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Sharks in North Carolina: Reduce your risk of an encounter

Above: a scalloped hammerhead, one of 50 species that roams North Carolina’s coast. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Republished courtesy of North Carolina Sea Grant 

By Katelyn Vause

Many people are surprised to learn that “North Carolina is a very sharky place,” notes Chuck Bangley, a researcher with the Smithsonian. North Carolina Sea Grant funded several of his shark research projects while he was earning his doctorate at East Carolina University, and he now is working on a related study funded by the North Carolina Aquariums.

And while sharks have been in the news in recent weeks for bites while swimmers have been in the ocean surf zone, Bangley notes that estuaries — or inshore, brackish waters — also are important shark habitats. In a story in Coastwatch magazine, he shared results that revealed how bull sharks are increasingly using estuaries, including for nurseries.

The N.C. Aquariums note that of the more than 500 different species of sharks around the world, about 50 species live in North Carolina waters. Of those, 26 species roam within the continental shelf to near-shore waters but are not present in our waters year-round. Some move north and south, and others move inshore to offshore. Some species visit coastal waters based on water temperatures, food supplies and breeding patterns.

While rare both along our coast and worldwide, shark encounters do occasionally occur in North Carolina. On June 2 at Atlantic Beach, Paige Winter lost a leg and two fingers. The teen from New Bern is featured recently in a video that was shared during a news conference at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville where she was treated for her injuries. In the video, she emphasizes that “Sharks are good people.”

A surfer in Ocean Isle Beach and a youngster on Bald Head Island also had injuries in recent weeks that have been attributed as likely shark bites.

Sharks are the subject of many research endeavors in North Carolina. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Institute for Marine Sciences began collecting data on North Carolina sharks in 1972, and has done so continuously ever since. The Coastal Review Online featured the research in late 2018.

And Bangley’s overview story “Sharks of North Carolina” is one of North Carolina Sea Grant’s most popular online stories for Coastwatch — just one indication that North Carolinians indeed are keen on learning about the state’s shark species.

North Carolina Sea Grant works with many partners regarding shark encounter safety and shark research, including North Carolina Aquariums, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, East Carolina and the UNC Chapel Hill Institute for Marine Sciences. Here are a few quick tips:

Why we encounter sharks

  • Most shark encounters with humans are cases of mistaken identity. Swimmers, surfers and others in the water may splash and present visual targets that mislead the shark, causing it to mistake people for prey.
  • Most encounters occur in near-shore waters, between sandbars, or near steep drop-offs where sharks feed. Sharks frequent these areas because their food supply is there.
  • In these instances, a shark may bite, only to realize the human is a foreign object or is too large. The shark will then immediately release the victim.
  • As coastal areas become more populated and visitation to beaches and coastal waters increase, more shark encounters are likely because of the increased number of people in the water.

How to reduce risk of a shark encounter

Chances of encountering a shark in North Carolina waters are very low. To further reduce your risk, consider the following:

  • Always stay in groups. Sharks are more likely to mistake a solitary individual for prey.
  • Do not wander too far from shore. This isolates you and places you farther away from assistance.
  • Avoid being in the water during dawn, dusk, darkness or twilight hours. This is when sharks are most active and have a competitive sensory advantage.
  • Do not enter the water if bleeding. A shark’s sense of smell is acute.
  • Don’t wear shiny jewelry in the water. The reflected light resembles the sheen of fish scales.
  • Avoid waters where there are signs of bait fish or feeding activity. Diving seabirds are good indicators of such activity.
  • Sightings of dolphins do not indicate the absence of sharks. Both often feed on the same prey.
  • Avoid wearing brightly colored contrasting clothing in the water. Sharks see contrast particularly well.
  • Refrain from excess splashing to minimize your risk.
  • Exercise caution when swimming between sandbars or near steep drop-offs. These are favorite hangouts for sharks.
  • Leave the water if sharks are sighted. And, of course, do not harass a shark if you see one.

Sharks by the numbers

  • Out of the more than 500 species of sharks worldwide, fewer than 10% are considered dangerous or known to have been involved in bites to humans. Some more common species are not considered dangerous to humans, such as the sand bar, nurse, silky and dogfish.
  • From 1935 to 2019, there were 65 reported unprovoked encounters in North Carolina, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History International Shark Attack File (ISAF). Of those, only three were fatal. This is a small number considering the millions of people who enter the water every year.
  • From 1935 to present there have been 12 encounters in Carteret County, according to the ISAF.
  • ISAF puts the 2019 yearly total of unprovoked shark encounters worldwide at 66. Over the century, the number of encounters has grown directly with the increase in the number of people who enter the ocean for recreation. However, other injuries and fatalities from ocean activities far outnumber shark encounters. These include drowning, jellyfish and stingray stings, spinal injuries, cuts from shells and being caught in rip currents.

Did you know?

  • Sharks can hear sound under water for miles, detect odors within hundreds of yards and sense pressure changes created by currents or movement up to 100 yards. However, their feeding is mainly dependent on vision, which is good for dozens of yards, depending on water clarity.
  • Their eyes are well developed and work well in low light.
  • Sharks have electro-reception that can detect tiny electrical fields created by prey’s muscular movement. This ability is good only within a distance of inches.
  • Sharks eat at one- or two-day intervals. They don’t need much food because little energy is expended while cruising through the water. A satiated shark may not eat again for several weeks.
  • Some sharks may have bursts of speed up to 23 miles per hour; however, most sharks maintain a cruising speed of about 5.75 miles per hour.
  • Like other wild animals, most sharks try to avoid people.
  • Two of the largest sharks are the whale shark and basking shark. Both can reach 50 feet in length and feed exclusively on tiny fish and plankton.

Editor’s note: While shark attacks on humans are dramatic and terrifying, your biggest danger at the beach is not sharks, but rip currents. See related story here.

Information and tips include here include some from a news release by the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. Download North Carolina Sea Grant’s Shark Sense brochure for a printable document that includes many of the tips listed above.

Katelyn Vause

 

Katelyn Vause is a pursing her master’s degree in English Literature at NC State. Her interests cover many topics and include the environment in southern and early American literature. She also is passionate about science communication and hopes to work as a communications specialist at a scientific organization or in an academic setting.

 

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