When it comes to curiosity about Navy SEAL training and SEAL teams in general, one of the most common questions asked to this author—and I assume to other former and current SEALs as well—involves shark attacks. People always want to know if SEALs and SEAL trainees are afraid of running into sharks during the countless hours we spend in the ocean.

The Reality of BUD/S Training

Truth be told, you hardly have time to think about sharks when you are in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training since you are usually more worried about passing a swim or dive evolution than you are about being eaten. Honestly, there were times when yours truly actually wished a shark attack upon someone in the class (not me, of course) so that we could stop a certain painful swim or dive evolution prematurely. Yes, BUD/S sucks that much sometimes.

Operational Focus Over Fear

When it came to dive or swim operations in the SEAL teams themselves, again, you were usually too preoccupied with successfully completing your operation to worry about sharks. A SEAL in the water has to worry about his gear, his compass bearing, his buddy, his level of stealth, and a host of other issues required to get the job done. There was usually not enough brain space available to devote to being terrified that a shark might take a bite out of you.

Statistical Unlikelihood of Shark Attacks

Nor do the statistics indicate that SEALs and BUD/S trainees should worry too much about shark attacks. Not even in the course of thousands of BUD/S third phase swims executed out at San Clemente Island, off the coast of California—site of a seal rookery, and hence, a fertile feeding ground for sharks—has a shark ever attacked a SEAL trainee.

shark sighted sign
A sign warning about a shark sighting at Pyramid Rock Beach, Hawaii. (Image source: DVIDS)

A Rare and Tragic Incident

And yet…there is that one time that a confirmed shark attack killed a Navy SEAL. It was way back in 1963 and took place not during BUD/S in California or Virginia Beach (training used to be run on both coasts) but rather in the tropical paradise of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. A young lieutenant junior grade, who was assigned to an unspecified underwater demolition team (UDT), fell prey to a shark during a recreational swim.

To clarify, the UDTs were precursors to the SEAL teams and, for a time, existed alongside them. A graduate of BUD/S would be assigned to either a UDT or SEAL team, interchangeably, throughout his career. This particular lieutenant graduated from BUD/S class 28E (meaning East Coast BUD/S) and is the only confirmed case of a SEAL being killed by a shark.

The following is an abridged and edited account of the attack from the Caribbean Journal of Science. It is pretty horrible, to be sure.

A FATAL ATTACK BY THE SHARK CARCHARHINUS GALAPAGENSIS AT ST. THOMAS, VIRGIN ISLANDS