OAK ISLAND, N.C. (WECT) – In a typical season, only two or three people will have an encounter with a shark along the Carolina coast, but 2015 was anything but typical.
In mid-June, two teenagers were bitten within 90 minutes of each other by a shark in shallow water at Oak Island. Both survived, but each lost limbs.
In addition to the injuries Kiersten Yow and Hunter Treschl suffered, eight other people were attacked by sharks last year along coasts of North and South Carolina.
This spring, shark researchers are already looking closely at how conditions are shaping up for the upcoming warm weather months along the Carolina coast.
Researcher Chuck Bangley says the conditions are present for another historic year for shark bites, saying that some sharks off the coast of Florida are already migrating towards the coastal water of North Carolina.
“There has been a general increasing trend in the in shore and near shore waters, in terms of temperature and that will certainly affect the species that are in those waters,” Bangley explained. “In terms of migration, I think it depends on how rapidly the temperature rises, going from spring into summer. This year should be pretty interesting, because it never really ever got that cold this winter. We are already seeing evidence of some of our winter migrants not moving, like we expect them to.”
Doctor Roger Rulifson has been doing shark research at his East Carolina University lab since the early ’90s and is certain that a “perfect storm” was created last season by several weather factors and the increased number of people in the water, looking to find relief from an early heat wave.
“It was so hot in the early part of the summertime that we think those waves of fish migrating up the coast were more dense,” Rulifson explained. “It probably happened in a shorter period of time than we would normally see in the springtime when the temperature slowly warm up, so the consequence is you get more prey, more sharks preying on them as they all move together up the coast.”
Experts say humans are not targets for sharks, they intend to bite fish instead. The bites in 2015 were unfortunate accidents, and it should not come as a surprise that humans occasionally get in the way.
“When your hands and feet are splashing, it looks like fish bellies to them. They realize they made a mistake and spit us back out again,” said Christian Panko, a noted shark researcher.
“There is a tremendous amount of bait fish in the water at this point, and these typical hit and run attacks are generally a case of mistaken identity,” said Paul Barrington of the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher.
Both Rulifson and Bangley say you can still enjoy spending time in the ocean, but be aware of your surroundings.
After all, you have a 1 in about 3.7 million chances of being bitten by a shark, compared to 1 in 84 of being killed in a car accident, and 1 in almost 80,000 chances of being struck by lightning.
Still, you should avoid swimming near an inlet or under a fishing pier. Also watch for large amounts of menhaden and other bait fish, which usually look like dark spots on the water.
If you see bluefish splashing around in your area, or birds diving on the water, it is a sign those bait fish are under attack, and you do not want to find out the hard way what they are under attack by.
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