A shark breaches during an attack on a seal in South African waters.
A shark breaches during an attack on a seal in South African waters. (Photo: Sergey Uryadnikov/Shutterstock)

For those who have been forever traumatized by the 1972 classic "Jaws," there is nothing more terrifying than the prospect of seeing a great white shark burst through open water and fly through the air.

On the other hand, for fans of Discovery's annual Shark Week, there is nothing more amazing than observing one of these breaches firsthand:


Shark breaching may be rare, but it represents just one of many fascinating behaviors exhibited by these cartilaginous marine creatures.

Scientists believe the world's most iconic breachers, whales and cetaceans, perform this surfacing behavior for a variety of reasons — from intimidating predators and prey to communicating with other cetaceans across great distances.

But great white sharks? Well, they breach because they're hungry!

A shark makes an astounding mid-air breach.
A shark makes an astounding mid-air breach. (Photo: Alessandro De Maddalena/Shutterstock)

One of the best places to observe this behavior is off the coast of South Africa's Seal Island in False Bay. As seals swim along the water's surface, sharks will come from below and launch themselves toward their unsuspecting prey at high speeds.

In a 2011 study in Marine Biology Research, scientists examined the physics behind these dramatic breaches to determine how fast sharks must travel to jump this high out of the water. To do so, they set out fake seal decoys to trick the sharks into making their breach attack.

The physics behind shark breaching
The physics behind shark breaching (Photo: Neil Hammerschlag/R. Aidan Martin/Marine Biology Research)

Alexis Madrigal explains in The Atlantic that if the sharks begin their swift ascent at a depth of 26-30 meters, it takes no more than 2.5 seconds for them to reach the surface and nab their prey.

"That's not much time for a seal to get out of the way," Madrigal writes, "which is one reason that shark attacks are successful from between 40 and 55 percent of the time, depending on the lighting conditions."

A breaching shark goes after a decoy seal.
A breaching shark goes after a decoy seal. (Photo: Fiona Ayerst/Shutterstock)

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.