There have been three shark bites — one quite serious — at North Carolina beaches so far this year, and summer hasn’t even officially started yet.
Seventeen-year-old Paige Winter lost most of her leg from a shark bite while swimming at Fort Macon State Park on June 2. On June 10, a 19-year-old was injured from a bite on his foot while swimming at Ocean Isle. And on June 16, an 8-year-old boy was swimming in the ocean at Bald Head Island when a shark grabbed his leg, leaving puncture wounds.
But before we all panic and run screaming from the water like terrified tourists in a scene from “Jaws,” we thought we’d try to get the official take on whether this rash of shark bites bodes ill for the 2019 beach season.
We caught up with Dr. Joel Fodrie, whose lab helps runs the shark survey program at the Institute of Marine Sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill, to ask, essentially, what’s up with these sharks?
It’s ‘prime time for sharks’
According to Fodrie, a lot of what we’re seeing right now is about timing and numbers.
“Early June is ground zero for sharks in North Carolina,“ Fodrie said. “June is always the month we catch the most sharks, and June is a month in which school is out and people are hitting the beaches hard. So it’s the normal seasonality of when we have these bites happen. Prime time for sharks is very late May through June, and into July is possible.”
Fodrie says there’s nothing environmental to point to for an explanation, except for the fact that shark populations have increased in the past 40 years (thanks to efforts to protect sharks because of their importance to the ecosystem), paired with the increased number of tourists visiting our beaches.
That’s why Fodrie says he’s surprised there aren’t more than the two shark bites that North Carolina averages each year. (With three so far this season, we’re already above average).
“With all the people in the water and with more of these sharks, it may lead to an additional bite,” Fodrie said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we had two tomorrow, or if for the rest of the year we didn’t have any. With what I’m sure is millions of people hours in the water in North Carolina each year, and the fact that these sharks are out there, what always blows my mind is we’re only talking about one or two or three. Our max is 2015, with eight confirmed but 9 strongly suspected bites. But still, remarkably low.”
Can you avoid a close encounter?
In any case, shark encounters with humans are impossible to avoid entirely.
Sharks are just out there trying to find food, trying to find a mate and trying to avoid danger for themselves, Fodrie said. And even though some sharks are big, he said they tend to be skittish and risk averse.
“In my experience, when you’re around sharks, they spook easy,” he said. “Sharks are highly evolved and they’re reading a lot of keys, and the vast majority of time when they realize they’re around a human, more often than not they want to get away.”
As for avoiding sharks, “there’s no magic bullet,” Fodrie said, but there are some common sense steps you can take to reduce your chances of a close encounter.
“As a general rule, it makes a lot of sense to not be in the water at the crack of dawn and when the sun is going down, because that’s when we know sharks are out there.”
Fodrie also said it’s better not to swim alone — the more people, the more likely the shark will know he’s encountering humans to avoid . And if you’re scratched or bleeding somewhere already, get out of the water.
Also, if you’re seeing a lot of small fish or bait fish around you, or you’re seeing dolphins feeding nearby, sharks will be there.
Fodrie recommends swimming in the sound waters, if possible, because in the calmer water, sharks can better distinguish people from their natural prey, and you can perhaps avoid a case of mistaken identity.
Just always be aware of your surroundings, Fodrie said, and understand there’s never a way to eliminate all risks.
“The reality is, if you’re in the water long enough, you’ve been close to a shark,” Fodrie said. “But the odds (of a bite) are very, very, very low, it’s just that sometimes people focus more on the stakes. The stakes can be reasonably high — certainly there’s a bite that can happen that can be traumatic and it can change a person’s life. And once in a great blue moon, a person dies. So the stakes are what people focus on, but the odds are very, very low.”