The sandbar shark is the most common shark species that visits the Chesapeake Bay, but at least 12 species can be found. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

During hot summer months people in the Chesapeake Bay region spend more and more time on and in the water, which often leads to one of the biggest questions and concerns about safety in the Bay: Are there sharks in the Bay?

The answer to the question is, yes. At least 12 species of sharks are known to visit parts of the Bay, and can be found here between summer and fall. However, these sharks rarely pose a threat to human safety.

There are no recorded shark attacks in the Chesapeake Bay according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and the International Shark Attack File notes only a few attacks occurring in Maryland and Virginia's coastal waters.

As with any wild creature, you’ll want to be cautious. Sharks may be cool to look at, but the best option for their safety and yours is to leave them alone.

The Chesapeake’s most common sharks

Sandbar shark

The most common shark found in the Chesapeake is the sandbar shark. The sandbar shark can be found in the Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts all the way to southern Brazil, and is a seasonal visitor to the Chesapeake Bay in the summer and fall.Juvenile sandbar sharks are common to abundant in the Bay during this time of year. In fact, the Bay is one of the most important nursery areas on the East Coast for young sandbar sharks.

But don’t worry about a sandbar shark attack–the spcies typically preys on bottom fishes, other sharks, rays and invertebrates. The Bay’s blue crabs are a particular favorite of the sandbar shark.

Bull shark

Bull sharks swimming

(Photo courtesy of Rafael de la Parra/iNaturalist CC BY-NC)

The bull shark is a close cousin of the sandbar shark, but is more aggressive. It's an occasional summer visitor to the Chesapeake Bay, reaching as far north as the Patuxent River. It feeds on bony fishes, rays and other sharks (particularly juvenile sandbar sharks), in addition to crustaceans, turtles and mammals.

Many shark attacks have been attributed to bull sharks, since their behavioral habits bring them in close proximity to humans. While bull sharks are considered to be one of the three most dangerous shark species, they are not a significant threat to human safety in the Chesapeake Bay.

Sand tiger shark

Sand tiger shark swimming

(Photo courtesy of Michal/iNaturalist CC BY-NC)

The sand tiger shark is a common visitor to the lower Bay during the summer and fall. It is most often found along the Bay’s bottom and is active at night. It feeds mostly on small fishes, squids and other sharks, such as the sandbar shark. The sand tiger looks dangerous because of its size (up to 10 feet long!) and jagged teeth, but there have been no recorded attacks on humans.

Smooth dogfish

Smooth dogfish in submerged aquatic vegetation

(Photo courtesy of pcolarus/iNaturalist CC BY-NC)

The smooth dogfish is a common to abundant visitor to the Chesapeake Bay in the summer and fall. The smooth dogfish is only found in coastal areas of the western Atlantic, from Massachusetts to Venezuela and then from southern Brazil to Argentina. It is especially common in the lower Bay, as far north as the Patuxent River, in waters less than 60 feet deep. It is an active swimmer and feeds on large crustaceans and crabs at the Bay’s bottom. Smooth dogfish usually travel in schools or packs.

Spiny dogfish

Spiny dogfish showing its spots

(Photo courtesy of NOAA)

The spiny dogfish is commonly found in the lower Bay south of the Potomac River in late fall through early spring. Like the smooth dogfish, it often travels in schools, but it is a much slower swimmer and inhabits deeper waters. The spiny dogfish is found in temperate coastal waters of all seas and oceans in the world.

Occasional to infrequent visitors to the Bay

Basking shark

Basking shark with mouth gaping wide

The basking shark is more commonly seen along ocean coastlines. (Photo courtesy of Green Fire Productions/iNaturalist CC BY)

The basking shark is an early spring visitor to the Chesapeake Bay. The shark is often observed swimming and feeding at the water’s surface and will occasionally venture from its normal coastal habitat into large bays like the Chesapeake. Most of these sightings are reported as being of one to three individuals, although there have been reports of hundreds of them at once.

Bonnethead

The bonnethead is an occasional summer visitor to the lower Chesapeake Bay. It mostly inhabits waters that are between 30-80 feet deep. Bonnetheads are more common in southern waters and often seen in groups of dozens, but are less common in the Chesapeake.

Smooth hammerhead

The smooth hammerhead is an uncommon visitor to the lower Bay during the summer or fall visitor. It's been found as far north as the mouth of the Choptank River.

Atlantic angel shark

The Atlantic angel shark is another summer and fall visitor in the lower Bay that is very rarely found farther north in the Bay. As an ambush predators, they feed primarily on bottom dwelling crabs, shrimps, squids and fishes.

