More than half a dozen shark attacks have happened in North Carolina in the last three weeks — nearly as many as happened all of last year.
Experts say this season has brewed up something of a perfect storm for the attacks.
Here’s what’s happening:
1. Warmer water
According to Chuck Bangley, a shark researcher at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, 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. (Most of the sharks are blacktip sharks, but there are bull sharks and tiger sharks too.)
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.
Together, it may have been the perfect recipe for the attacks.
The timing of the bites supports this explanation. With the exception yesterday’s, all of the attacks seem to be moving northward. That’s because the sharks (and their prey) have probably been following the warm water, Bangley said.
2. People swimming near tasty fish bait
The victims of two attacks that occurred off Oak Island within 90 minutes of each other on June 14 were both swimming within 100 yards of fishing piers, news outlets reported. Fisherman often clean their fish at these piers and throw bait into the water, and the smell may have attracted sharks, Bangley said.
3. Dry weather and salty water
In addition, parts of North Carolina have experienced drought conditions for several weeks, so there’s been less freshwater runoff. That means the ocean water near the shore may have been higher than normal, and most sharks prefer saltier water, George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida’s Florida Museum of Natural History, told Live Science.
How to avoid a shark attack
The good news is that shark attacks are still extremely rare — the odds are about 1 in 11.5 million, according to the
Florida Museum of Natural History — and the chances of dying from one are even more slim.
You’re far more likely to be killed by car accidents, dogs, or bees, as the Washington Post reported recently. The last shark attack death in North Carolina happened in 2001, according to the ISAF.
When sharks do attack, it’s typically a case of mistaken identity. Sharks definitely aren’t trying to kill people. “If sharks actually wanted to target people, you’d probably never be able to swim off the coast of North Carolina,” he said. “We’re not that hard to catch!”
Nevertheless, there are some things you can do to avoid becoming an unwitting shark’s lunch. Bangley recommends avoiding swimming in areas where people fish and clean their catch, because sharks are attracted by the smell of bait and fish guts.
You should also avoid places sharks feed, like large schools of fish, which may appear as dark blobs in the water or ripples on the surface. Birds can often be found diving into these areas as well. You don’t want to find out the hard way that there’s a shark there, Bangley said.
Even though sharks get a bad rap, they may actually be good for an ecosystem. They sometimes guard fish nurseries by scaring off dolphins and big fish that prey on them.
“Sharks are a really important cog in the food web,” Bangley said.
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