A pair of shark attacks in North Carolina over the weekend, occurring less than two hours apart, served as a rather brutal reminder that shark attacks still occur with some consistency.
How often? Well, we tackled this issue around this time last year, because summer means beach season, and beach season means stories about shark attacks and people worrying about shark attacks. But since there was a very high-profile attack, it is worth revisiting the issue.
The Florida Museum of Natural History keeps a log of shark attacks each year called the International Shark Attack File, which tracks “alleged shark-human interaction.” The attack file also differentiates between provoked and unprovoked attacks, with unprovoked attacks being what they sound like (swimmers at the beach, for example) and provoked attacks occurring when a person initiates contact with the shark (like a diver who grabs a shark or a person bit while removing a shark from a fishing net).
Last year, there were 72 unprovoked attacks worldwide, the museum noted, and as usual, most of those were in North American waters. The number of unprompted attacks was the lowest worldwide total since 2009, when 68 unprovoked attacks occurred, but the shark file notes that the number of these attacks has still grown pretty steadily since 1900.
Why more shark attacks are taking place
In fact, the shark file says, each decade has had more unprovoked attacks than the last, which seems…bad? That seems bad. That seems like a worrisome trend. But the shark file notes that this doesn’t mean the rate of attacks is going up, but rather that people spend more time at sea, which — and I am quoting directly from the shark file’s most recent report here — “increases the opportunities for interaction between the two affected parties.” (We will note here that the worldwide population of sharks is not doing so well, though great white sharks have seen a recent surge in numbers off the Atlantic coast.)
Overall, there were 52 total shark attacks — provoked and unprovoked — in the United States last year. That number is not too far off the numbers seen in recent years, but again, these figures are much higher than the 29 known shark attacks the country saw in 2009 (the fewest so far this century). There is some good news, though: None of the shark attacks in the United States last year ended with someone dead, according to the attack file.
Where shark attacks take place in the U.S.
Where do these shark attacks occur? This probably won’t come as a galloping shock to anyone: Florida, which was home to more than half of all unprovoked attacks in the United States last year. In total, 28 people there were attacked, in some form or another last year, by sharks, the shark file says.
And in Florida, just one county — Volusia County, home to Daytona Beach — has been like a magnet for shark encounters. More than a third of the 700 times people have encountered sharks in the Sunshine State have taken place in just that one county. Hawaii had seven attacks, trailed by South Carolina with five and North Carolina with four attacks. Over the last decade, South Carolina has had 31 attacks, and North Carolina has had 25 (nobody was killed in any of those attacks).
What people are typically doing when the attacks occur
Still, the shark bites over the weekend were unusual, in part because of where the two victims were. Both of the young people injured in North Carolina on Sunday were “in waist-deep water,” Oak Island Fire Chief Chris Anselmo said at a news conference Monday.
That part is less common, because fewer than one in three people bitten by sharks are swimming and wading. Much more often, the people who are bitten are surfers or others participating in a similar activity, because — as the shark attack file astutely notes — these are people out there in the ocean’s surf zone, splashing and wading and, you know, falling into the water.
The dual bites occurring so close together, though, is even less common, George Burgess, head of the Florida Program for Shark Research, noted Monday.