Mind the Sharks

The University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Sciences has been surveying sharks off the coast of North Carolina every summer since 1972. Currently, the survey finds that the numbers of great sharks — such as Great White, Tiger, and Hammerhead sharks — have been steadily declining, but the number of shark bite incidents is increasing.

The University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Sciences has been surveying sharks off the coast of North Carolina every summer since 1972. The organization has one of the largest data sets of near-shore shark species in the country.

UNC IMS shark tagging researchAnd while dozens of species of sharks can be found along the coast, the survey finds that the numbers of great sharks — such as Great White, Tiger, and Hammerhead sharks — have been steadily declining. Watch the video to see Dr. Stephen Fegley, Adjunct Research Associate Professor with UNC-IMS, discuss this trend from a recent shark survey.

Despite the steady decline of various shark species populations, the number of shark bite incidents is increasing worldwide, mainly because more people are spending more time in the ocean. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports 2.2 billion people made visits to beaches in 2010. The number has likely been growing over the last several years as the economy has continued to improve.

Think of that number, 2.2 billion, when you consider that there were 51 shark attacks in the United States in 2014 according to the International Shark Attack File, which tracks and verifies reported shark attacks. The file is managed by the Florida Museum of Natural History. 

Florida topped the list with 28 confirmed shark bites. North Carolina was fourth with four reported bites. Since 1935, there have been 53 confirmed shark bites along the North Carolina coast.

Any attack still begs the question of what if anything swimmers can do to protect themselves. Dr. Fegley says sharks are very advanced creatures with an array of senses that have helped them survive for millions of years. However in roiling surf and sandy, silty water, a human does not look any different than a fish. So Dr. Fegley offers these tips:

  1. Stay out of the water in the early morning and at dusk. Sharks are often more active during transition times, when the tides are coming in, and the water closer to shore is deeper.
  2. Avoid swimming near piers or any place where fisherman are baiting the water. 
  3. Avoid areas where you see large schools of fish, large pods of dolphins or seabirds feeding. Lots of fish can also mean lots of predators nearby.
  4. Don’t wear jewelry or anything shiny. Fish scales often look shiny, so don’t look like a fish and maybe sharks won't snack on you like you are one.
  5. Swim in groups. Sharks are lazy and usually go after prey that is weak and lagging behind. If you’re in a group, you don’t appear sick or weak to a shark.
  6. Don’t splash a lot. Similar to the point above, splashing a lot may make you appear to be sick or injured to a shark.
  7. Don’t go in the water if you are bleeding. Those heightened shark senses will zero in on you.
  8. Don’t wander too far from shore.


North Carolina Sea Grant has additional recommendations for avoiding shark bites. Go to their website for more information, and stay safe out there.

— Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV.

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