Why the Rise in Shark Attacks in North Carolina?

By: Heather Wright
FRENCH POLYNESIA, PACIFIC OCEAN - JANUARY 2021: Sicklefin lemon shark (Negaprion acutidens) evolves over a coral reef on January 21, 2021 in Moorea, French Polynesia, Pacific Ocean. Also called sharptooth lemon shark, the sicklefin lemon shark has a robust, stocky body and a short, broad head. This species favors still, murky waters and is most common in bays, estuaries, and lagoons, and over sandy flats and outer reefs. (Photo by Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images) Getty Images / 2018 Alexis Rosenfeld

Perhaps the only more compelling influence to stay out of the water than a big-screen showing of the 1975 Steven Spielberg classic “Jaws” is the current number of shark attacks around North Carolina. As of the writing of this piece, there have been eight documented attacks over the last few weeks along the North Carolina coast (from the Outer Banks stretching down to South Carolina) which is record-setting. Most of these attacks occurred in fairly shallow water (not out in the deep sea). None of these attacks have been fatal, but two victims lost limbs. But before you hang up your beach towel and give up on the best beaches in North Carolina, there are a few things you need to know.


1. Relatively Low Risk

Even though there has been a remarkable rise in shark attacks in the area, many experts agree that shark attacks, statistically speaking, still pose a very low threat to humans. Although the optics of the current rise certainly suggest that there is a strong risk of attack, experts say that you’ve got a greater chance of getting struck by lightning, hit by a tornado, or other similar events.

2. Why the Spike?

There are differing schools of thought as to why there has been a surge in attacks; some experts are attributing the rise to ecological influences, like the record sea turtle nesting in the area, a shift in wind patterns, and lower rainfall than average, which creates a higher salt density (which sharks like). It’s also known that there are more “bait” fish coming closer to shore, for whatever reason, which is drawing these sharks into shore as well.

3. Perfect Storm?

There are others who suggest that the spike in shark attacks has more to do with several influences combining to culminate in a perfect shark storm of sorts. This summer has been warmer than usual in North Carolina, and it began earlier than usual (warm April). It’s a bit of a numbers game as well; warmer temps mean that more people have been seeking relief swimming in the water. Not only are there more people in the water period, but they are also staying in there for longer periods of time. It stands to reason that if the opportunity is greater (which it is), incidents will rise.

4. Human Target?

Sharks are predators, but they do not hunt humans; humans are not part of their natural food chain. They may follow a surfer because they are curious, or may try to bite a human to simply determine what they are. Humans that do suffer an attack are most likely in the wrong place at the wrong time (as in between the shark and their targeted fish). Most often, if a shark does bite a human, it’ll thrash about and then release it, which can still be life-threatening for the victim.


5. If you Happen to Encounter a Shark…

In the case of encounters with many predators, it is wise to play dead. The opposite is true if you should find yourself under attack by a shark. Fight back. Hard. Punch him in the gills, on the head, and try to gouge the eyes. The snout is sensitive too. If you have anything nearby or on you that could be used as a weapon, grab that to defend yourself. Sharks are not that unlike us; they will respect size and perceived power and will acquiesce more easily if they sense a physical threat. Don’t thrash about and always keep your eyes on the shark. It’s your best line of defense.

6. Tips to Avoid Sharks

While the most obvious way to avoid sharks would be to stay out of the water entirely, many experts agree that is a bit of an alarmist reaction. However, there are a number of things you can do to try to avoid sharks, based on what we know about their behavior. Avoid swimming at dawn and dusk, which are typically feeding times for sharks; avoid wearing shiny, bright clothing, as sharks may mistake you for a tropical fish; avoid swimming near fishing piers, where fisherman’s bait may draw the sharks in; avoid deep water swimming; if you have a cut, stay out of the water. Sharks can smell blood, and it will draw them towards you; if you see dolphins, it would be a good idea to get out of the water. Dolphins have attracted to some of the same small baitfish that sharks are, and could be trying to feed as well.