Nobody seems sure why there have been more than the usual number of shark attacks in the Carolinas this summer. But the simple fact is that there are both more sharks and more swimmers, according to tourism experts and shark experts. And that’s a recipe for a cross-species surf war, albeit not one either sharks or most humans seek.
George Burgess, head of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History (FLMNH), said it is important to have this perspective so people don’t get ahead of themselves and fear a “Jaws-like” scenario. It’s tempting to assume the worst when pictures of sharks start circulating online; plus it’s particularly troubling when the series of attacks has predominantly affected young people. But, what’s more likely happening is North Carolina beachgoers are not used to looking for sharks and may be caught off guard as other factors draw sharks closer to shore, Burgess said.
“It’s not like a trip to the YMCA pool,” he said. “The onus is on us as humans now to adapt.”
But, with two more shark attacks over the past three days, North Carolina is now up to six in this month alone.
On Saturday, an 18-year-old boy swimming off the Outer Banks was bitten on his right leg, buttocks and both of his hands. Carol Flynn, a spokeswoman for Sentara Norfolk General Hospital where the boy was taken, said as of Sunday evening he remained in serious condition. His attack came a day after another person, a 47-year-old man from North Carolina, was attacked while swimming in Avon, N.C.
There was an additional attack Friday at Hunting Island State Park in South Carolina, on a 43-year-old man. “The man noticed a 4-foot-long shark swimming around him in shallow waters on the south beach and yelled, ‘Shark!’ only to be bitten by a second one he had not seen,” district spokesman Scott Harris told the Island Packet. The island is about 90 miles south of Charleston.
The 47-year-old in North Carolina and the 43-year-old in South Carolina both sustained injuries that were not life-threatening.
North Carolina has seen four other incidents this month, the first coming on June 11 when a 13-year-old girl lost part of her boogie board but received only minor injuries from a shark attack at Ocean Isle Beach. About a week later, two other kids, both swimming at Oak Island, lost parts of their left arms in separate attacks about 90 minutes apart from each other. Then, last week an 8-year-old boy sustained minor injuries from a shark attack while at a beach in Surf City.
From north to south, the affected area spans about 500 miles, with an oceanic region called the Mid-Atlantic Shark Area halfway between.
While experts and tourism promoters always urge calm and statisticians go on about how we are more likely to be attacked by a cow than a shark, that is small comfort for those swimming in the ocean rather than hanging around a farm.
“Something has changed,” worried a commenter on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Facebook page, just above a post about the latest shark attack injury.
Burgess said what makes North Carolina’s situation stand out is that the state isn’t used to this many attacks in a short period. According to the FLMNH International Shark Attack File, between 2005 and 2014, North Carolina saw only 25 incidents, none of them fatal.
“If it had been in Florida, I wouldn’t have batted an eye,” Burgess said. In that same time frame, Florida has had 219 incidents, two of them fatal.
Burgess, like others, can only speculate as to specific causes.
This year, Burgess said he has heard many reports of increased sea turtle activity this nesting season along the southeast coast. The turtles come onto shore to lay eggs, which can attract sharks into shallower waters as they look for food.
More long-term explanations include generally warmer water temperatures, which bring fish accustomed to warmer waters northward, bringing hungry sharks with them. Upwelling may also be contributing — this is when warmer surface-water is pushed away by wind or storms, allowing colder, nutrient-rich water below to rise to the top. Having more nutrients near the surface and shore attracts plankton, which attracts small fish, which in turn attracts sharks, Burgess explained.
One common practice that can draw sharks is fishermen on piers, either attracting sharks as they bait small fish or even fish for sharks using “chum,” or ground-up fish.
Fishermen often attract sharks as they clean their catch, tossing large chunks into the sea. Frequently, excited sightseers show up, hurling more fish at the sharks to watch them leap and feed. Sometimes a wounded shark will go hurtling and twisting through the shallow waters at unfathomable speeds that take onlookers by surprise. Sometimes these sharks have been caught with large hooks and line but have managed to escape the fate of being hauled up onto the beach and then carved into steaks by fishermen.
There are at least 19 piers jutting out into the sea in North Carolina. The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries asks people not to fish for sharks near swimmers earlier this month, the Associated Press reported, and swimmers are routinely warned to stay away from piers, though many don’t.
There are signs that some species of the long-dwindling shark population are making a recovery. Research by Burgess and others shows great white sharks are starting to return, though over a period of decades, and it’s unlikely the general uptick in attacks is because of more great white sharks, Burgess said. Plus, the North Carolina attacks are most likely the work of bull or tiger sharks, he added.
But Burgess said the simplest reason for North Carolina’s rough month may be that more people are going swimming. With hotter summers earlier in the year, Burgess said, more and more people are venturing to the beach, increasing the chances that someone might get bitten.
What Burgess recommends is a heightened awareness by beachgoers; he wouldn’t recommend beaches close entirely. After the Oak Island incidents, local officials kept their beaches open, as did officials in Surf City, though both increased patrols along the shore.
Long stretches of the Carolinas where people swim are without lifeguards. Scott Peacock, of the North Carolina tourism office, said the office is compiling a list of which beaches do and don’t have lifeguards on duty so visitors can better decide where they want to swim. Peacock said he hopes the list will be ready before the Fourth of July. He added that the office will also monitor the piers to see if activity there is contributing to shark attacks in any way.
As far as tourism goes for the remainder of the summer, Wit Tuttell, executive director of the North Carolina Division of Tourism, said he hasn’t seen a rush to cancel trips to the state. Instead he says he has mostly received calls from people hoping to get more safety tips. He said he isn’t worried the attacks will deter people from visiting the beaches.
The attacks are “not good for the reputation of the state, but fortunately people who come realize it’s tragic but rare and isolated,” Tuttell said. “I think people understand that.”
Tuttell said North Carolina sees an average of 6.5 million visitors in the summer, with attendance having increased 18 percent since 2010. He said last year was a record year, and though his office doesn’t yet have data on the first half of 2015, early figures suggest they are in for a continuing increase.
But the state might not be out of the deep end yet.
Burgess said he wouldn’t be surprised if there was another incident before the end of the summer, either in North Carolina or elsewhere along the coast. The best thing people can do if they want to keep using the beach, he said, is be smarter about how humans and sharks coexist in the water.
“We’ve got the brains; they’ve got the teeth.”
Here are some tips from the Florida Museum of Natural History:
- Always stay in groups since sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual.
- Do not wander too far from shore — this isolates an individual and additionally places one far away from assistance.
- Avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight hours when sharks are most active and have a competitive sensory advantage.
- Do not enter the water if bleeding from an open wound or if menstruating — a shark’s olfactory ability is acute.
- Wearing shiny jewelry is discouraged because the reflected light resembles the sheen of fish scales.
- Avoid waters with known effluents or sewage and those being used by sport or commercial fisherman, especially if there are signs of bait fishes or feeding activity. Diving seabirds are good indicators of such action.
- Sightings of porpoises do not indicate the absence of sharks — both often eat the same food items.
- Use extra caution when waters are murky and avoid uneven tanning and bright colored clothing — sharks see contrast particularly well.
- Refrain from excess splashing and do not allow pets in the water because of their erratic movements.
- Exercise caution when occupying the area between sandbars or near steep drop-offs — these are favorite hangouts for sharks.
- Do not enter the water if sharks are known to be present and evacuate the water if sharks are seen while there. And, of course, do not harass a shark if you see one!