On Wednesday, a 68-year-old man was attacked by a shark while swimming off the coast of North Carolina's Outer Banks, the seventh such incident in the state in the last month. If you're thinking that seven shark attacks is a lot for just 30 days, you're right: It's more than the state typically expects in an entire year. So why are there so many shark attacks? Experts don't have a clear explanation for the uptick in attacks, but a combination of several natural and man-made factors could be to blame.
Together, North and South Carolina average about six shark attacks per year. Counting Wednesday's incident, the Carolinas have already logged 10 attacks in 2015 — with one of the biggest beach holidays, Fourth of July, just on the horizon. North Carolina tourism officials expect to see a record-breaking number of visitors come to their coast for the holiday weekend, even despite the recent attacks, and they're warning all beach-goers of the heightened threat.
"We think we'll have another record [holiday weekend] this year," Wit Tuttle, executive director of North Carolina's tourism office told the News & Observer in Raleigh. "These things are tragic, but I think people will understand they're rare and isolated."
As you probably know by now, your chances of getting killed by a shark are small (like, one-in-3,700,000 small). But it seems like it could be a little higher this year, thanks to warmer waters, fishing, and drought conditions.
"This is a situation that we can't ignore, as we've had a number of attacks that are serious within a short period of time," George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, told CNN's Anderson Cooper on Wednesday.
Burgess thinks that warmer waters and drought conditions have something to do with the attacks. During times of drought, less freshwater gets to the sea. Therefore, the higher concentration of saltwater near the coast attracts more sharks and fish. Central and western North Carolina have indeed experienced some mild to moderate drought conditions recently, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
This higher concentration of salt can also raise the water temperature slightly, although climate change has caused temperatures to rise as well. Warmer waters, in turn, affect shark migration patterns and could explain why there are so many sharks swimming around North Carolina.
A third explanation points directly to human activities. According to North Carolina officials, shark fishing near swimmers may be increasing the risk of shark attacks. Following the previous attacks in the area, the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries has urged fishers to stay clear of surfers and swimmers. Louis Daniel, director of the Division of Marine Fisheries, also thinks that a growing shark population might have something to do with it. Federal regulations to protect sharks — including a ban to the notorious practice of "finning" sharks — have allowed populations to grow in recent years.
Thanks to the increased risk of sharks, it's more important than ever for beach-goers to take preventative measures to protect themselves. One way to stay on the lookout before you get in the water is to follow a shark tracker online or on your mobile device. These systems record the locations of tagged sharks all over the world. Of course, not all sharks are tagged, but it's a good way to get an idea of where sharks are in the world at this time of year. Additionally, there are some definite no-nos — avoid swimming alone, at dawn or dusk, or while wearing jewelry.