Infrequent and rare visitors

Scalloped hammerhead

Scalloped hammerhead swimming in open blue ocean

The scalloped hammerhead is an endangered species with only a few records from the mouth of the Chesapeake. (Photo courtesy of Albert Kang/iNaturalist CC BY-NC)

The scalloped hammerhead rarely enters the Bay at all, but there have been a few records of it at the mouth. Spotting a hammerhead would be quite an experience; they are not only a larger shark but are also endangered.

Atlantic sharpnose

The Atlantic sharpnose is a rare visitor to the lower Bay only. As a smaller shark (only 4 feet on average) it's often caught by anglers fishing along the coast, from Virginia to Texas.

Dusky shark

The dusky shark used to be fairly common in the Chesapeake, but is now just an infrequent visitor to the lower Bay in the summer months. Their range includes the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.

How climate change impacts shark range

The water in the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers are warmer than in past decades, making the area less suitable for some species and more suitable for others. Sharks sightings may becomes more common as temperatures continue to rise. This could impact the Bay's ecosystem since sharks feed on species like blue crabs and other fish.

Comments

Jean

Have any sharks been seen or caught around Turkey Point Lighthouse, and surrounding areas on the bay?

Brandon F.

I was walking the nets at Sunset Beach rescuing horseshoe crabs when I came up on two 3-4’ sandbar sharks that were trapped and killed.

The nets don’t seem to have any benefit other than to trap and kill animals, quite a shame.

Meade Skelton

Interesting article hampered by political agenda with false "climate change " narrative.

Will

So I’ve fished the mob jack bay which is on the lower part of the Chesapeake, we’ve caught bany sandbars and bulls from early spring to late fall. They are thete year round or for a long ass time. So yea there are sharks every where even up your rivers cause the mob jack is brackish and the sandbar sharks can get damn big

Andrea

There have been bull sharks found in the Potomac River a few times. Just saying.

Allison Haley

Hello! Was fishing on the boat last night near the second tunnel of the Chesapeake Bay bridge- went out of Lesner. We caught 4 baby sharks! It was amazing. All were released with no injuries to them (or us!) one of the sharks had pink coloring- any ideas on species? I have pictures but I’m having trouble sharing them in this comment box. Very cool experience- I had no idea how plentiful the population was...

Nathaniel Compton

It cut me off ..when I returned home I turned on the news and a freind I know caught two rhe sane day his nets.. one weighed 1200 the other could not be pulled in and estimatee at 3000 . He was just south o rudrer just proves sharks go where the food is best

Andrew Schoener

I am 82 years old and have been fishing hard all my life. The younger fishermen of today have a hard time believing we use to have quite a few sharks around the Bay Bridge. While fishing for large stripers/rock fish at night with ells at the bay Bridge, Every now and then we would hook a large rock fish and a shark would take most of the fish up to the head. Every now and then someone would bring in a large bleeding rock fish head. This happened enough that My fishing friends and I know for sure we have sharks in the bay. Probably bull sharks that hit our rock fish. What do you think about this?

Chesapeake Program

Hey Brian, most sharks stay further south in the saltier parts of the bay. However, bull sharks can tolerate freshwater and have been observed north of the Bay Bridge all the way up to the mouth of the Susquehanna River. It’s likely that they are in Crab Alley occasionally, but in low numbers. Based on historical sightings, they are most likely to be in the upper Bay from July to September.

Chesapeake Program

Hi Christie! If you have a picture to send us, we could try identifying the shark you caught. Otherwise, the most common sharks are the ones mentioned in the blog. Here's some additional information about sharks in the Bay:

Bull shark: https://www.chesapeakebay.net/S=0/fieldguide/critter/bull_shark
Sandbar shark: https://www.chesapeakebay.net/discover/field-guide/entry/sandbar_shark
Sand tiger shark: https://www.aqua.org/Experience/Animal-Index/sand-tiger-shark
Smooth Dogfish: https://www.vims.edu/research/departments/fisheries/programs/sharks/species/smooth_dogfish.php
Spiny dogfish: https://www.chesapeakebay.net/discover/field-guide/entry/spiny_dogfish

Christie

I caught a shark last spring, it was a younger one and I've wondered what type of shark I pulled in. Is there a way to tell what type of shark I caught?

Jdawg

Thanks y’all, my friend said no shark me in the bay but def is!

Chesapeake Program

Without a picture, I can only guess at what he may have come in contact with. Since you commented on our shark blog, I’m sure you are aware that there are shark species that hang out in the Bay, although they are rarely spotted, so that could be an option. Sandbar and bull sharks would be the most common species to have come into contact with.

