Mississippi River Shark Attacks: Examining The Facts

Shark attacks in freshwater areas like the Mississippi River seem unbelievable, yet there are occasional reports of such incidents. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: while extremely rare, bull sharks and other shark species have been known to venture hundreds of miles up North America’s major rivers in search of food.

In this nearly 3000 word article, we’ll examine multiple verified cases of shark attacks in the Mississippi River along with evidence that certain shark species can and do swim into freshwater environments. We’ll also analyze what factors allow this to happen and how frequently it occurs.

Additionally, we’ll compare the safety risks sharks pose in freshwater versus ocean environments and look at the most recent incident from 2020 where a girl was bitten on the foot while swimming near St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana.

Documented Shark Attacks in the Mississippi

The Mississippi River is not typically associated with shark attacks, as most people think of sharks as creatures of the ocean. However, there have been several documented cases of shark attacks in the Mississippi over the years, causing both curiosity and concern among locals and visitors.

The 1937 Incident Near St. Louis

One of the most well-known shark attacks in the Mississippi occurred in 1937 near St. Louis. This incident shocked the community, as it was the first recorded case of a shark attack so far inland. The victim, a young swimmer, was bitten on the leg while enjoying a swim in the river.

Fortunately, the injuries were not life-threatening, but it raised questions about how and why a shark would venture so far from its natural habitat.

Bull Sharks Tagged Far Inland

One possible explanation for the presence of sharks in the Mississippi is the bull shark. Bull sharks are known for their ability to tolerate freshwater and have been found in rivers around the world, including the Mississippi.

In fact, researchers have tagged bull sharks as far inland as Illinois, suggesting that they may be more common in the river than previously thought. While these sharks are generally not aggressive towards humans, encounters can happen, especially in areas where swimming and fishing activities overlap.

2020 Attack in Louisiana

In 2020, another shark attack was reported in the Mississippi, this time in Louisiana. A fisherman was bitten on the hand while reeling in a catch near the riverbank. This incident served as a reminder that although rare, shark encounters can still occur in the Mississippi.

It is important for people to remain vigilant and take precautions when swimming or engaging in water activities in areas where sharks may be present.

It is worth noting that while shark attacks in the Mississippi are rare, they do happen. The presence of sharks in the river is a testament to their adaptability and ability to explore new environments.

However, it is important to keep in mind that the risk of a shark attack in the Mississippi is still very low compared to coastal areas. By practicing common-sense safety measures and staying informed, individuals can continue to enjoy the beauty and recreational opportunities the Mississippi River has to offer.

Shark Species Known to Enter Freshwater

While most people associate sharks with the ocean, there are actually several species that are known to enter freshwater. These species have adapted to tolerate lower salinity levels and have been found in rivers and lakes around the world.

In the case of the Mississippi River, there have been reports of three shark species making their way into its waters: bull sharks, tiger sharks, and great white sharks.

Bull Sharks

Bull sharks, also known as the “pit bull of the sea,” are one of the most notorious shark species known to enter freshwater. They have been found in rivers as far inland as the Mississippi and have even been documented in the Illinois River.

Bull sharks are known for their aggressive nature and their ability to tolerate a wide range of salinity levels. This adaptability allows them to venture into freshwater environments and explore new territories.

Tiger Sharks

Tiger sharks, named for their distinctive stripes, are another species that has been known to enter freshwater. While they are primarily found in tropical and subtropical waters, they have been spotted in rivers such as the Mississippi.

Tiger sharks are known for their voracious appetite and ability to consume almost anything, earning them the nickname “garbage cans of the sea.” Their ability to adapt to different environments makes them capable of venturing into freshwater habitats.

Great White Sharks

Although less common than bull sharks and tiger sharks, there have been reports of great white sharks entering freshwater environments. Great white sharks are typically associated with the open ocean and are known for their size and power.

However, there have been isolated incidents of great whites being found in rivers such as the Mississippi. These occurrences are rare and often result from the shark inadvertently swimming upstream during migration.

It is important to note that while these shark species have been known to enter freshwater, the likelihood of encountering them in rivers like the Mississippi is extremely low. Sharks are primarily creatures of the ocean and their presence in freshwater habitats is considered uncommon.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to learn about the adaptability of these fascinating creatures and the potential for them to explore new environments.

What Attracts Sharks Up Rivers

Sharks are often associated with deep ocean waters, but there have been rare instances of shark sightings and even attacks in rivers. While it may seem unusual, there are a few factors that can attract sharks to venture up rivers.

Search for Prey

One reason why sharks may be found in rivers is their search for prey. Sharks are opportunistic predators and are known to follow their food sources. If there is an abundance of prey, such as fish or marine mammals, in a river, sharks may be drawn to these areas.

Additionally, some fish species migrate up rivers to spawn, and sharks may follow these migrations in search of an easy meal.

