Although most people know in their brain that the chance of being bitten by a shark is extremely rare, the creature’s reputation as a fearsome predator (fueled by movies, TV shows, and news reports of attacks) still provokes a fear of sharks.
The numbers from the International Shark Attack File back up the claim there are many more things to worry about than shark bites, such as lightening strikes and dog bites. Between 1959 and 2010, there were 193 fatal lightening hits in North Carolina, while there were only 39 shark bites. Also, a fatal dog bite is more likely than a fatal shark attack. Between 2001 and 2010, there were 364 fatal dog attacks in the United States. There were only 11 fatal shark attacks during the same time period.
So, while the odds are in your favor when you jump into the ocean, sharks are wild animals that must be respected. Sharks have six highly refined senses — smell, hearing, touch, taste, sight, and electromagnetism. Those finely tuned senses, along with a torpedo-shaped body, make most sharks highly skilled hunters as well as top predators.
While there is no clear reason why sharks seem more aggressive this summer, scientists do have several theories. The answer may be a combination of all these.
- Swimming near fishing piers: While there is no conclusive link, shark researchers say it is not wise to swim near a fishing pier or even near where people are fishing from shore. The combination of people swimming near wounded and bloody bait fish isn’t a good mix.
- Weather Patterns: Parts of North Carolina have been extremely dry this summer, which raises the salt content of ocean water near shore. Researchers say sharks prefer high-salinity waters, which may bring the sharks closer to shore.
- Fish Schools Close to Shore: There have been reports of large schools of small bait fish as well as reports of large numbers of sea turtles closer to shore. Nobody knows why those creatures are close to shore, but both are known to attract sharks.
- More People: There are simply more people going to the beach and getting into the water, which increases the odds of encounters with sharks and other ocean life.
Your odds of suffering a shark bite are still low, but conditions in the water are ripe for it to happen. The bottom line — if you see schools of fish, dolphins feeding and sea birds diving, or if you see people fishing, don’t go in the water.
— Frank Graff
Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!