There are some fish that have been known to attack humans when provoked. One is the oyster toadfish and the other is the bluefish.

John Svitil

Years ago a waterman caught a 1,000 bull shark in his nets not far from Poole's Island. That same year a guy from Highlandtown caught a shark weighing around 750 lbs right around the bay bridge.

Jennifer

I have a question about a bite my son got while wading in the Bay at camp on the Chesapeake Bay near Still Pond, MD in early July 2019.

He was wading through the bay in water up to his hips and he was bitten by something on the back of his calf. It was pretty painful, he had to shake off whatever bit him and when he got out of the water - the bite had punctured his skin and he was bleeding. The bite was curved and about 2.5 inches wide but the top jaw was about 3-4 inches from the bottom jaw.

He did not see what bit him - does anyone have any ideas?

Brian Leben

While sharks can be a semi-legitimate danger (and yes I readily admit for some a legitimate one), I’ve spent most of my life either on the water (fishing) or under it as a diver. I’ve dove with many sharks. Honestly, even in the case of. Bull shark, so long as you don’t do anything to threaten the shark, you have more to fear from a large flathead or blue catfish than any shark found in the Bay. Catfish tend to be more aggressive, more likely to bite down on something without visually inspecting it first, and are a far greater danger to humans worldwide.

Peter Y

Caught what I believe to be 2 Sandbar Sharks while Fishing on the Isle of Wight Pier on the weekend of July 15. One was approx 2 1/2 feet and the other approx 3 1/2 feet. They were both released unharmed.

Nancy Craft

While swimming off the end of my family's pier in 1969, with a mask and snorkel, I saw a large bull shark. I quickly climbed up the ladder of the pier to safety! Our home was on the Chester River, a few miles upriver from Chestertown, MD. Even then, it was well-known to the locals that there are bull sharks in the Chester River!

Chesapeake Program

The natural habitat of the great white shark is not typically the Chesapeake Bay, but they have been known to enter the mouth of the Bay near Virginia Beach. Check out this article from last summer when two were spotted just days apart: https://www.chesapeakebaymagazine.com/baybulletin/2018/6/17/seeing-double-back-to-back-great-white-shark-encounters-off-virginia-beach.

Ivan

Saw a swimming Lemon Shark near the coast. The shark soon vanished, and when I went to the place where it was, I saw a lot of broken shark teeth and bones. The shark was dead with a large bite in it's back, the size of a Great White Shark bite. Unsolved Mystery: Do Great Whites live in the Chesapeake?

Billy

Caught a very small hammerhead - maybe 18 inches long - off Saxis in 76. Threw it back.... but it was a hammerhead.

Denise McNeil

There is one reported shark attach in 1944 at North Beach. http://sharkattackfile.net/spreadsheets/pdf_directory/1944.09.03-PhilipStanton.pdf

ACTIVITY: Swimming
CASE: GSAF 1944.09.03
DATE: Sunday September 3, 1944
LOCATION: The incident took place at North
Beach, Calvert County, Maryland, USA.
38.70722 N, -76.531W
NAME: Philip Stanton
DESCRIPTION: He was a 13-year-old male
from Washington, D.C.
BACKGROUND
MOON PHASE: Full Moon, September 2, 1944
NARRATIVE: No details. Philip, his older
brother Donald, their mother and grandmother
had gone to the beach on Saturday night for a
brief vacation. Mrs. Stanton told police that all
people had been ordered off the beach
following the accident.
INJURY: The boy sustained a severe
laceration of the right leg below the knee.
TREATMENT: The boy was brought to Sibley
Hospital by his mother, Mrs. Dorothy Stanton.
SPECIES: Not identified
SOURCE: Washington Post, September 4,
1944, page 1
© Global Shark Accident File, 1994. All rights reserved. This report may not be abridged or
reproduced in any form without written permission of the Global Shark Accident File.

Michael Conway

The one this morning looks like a thresher ?? Off Hoopers Island

Todd

Ken. Gez how big was their crab pot. You mean outside tangled not it made its way into the pot like ells and smaller fish..

Seth L.

I Grew up on the eastern shore VA. And have caught a ton of sharks in the Chesapeake bay. Largest I ever caught in the bay was a 7ft bull shark.

Amanda

Caz l. Salvador....I would not be surprised if there are bull sharks where you are swimming. They swim up river to have their young and they like shallow water. 10 feet is plenty deep for them! Be cautious and keep an eye out when swimming.