Birthing Young

Another factor that can attract sharks up rivers is the birthing of their young. Certain shark species, such as bull sharks, are known for their ability to tolerate freshwater environments. These sharks are known to swim up rivers to give birth in calmer, protected waters.

The combination of a safe environment and an ample food supply can make rivers an attractive location for sharks to give birth and raise their young.


Sharks are naturally curious creatures and may explore new environments out of curiosity. This can sometimes lead them up rivers, especially if there are interesting smells or sounds that pique their interest.

However, it’s important to note that shark attacks in rivers are extremely rare and are usually a case of mistaken identity, as sharks rely on their senses to identify their prey.

While it may be alarming to think about sharks in rivers, it’s important to remember that these encounters are infrequent and often the result of unique circumstances. It’s always a good idea to exercise caution when swimming in any body of water, but there’s no need to fear rivers because of the possibility of shark presence.

Frequency of Freshwater Shark Attacks

When it comes to shark attacks, the Mississippi River may not be the first place that comes to mind. In fact, freshwater shark attacks are very rare overall. While it is true that sharks are capable of swimming upstream into freshwater rivers, the likelihood of encountering a shark in the Mississippi River is extremely low.

Very Rare Overall

The number of recorded shark attacks in freshwater rivers, including the Mississippi River, is incredibly low. Sharks are primarily saltwater creatures and are more commonly found in oceans and seas. They have adapted to thrive in these environments and are less likely to venture into freshwater habitats.

As a result, the chances of encountering a shark while swimming or boating in the Mississippi River are extremely slim.

According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), which tracks shark attacks worldwide, there have been only a handful of documented cases of shark attacks in freshwater rivers. These incidents are so few and far between that they are often considered anomalies rather than indicative of any widespread threat.

Certain Areas Pose Higher Risk

While the overall risk of a shark attack in the Mississippi River is extremely low, there are certain areas where the potential for encounters may be slightly higher. One such area is the Gulf of Mexico, where the river meets the ocean.

Sharks are known to inhabit these coastal waters, and there have been occasional reports of sharks venturing upriver.

However, even in these areas, the probability of a shark attack remains extremely low. The Mississippi River is a vast waterway, and the chances of encountering a shark are still minuscule compared to other risks associated with recreational activities in or near the river.

It is important to remember that sharks play a vital role in maintaining the balance of marine ecosystems, and their presence should not deter individuals from enjoying the Mississippi River and its surrounding areas.

By understanding the rarity of freshwater shark attacks and taking common-sense precautions, such as avoiding swimming in murky waters or areas known for shark activity, individuals can continue to safely enjoy all that the Mississippi River has to offer.

The Safety of Freshwater Bodies

When it comes to the safety of freshwater bodies, one concern that may arise is the presence of sharks. However, it is important to note that sharks pose little threat in rivers. While sharks are well-known inhabitants of the ocean, their appearance in freshwater environments is extremely rare.

The likelihood of encountering a shark in a river, such as the Mississippi River, is incredibly low.

Sharks Pose Little Threat in Rivers

According to experts, sharks are typically adapted to saltwater habitats and are rarely found in freshwater systems. The biological makeup and behavior of sharks are not well-suited for survival in rivers.

Their specialized gills and salt-excreting mechanisms enable them to regulate their body’s salt levels in saltwater environments. In freshwater, these adaptations are not as effective, making it challenging for sharks to thrive.

Furthermore, sharks rely on an abundance of prey that is typically found in the ocean, such as fish and seals. In freshwater bodies, the food chain is different, and the availability of suitable prey for sharks is limited. This further reduces the likelihood of encountering a shark in rivers.

While rare sightings of sharks in freshwater bodies have occurred, they are usually isolated incidents. These instances are often attributed to unusual circumstances, such as flooding or navigational errors made by the sharks themselves.

It is essential to understand that these occurrences are outliers rather than the norm.

Precautions for Swimmers

Although the risk of encountering a shark in rivers is minimal, it is still important for swimmers to take precautions to ensure their safety. General water safety guidelines should always be followed, regardless of the body of water being visited.

  • Swimmers should be aware of their surroundings and avoid swimming alone in unfamiliar areas.
  • It is advisable to swim in designated swimming areas where lifeguards are present.
  • Keeping a safe distance from wildlife, including any potential shark habitats, is crucial.
  • If any suspicious marine life is spotted, swimmers should promptly exit the water and inform the appropriate authorities.

By staying informed and taking necessary precautions, swimmers can enjoy their time in freshwater bodies without undue concern for shark encounters.


While the prospect of coming face-to-face with a shark in a lake or river is scary, the likelihood is extremely small. Only a few species have been known to attack humans so far inland and document cases over the past century are very rare.

Still, it’s wise not to totally rule out the possibility. Being aware of the small risk and taking basic precautions like avoiding swimming after heavy rains can help ensure that freshwater bodies continue to remain a safe environment for recreational activities.

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