There have been seven confirmed shark attacks in North Carolina in a span of just over two weeks. That stat reflects the most recorded attacks in one year since the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File initiated record keeping 80 years ago.
Jaws, the blockbuster movie that heightened the national consciousness over sharks, was based upon the tragic 1916 Jersey shark attacks; four people were killed and one injured by what was presumed to be a great white or bull shark along the Jersey Shore from July 1 to July 12. The Jersey attacks occurred both in the surfline as well as inland—up inside a brackish Matawan Creek, prompting the notion that an amphidromous bull shark could have been the culprit. All of the NC attacks so far have been in the surfline or just outside the breakers. So what’s going on? Why is this happening in NC and why now?
As an avid surf shark fisherman, I’ve patterned times when sharks seem to hug and populate the shoreline surf more than normal. Full and new moon cycles, especially on the high tides, allow for much more water to inundate the inside surf, allowing passageway for sharks to swim freely and feed in. A concentrated near-shore presence of oily-type baitfish, such as schools of menhaden (bunker), or bluefish also become an attractant that push sharks inshore. Warming water temperature in the 75- to 82-degree range, and a pattern of hot and sultry daytime air temperatures of 85 to 95 degrees seem to fire up shark activity. Also sharks feed most actively during early morning and nighttime hours.
But why are sharks only now attacking humans in such a concentration off of North Carolina? I truly believe humans are not intended targets, but instead are hapless victims of misidentification. A flailing foot or undulating bathing suit in low visibility conditions like those created from a constant onshore wind or foamy whitewater from pounding breaking waves can contribute to an instinctual quick shot “see-and-hit” mentality from a shark. Also, if baitfish are present, or if a swimming area is near a local fishing pier where bait is being dropped in the water, a shark is already juiced up with the scent in his system, and will want to strike at anything he deems edible.
Luckily, so far, it seems that most of the shark bites have been from smaller sharks and have been exploratory in nature. In the case of the Jersey attacks, the large bite radius, severed limbs and tooth marks on victims pointed to a great white and/or large bull shark. In the NC attacks, it seems it’s quite possible smaller bull sharks, blacktip, and/or brown sharks could be the culprits.
To predict where more attacks might occur in the next few days, one look at the map of confirmed attacks seems to generally point that the trend is moving in a northward pattern, possibly as sharks are following warmer water and bait schools up the coastline. What is certain is that the recent attacks make you think for a split second before you enter the surf, but there is no reason to freak out over killer sharks patrolling the East Coast. At least not yet.