Caz Salvador

I swim 2 miles up the Occohannock creek (the eastern side of the Chesapeake). I hope to heavens no bull sharks would ever be there (max depth maybe 10 feet). Any reassurance appreciated.

Richard May

I remember when I was a kid that they caught a shark in the north east river

Ken Leary

I have lived most of my life on the water in Middle River in Baltimore County. The Gunpowder river separates Baltimore and Harford counties. In August of 1987, two guys I went to grade school with, were checking their crap pots off Maxwell point. they discovered a nine to ten foot Bull Shark trapped in one of their crab pots. Bull sharks come a lot farther north than the Patuxent river

Annette Couch-Jareb

Spotted: three dolphins at Tanyard Landing on the Poropotank River - August 2016. Though I haven't done so in many years, I used to swim, ski, paddle, on this small river all the time. Recently, my paddling has been limited to the Mattaponi River, but I'll think twice about venturing out into deep water with my little kayak.

Chris

I was fishing in the bay about five years ago just cruising the shipping channel. We noticed the water voiling with taylor blurs so we dropped some big cuts of cut bate. It turned out to be a school of black tip sharks. I have heard of people catching them a lot so i dont know why they are listed as rare.

Janice Veloudas

There has been a bull shark frequenting the waters off of Cabin Point, VA this summer (2017).

Pam

Bull shark..2..spotted between Davis pub and mcnasby last night. Startled me in the kayak.

Laila

omg I always go in the bay, swimming,tubing,kayaking,I do everything, and one day last week I got on the tube but I had a really bad feeling, that I shouldn't tube bc there was a shark, but I thought there wasn't any sharks but I still didn't tube, but now that I read this, now I'm thinking that there actually was a shark.

Joe

Strange how they haven't mentioned Great Whites when they have been spotted in the bay. Rare, but they have been.

Christie Vc

My family and I spent last weekend on a creek in Heathsville, VA. After 4 days playing in the water, we saw two sharks in the water (believe they were tiger sharks). Very frightening. They were only about three feet past the end of a 40' pier. My 8 & 11 year old spent a lot of time in that water paddle boarding and kayaking. Too close for comfort ! I was surprised because the Potomac River is not known for sharks but this spot was right where the Chesapeske meets the Potomac. I believe it was Hull Creek.

Michael

I THINKS its cool what your doing.Im going to be an shark hunter.from MICHAEL P.S YOUR COOL ALL OF YOU!!!!!

Elizabeth Zabel

My husband and I were sitting on our pier at Waterview in Nanticoke, Maryland on Saturday (7/19/2014) evening to watch the sunset. We saw a dorsal finned fish come to the surface a couple of feet from our pier. The fin appeared to be about 6"- 8" tall above the water. The fish then disappeared under water. Only moments later we spotted two of them side by side on the side of the pier. We have never seen or heard of any spottings of sharks in that area. Our location is close to the mouth of the bay. Very interesting!

Michael King

People should stay out of the water when there has been a shark sighting. The ocean belongs to the sharks; we should not be swimming in their ocean if we want to be safe. Just a thought.

Sean K.

I was fishing on the Cape this summer and I saw what had to be a ten foot 300+ pound shark, probably a big sand tiger or bull, rise and show its dorsal fin and back. The exposed part of the back alone was around 4 feet long. And I know it wasn't a dolphin because of the shape of the dorsal and color of the skin.

Hannah Parks

Hi I'm 10 years old and I'm very interested in sharks this information was very helpful so I want to say thank you and I hope I may learn more about sharks

Black Adder

Sharks are making a comeback, as seine and long lined commercial fishing is more closely regulated. I,too, have seen all of these species, especially within ten miles of the beach. To my knowledge, there is no longer a Va.Beach Sharkers Club, but if someone could find records of THAT group from the 60's and 70's, you would be amazed at the local catches.
BA

David Galland

I grew up in Poquoson, Va.from 1976-1984 and had the honor of seeing most of the listed species of sharks in your article. My grandfather Crosby C. Forrest had a restaurant at the end of Messick Rd. Not only was he a restaurant owner, he was also a true blooded waterman thru and thru. He is gone (R.I.P. Cros) and so is his restaurant, but some of the best times of my life were spent out on the water with him in the James River/Chesapeake. Bay fishing, drinking, and observing the various wonders the ocean has to offer. I will tell you though, we had seen sandtigers 12-14 feet long no further than 12 miles from shore. Let me tell you, it's quite the feeling to see a tigershark 14 ft.long when you're along side it in a 20 ft.boat!

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