolis’ demise. Two Japanese torpedoes struck the warship in July of 1945, which split it in two.
Left to the mercy of the Pacific Ocean, the stranded sailors watched as swaths of what are believed to have been whitetip sharks began circling them. “The sharks were around, hundreds of them… Everything would be quiet and then you’d hear somebody scream and you knew a shark had got him,” recalled Woody James, one of just 316 survivors of the USS Indianapolis.
A 3-day rescue effort would ensue. But by the time any survivors could be pulled from the water, at least 100, if not hundreds more, had been eaten alive by the sharks. Around 800 men survived the initial torpedo blast. 579 men were found dead afterwards in the water. Many were eaten beyond recognition. Miraculously, 320 survived.
1942: Pig Basket Atrocities Facilitated 200 Shark Victims
As horrid as the USS Indianapolis’ end was, a far worse shark attack took place the year prior. Unfathomable cruelties took place during WWII, but one of the worst on record came in Indonesia. There, 200 captured allied soldiers were subject to an unimaginable fate by Japanese forces in Java.
The commander in chief of those Japanese forces facilitated the cramming of all 200 allied soldiers into 3-foot-long bamboo baskets known as “pig baskets.” Once each soldier was contained in Surabaya, East Java, they were loaded onto Japanese military trucks and driven to the local train station to be loaded onto open-air cargo wagons. Hours of exposure to blistering heat and sun would follow.
But their horror was far from over. Those 200 men were transported to the Indonesian coast, then loaded onto boats, then sailed to shark-infested waters, and thrown overboard. Every allied soldier was eaten alive in what would become known as the “Pig Basket Atrocities.”
Later, the Japanese forces’ commander in chief would be tried. He was sentenced to 10 years in jail by Australian military court for his part in this atrocious war crime.