Shark Attacks in NC: What’s Behind Them? by Ashton Felts

Since June, North Carolina has experienced seven shark attacks on their coasts. This is a number that surprises even the most seasoned of shark-watchers. George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida’s Florida Museum of Natural History, said that the bites clearly came from bigger sharks – possibly bull or tiger sharks, two very aggressive species.

The Bull Shark: One of the most aggressive shark species.

The Bull Shark: One of the most aggressive shark species.

What’s Behind the Attacks?

No one has come out and said why these attacks have become so consistent, or what’s causing them at all. However, there are some theories. For example: environmental factors, such as early summer and warm temperatures. At this time, sea turtles are nesting. When sea turtles leave the water to go and lay their eggs on the shoreline, and coming and going, they’re pretty vulnerable to big sharks.

A number of factors could be contributing to the apparent rash of attacks, such as warmer water and drought conditions. Drought conditions reduce the amount of freshwater making it to the sea, which creates an environment along the shore where higher salt levels attract more fish and sharks.

Shark populations in the United States and around the world are at all-time lows. On the other hand, the human population continues to rise every year. Shark attacks are driven by the number of humans in the water more than the number of sharks, and when areas such as the Carolinas become popular tourist destinations, there’s more people entering the water. As a result, there will be more shark bites.

This is only a curious bite from a shark. Can you imagine what an attack bite would be like?

This is only a curious bite from a shark. Can you imagine what an attack bite would be like?

As far as why a shark might attack a human, one must realize that shark attacks are fundamentally motivated by feeding. Probably 90 percent of all shark bites are quick grab and let-goes by smaller sharks, but a small percentage of those are done by the big boys and girls. When they bite, whether it’s intentional or unintentional, those bites result in major injuries. Ultimately, all swimmers and/or surfers should understand that the moment you step into the ocean, they are entering a shark’s domain. They are quite literally stepping into their home.

David Hallac, NPS’s superintendent of Parks on the Outer Banks, says that “The only way to be sure you do not encounter sharks or other marine wildlife that may be harmful to humans is to stay out of the water.”

Sharks typically migrate north along the East Coast from Florida during the summer, when the water gradually warms up to about 75 or 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

A massive heatwave in mid-June this year happened just before many of the recent shark attacks off the Carolinas. The warmer temperatures may have attracted a lot more sharks to the area. Also, the hotter weather probably drew a lot of people to the beach.

The timing of the bites supports this explanation. With the exception of one, all of the attacks seem to be moving northward. That’s because the sharks (and their prey) have probably been following the warm water.

How to Avoid an Attack

The good news is that shark attacks are still rare; the odds are about 1 in 11.5 million, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History. You’re far more likely to be killed by car accidents, dogs, or bees.

When sharks do attack, it’s typically a case of mistaken identity. Sharks ARE NOT trying to kill people. If humans were on a shark’s menu, you probably would never be able to swim on any coast – besides, we’re not that hard to catch.

Nevertheless, there are some things you can do to avoid becoming an unwitting shark’s lunch. Besides the obvious “don’t swim in the ocean” tactic, it would be best to avoid swimming in areas where people fish and clean their catch; sharks are attracted by the smell of bait and fish guts. Also, avoid places where sharks feed. For example, large schools of fish are a feeding spot. It would also help to avoid swimming at dawn and dusk; sharks are hunting at this time.

How to Survive an Attack

Sharks attack only rarely, but when they do, severe and sometimes fatal injuries commonly result. Scientists don’t believe sharks attack humans to eat us; rather, they bite into our flesh because they’re curious to find out what kind of animal we are – kind of like how dogs like to sniff new friends, only a lot more deadly. Staying out of shark habitats is the surest way to avoid getting hurt, but if you simply can’t control yourself, here’s a plan to have in place:

Play Defense.

Don’t take your eyes off the shark. Sharks have several different attack methods. Sometimes they swim right up and have at it, sometimes they circle for a while before lunging, and sometimes they sneak up from below for a surprise attack. To be able to defend against the shark, you must know where it is.

Stay calm and don’t make sudden movements. When you first spot the shark, chances are it will swim away without bothering you. You cannot out-swim a shark, so unless you’re Aquaman or already close to shore, stay put. It’s important to keep your wits about you so you can continuously appraise the situation and figure out how to get to safety. Keep in mind: don’t thrash your arms and legs. Swim calmly and slowly to a boat or shore, whichever is closest. Do not block the shark’s path. If you’re between the shark and the ocean, move away. Don’t turn your back on the shark as you move. Remember, keep your eyes on the shark.

Get into a defensive position. If you can’t get out of the water right away, try to reduce the shark’s possible angles of attack. If you’re in shallow enough water, keep your feet on the ground. Slowly back up against a reef, piling, or rock outcropping – any solid obstruction – so that the shark can’t circle around behind you. This way you only have to defend attacks in front of you.

Fight the shark.

Hit the shark in the face and gills. Playing dead won’t deter an aggressive shark. Your best bet if attacked is to make the shark see you as a strong, credible threat. Usually, a hard blow to the shark’s gills, eyes or snout will cause it to retreat. These are really the only vulnerable areas on a shark.

Keep fighting if the shark persists. Hit the eyes and gills repeatedly with hard, sharp jabs. Don’t wind up before hitting, since this doesn’t provide extra force underwater. You can also claw at the eyes and the gills. Keep doing this until the shark lets you go and swims away.

Escape and get help.

Get out of the water. Even if the shark swims away, you’re not truly safe until you’re out of the water. Sharks may leave temporarily and then come back to continue the attack. Get back to shore or back on the boat as quickly as possible.

Get medical attention. If you’ve been bitten, get treatment as soon as possible. Massive blood loss could occur, depending on where you’ve been bitten, so immediately take appropriate steps to stop the bleeding. Even if your wounds appear minor, it’s essential to get yourself checked out. Remain calm until you get medical care so your blood does not pump faster through your body.