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Even after a teen tourist was bitten by a shark in Onslow County, an expert says encounters with the big toothy fish are rare

Blayne Brown is surrounded by his team of health care professionals at Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune on June 25, 2024. Brown was transported to the NMCCL Trauma Center from North Topsail Beach on June 23 after suffering extensive wounds to his right leg from a shark bite. Brown was cared for by a team of providers at NMCCL; he will soon travel home to West Virginia to complete recovery.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin Woods
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Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune
Blayne Brown is surrounded by his team of health care professionals at Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune on June 25, 2024. Brown was transported to the NMCCL Trauma Center from North Topsail Beach on June 23 after suffering extensive wounds to his right leg from a shark bite. Brown was cared for by a team of providers at NMCCL; he will soon travel home to West Virginia to complete recovery.

Galeophobia— the fear of sharks — is real, but the odds you'll be bitten by a shark in North Carolina are extremely low. After a 14-year-old tourist was bitten last weekend at an Onslow County Beach, PRE’s Annette Weston talked to a local shark expert about those odds.

Statistics show there have been 10 fatal shark encounters reported along North Carolina's coastline since 1864. Between 2013 and 2022, North Carolina had 31 total shark bites, which is far fewer than other states like Florida and Hawaii.

Dr. Joel Fodrie is the shark expert at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City, and he’s not surprised at the visceral reactions people have shared online in the days since.

"I do understand why people are concerned; they focus on the stakes,” he said, “The stakes can be high when one of these interactions happen, it can certainly make for a very bad day, or even worse. If people were to focus on the odds, they really wouldn't give it a second thought.”

In August last year, a 9-year-old boy survived being bitten in the shoulder off the coast of North Carolina; Paige Winter, 17, was attacked while swimming in waist-deep waters off the coast of North Carolina on June 2, 2019. She lost two fingers and her left leg was amputated; and Brown was on vacation from West Virginia when he was bitten on the lower leg by a shark on Sunday.

Fodrie says there are only 2-3 swimming injuries caused by sharks most years, and considering how many people spend hours of time in the waters off the North Carolina coast, that’s pretty low.

"It highlights how low the odds are,” he said, “People spend millions of hours along our coast each week and month, and the sharks are in the coastal ocean, and the fact that we're talking about a first or second or third and generally that's all we get to in a year, to me, that's an extraordinarily encouraging sign that the sharks are not a big threat, statistically speaking.”

Dr. Joel Fodrie aboard the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences R/V Capricorn.
M.May
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UNC Research
Dr. Joel Fodrie aboard the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences R/V Capricorn.

And many of the human encounters with sharks occur simply because they were minding their own business, living their best big fish life, when they swam up on a person.

"A number of species of sharks are in the near shore environment. That's where sharks live, and generally sharks are trying to do three things: They are trying to find food, at some point trying to find a mate, and they spend almost all the rest of their time trying to avoid risk. Sharks are inherently very skittish animals,” Fodrie said.

And people who spend time in the Atlantic Ocean have likely already had a shark encounter they didn’t know about. Fodrie said, “If you've spent any amount of time in the surf zone or along the beach, you've been within a couple 100 yards of a shark. Probably a small one, sometimes a little bit bigger.”

One thing to watch out for? Fodrie says the number of fish in the water can be a clue that there is a shark nearby. “If you see a lot of bait fish, if you see dolphins at the surface feeding on bait fish, there are other animals that are in the vicinity trying to feed,” he explained. “You might want to get out of the water for a few minutes and let that kind of die down.”

And while shark encounters happen more often at certain times of day, avoiding those hours isn’t a guarantee of a shark-free swim.

"You probably do want to avoid being in the water right at dawn or right at dusk, although I understand this this person, this young person who was bit it was like, you know, at noon just about. So, any time of day is possible,” he said.

Another tip, Fodrie says, is to choose a soundside beach rather than oceanside.

"The water can be just as lovely. It's generally calmer in terms of wave action, and given that calmness, I think sharks have even more ability to sort of suss out the cues they're seeing. And, basically, if they figure out it’s a person, those queues are not the queues, they're they've evolved to be attracted to and so they generally get out of Dodge.”

Also last weekend, there were 152 water rescues during dangerous rip currents at the North Carolina coast between the official start of summer on Thursday and the end of the day on Sunday. Fodrie says people are much more likely to be killed or injured in that situation than in a run-in with a shark.

Meanwhile, officials at Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune say Blayne Brown, who was enjoying the last day of summer vacation with family when he was bitten in waist-deep water, had surgery to repair several tendons in his lower leg and staple deep bite wounds. He will be wearing a boot for several weeks and may need physical therapy but is expected to recover.

“I didn’t even see the shark,” Brown said. “I sort of blacked out, walked toward the beach, and laid down, screaming. It felt like the shark was still on me.”

The 14-year-old has no immediate plans to dip toes back into the ocean anytime soon. He said, “I’ll have these scars for the rest of my life, so maybe just ankle deep for a while.”

Annette is originally a Midwest gal, born and raised in Michigan, but with career stops in many surrounding states, the Pacific Northwest, and various parts of the southeast. An award-winning journalist and mother of four, Annette moved to eastern North Carolina in 2019 to be closer to family – in particular, her two young grandchildren. It’s possible that a -27 day with a -68 windchill in Minnesota may have also played a role in that decision. In her spare time, Annette does a lot of kiddo cuddling, reading, and producing the coolest Halloween costumes anyone has ever seen. She has also worked as a diversity and inclusion facilitator serving school districts and large corporations. It’s the people that make this beautiful area special, and she wants to share those stories that touch the hearts of others. If you have a story idea to share, please reach out by email to westona@cravencc.edu.