Theories clash on cause of Oak Island shark attacks

Jack Cross, 9, watches as a boat patrols the coastline near Ocean Crest Pier in Oak Island on Monday, a day after two young people lost limbs in separate shark attacks.
Jack Cross, 9, watches as a boat patrols the coastline near Ocean Crest Pier in Oak Island on Monday, a day after two young people lost limbs in separate shark attacks. AP

Experts are divided on what might have caused two shark attacks within a 90-minute period at this family resort known for peaceful living.

Helicopter and beach patrols are to end Wednesday, authorities said, after no unusual sightings were reported since Sunday afternoon’s attacks on two young beachgoers about 2 miles apart. Both lost arms while attacked in waist-deep water.

While sharks are common in the waters off Oak Island – and every other beach in the Carolinas – attacks on humans are rare. Authorities believe the last attack on Oak Island, a 9-mile strand west of Wilmington, was in the 1970s.

On Sunday, Kiersten Yow, 12, of Archdale, and Hunter Treschel, 16, of Colorado Springs, Colo., both lost part of their left arms in the attacks. Three days earlier, a 13-year-old girl was bitten by what was believed to be a shark about 20 miles west on Ocean Isle Beach.

George Burgess, a fisheries biologist with the Florida Museum of Natural History who maintains the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, said two attacks so close together in time and distance suggests a single shark was involved.

If so, it would only be the third time in his 40 years of research that such a rogue shark case occurred, he said. One case was confirmed in Egypt and evidence points to another off the Florida panhandle.

“Of course, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference because both of those kids are minus an arm,” he said.

That’s another rarity in Sunday’s attacks – the severity of the wounds. Most human injuries from sharks are mere bites.

Burgess said the shark might have been attracted to sea turtle nests along Oak Island. “Turtles are like potato chips to sharks to feed on,” he said.

Suspects two sharks

One of North Carolina’s foremost shark experts is Frank Schwartz, who has been involved in catching, tagging and releasing them for 60 years. “And I’m still working,” said Schwartz, 85, a marine zoologist at UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City.

Sunday’s attacks were likely a rare coincidence, Schwartz said Tuesday, but probably involved different sharks. They may have been feeding on a school of bluefish, which were running in the area Sunday, and mistakenly attacked swimmers in the turbid surf.

Schools of sharks are known to cluster in good feeding grounds, he said. In 1981, beaches were closed around Morehead City for three days when thousands of migrating sharks were feeding close to shore, he said, endangering swimmers.

“There may have been bait there they were feeding on,” he said, and mistook the splashing swimmers for fish. “People were in the wrong place at the right time.”

Coincidental factors

Paul Barrington, director of operations for the N.C. State Aquarium at Fort Fisher, said he believes a combination of factors may have led to the attacks: rich feeding grounds fed by the Cape Fear estuary, a growing number of sharks because of conservation efforts and the density of beachgoers at the start of the tourist season.

“Speculation about a single rogue shark is a very remote possibility based on the large population of sharks along the coast,” said Barrington, who has 40 years of aquarium management. “It was probably two different sharks.”

But without carefully examining the lacerations and possibly recovering shark teeth from the sites of the attacks, it would be impossible to know whether a single animal was involved, he said.

Back to normal

A few tiger sharks had been spotted since the attacks, but that’s not out of the ordinary, said Tim Holloman, town manager of Oak Island, whose permanent population of 6,500 is swelling to its seasonal peak of 30,000.

“It’s getting back to business as usual,” Holloman said. “We’re telling people to be cautious and have a good time.”

He said the town hopes to never see a recurrence of what happened Sunday.

Hubert Reaves, born and raised in nearby Bolivia, said he has been drawn to the shore for all his 69 years.

“We can’t control this ocean,” Reaves said, looking at the calm surf. “We don’t know what's out there.”

Washburn: 704-358-5007

Carolinas shark attacks

There have only been a few dozen shark attacks recorded off the Carolinas since 1935, according to the International Shark Attack File, a registry maintained by the University of Florida.

North Carolina has reported 52 shark attacks with three fatalities, the last in 2001. New Hanover County beaches account for 13 of those attacks and Brunswick County for 10, including one fatality. Brunswick County’s last shark bite was believed to have occurred in the 1970s.

South Carolina has reported 82 shark attacks, two of them fatal and both off Charleston. Coastal waters near Charleston account for 30 attacks and the waters off Horry County, where the popular resort Myrtle Beach is located, have had 29. Charleston’s earliest fatal shark attack was recorded in 1852.

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