Summer of the Sharks

August 12th, 2015

Editor Ray McAllister writes about this summer's shark attacks along the East Coast.

When it comes to ratings, there’s nothing like sharks. (Other than sex, of course … Hmm. Note to self: sexy sharks!)


​One of cable TV’s biggest audience grabbers is the wonderfully named Sharknado movies on the Syfy channel. You don’t have to tell the Discovery Channel. Since 1988, it’s been turning over a week of programming every July or August to the hugely popular “Shark Week.” A variety of specials, documentaries and “docufiction” reel in the viewers … even if some are heavier on the fiction than the docu.


And this year, just for good measure, the 40th anniversary of the all-time shark-ratings champ, Jaws, was re-released in theaters and on DVDs.


It’s never seemed more dangerous to go into the waters.


Actually, it’s never been more dangerous.


An astonishing number of confirmed and suspected shark bites (Victims would say all have been pretty well confirmed.) have taken place off the Atlantic Coast, especially off the coasts of North Carolina and South Carolina. From June 11 through July 8, eight people were bitten off North Carolina beaches, most in water no more than waist-deep. Two were bitten so savagely that they lost limbs. Another four were bitten off South Carolina.


The eight attacks are the most ever in North Carolina – or at least so says the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File, which began keeping records in 1935. The previous record of five was set in 2010.


And remember, this was by early July, less than halfway through the summer season. (Shark Week has become Shark Summer.)


I’m writing this on the last day of our family’s July vacation, spent on Topsail Island, site of two of the bitings. (Of the other six in were off the Outer Banks and three were off the Brunswick Islands at the southern part of the state, including the two worst, on June 15, which resulted in full or partial loss of the victims’ arms.) Stories were all over the news and social media. Everyone was talking about the sharks.


Still, I can say from personal observation that the attacks did not cause many people to stop going into the water …


All the way up to their shins.


There were still the occasional brave/foolhardy/unaware souls who swam out over their heads. And there were still surfers going even farther. But on the whole, people with bathing suits didn’t much need them. Taking off their shoes would have been enough.


It all reminds me of the summers following the release of Peter Benchley’s Jaws blockbuster novel in 1974 and, especially, of Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws movie the next year. Beach attendance fell, while the number of shark “sightings” increased. This year has had an innovative twist, though: Social media has shared photos and videos of sharks: some real, some mistaken & some simply faked. (There’s nothing like a good frenzy.)


So what’s this all about – and what about us?


Are shark bites going to be more frequent from now on? George H. Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, has become everyone’s go-to expert. He told National Geographic that overall, shark attacks are on pace with an average year and that the chance of getting bit is still practically nil: only one bite for every 11.5 million beach bathers. (That must be comforting to the victims.)


Still, Burgess added, “something is going on in North Carolina right now.”


‘Burgess cited five conditions for what he called “kind of a perfect storm”: 1) warmer weather, which lures both beach-goers and sharks, 2) a higher salinity; North Carolina’s recent drought meant less rainwater has flowed into the sea to dilute salty waters, which sharks love, 3) a run of more “bait fish,” especially menhaden, which lure sharks, 4) fishing near swimmers; bait fish; and blood draw sharks to the area, and 5) global warming; warmer temperatures are occurring in certain places at certain times; and, as climate change increases, those will bring more sharks father north and entice more people into the same waters.


Burgess was not an alarmist, though. As he told the Los Angeles Times, the perfect storm this year won’t continue indefinitely. “This is going to go away. We’re not under attack from sharks.”


Indeed. The sharks will move off and we will move back into the water, even if a little more cautiously. Beachgoing is too much a part of people’s summer experiences for it to end.


We’ll soon all be splashing around like we used to.


And hoping the sharks don’t know that.





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