With real shark week in the offing, Southern beach-goers show little fear

There's heightened concern this holiday weekend in the Carolinas, as the area has now seen 11 shark attacks. But officials aren't expecting many beach-goers to keep their toes out of the water.

Discovery Channel/AP
A researcher stands in the clear shark cage while a great white shark swims by during an episode of "Shark Week." The television series returns Sunday on the Discovery Channel.

Wary they may be, fearful they are not.

Despite a total of 11 shark attacks along the coasts of North and South Carolina leading up to the Fourth of July weekend, officials in shark-bitten places like Ocracoke Island, N.C. and Wrightsville Beach, N.C., don’t expect to see beaches abandoned this holiday weekend.

That doesn't mean people aren't concerned. North Carolina alone has racked up seven attacks early this summer compared to the annual average of three, officials are asking beach-goers to be on the lookout for shark fins, and local law enforcement has vowed stepped-up helicopter patrols to help sight sharks and, if they’re spotted, radio lifeguards to put up red flags on the beach.

But even after two teenagers received serious injuries from two separate shark bite incidents on Oak Island, N.C., in June, town manager Tim Holloman told reporters that hotel bookings and beach crowds suggested that visitors were, in the end, undaunted.

Part of that mental resilience may be simple statistical awareness that a fatal bee sting is far more likely than a fatal shark bite, even when attacks are up.

Still, decisions by beach-goers to not spend their vacation scared rubs against what some say is a primal fear of toothy predators, where Americans realize that “a shark attack is a low probability but potentially high consequence event,” the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Robert Gebelhoff note. “It’s a scary thought, and swimmers in America still hear the spooky music from Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘Jaws.’”

After former Boston Herald editor Andrew Costello was attacked by a seven-foot shark just off the Ocracoke Island Beach on Wednesday, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory announced that state officials are looking for patterns.

“This is the real deal,” George Burgess, who directs the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History, tells the Washington Post. His advice: Authorities should shut down some of the stricken beaches for a few days so the attacks don’t “snowball.”

While beach shutdowns are unlikely given the size of the Fourth of July beach throngs, it's also clear that news of a real-life shark week in the Carolinas has had some impact on beach-going. Wrightsville Beach surf instructor Sean Griffin told the Raleigh News & Observer that he’d lost an average of one lesson a day due to shark concerns.

“Sharks aren’t looking to bite people. It’s just poor luck. You’re entering the ocean, you’re choosing to get in with sharks,” Mr. Griffin said.

Many beach-goers may simply be trying to put the attacks into perspective as they edge into the surf. For one, none of the attacks have been fatal. What’s more, new research that suggests bites usually happen close to areas where people are fishing and chumming the waters give swimmers an added safety opportunity, by  staying away from fishing piers.

And in North Carolina, the sharks, likely scouring the warm water beaches while chasing a record crop of menhaden, may have moved on. Shark fishermen told the News & Observer that while they caught 30 sharks a couple of weeks ago, they only caught a handful in the week before Fourth of July.

“This is something that happens every year,” says Mr. Griffin, the North Carolina surfer, in the News & Observer story. “It’s been somewhat abnormal in the intensity of the attacks, but not frequency. To be honest, the news companies and media are fueling the fire and making it worse.”

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