AVON, N.C. — It’s the golden hour, right before sunset, when the light is soft and pretty. The landscape looks like a postcard. Tourists stroll, kids run.
No one is in the water. No one wants to be a feast for a shark.
“This is a very sharky place,” mused 56-year-old John Kane as he stood on the Avon Pier and stared into the crashing surf.
They’re out there, somewhere, in the murky, antifreeze-green water. There are sharpnose and black tips, bulls and tigers. Maybe even a great white or two, if Twitter is to be believed. Always lurking, always swimming, always eating.
And too often, of late, their prey has been human: In a 28-day span, eight people have been bitten by sharks in North Carolina, a new high for the 80 years in which records have been kept.
At least three people have been bitten or attacked by sharks in the South Carolina in the past month, including a 12-year-old vacationer at the Isle of Palms County Park, which is a rarity there.
The attacks have spanned a hundred-mile stretch of coastline, three of them along the barrier islands of the Outer Banks. Most of them occurred in shallow water. Injuries have ranged widely, from an 8-year-old boy who had only minor wounds to his heel and ankle to at least two others who had limbs amputated.
Authorities don’t blame the same shark, or even the same type of shark. They struggle to explain the sudden spate of attacks.
But there is no need to explain the fascination with this creature, or the fear it inspires.
“There could be a 10-footer in there,” Kane said, casually pointing to the dark water under the pier.
Kane was hoping to catch a tarpon or mackerel. He’s fished these waters for some 30 years. The only thing he snagged on Tuesday afternoon was a shark.
“About this big,” Kane said, holding his hands some three feet apart. “I just cut ‘em loose. We have an understanding. I don’t eat them and they don’t eat me.”
If only people and sharks did have that kind of pact, maybe people would be swimming and bodyboarding and not canceling surf lessons.
Everyone is talking about sharks along the Outer Banks. At the sushi bar in Buxton. On the radio. At the Orange Blossom Bakery, where on a recent day 51-year-old Deanna Salken regaled customers with the story of her own too-close encounter with a shark.
She was swimming during the Fourth of July weekend when she felt something sharp graze her ankle. She looked down, and it was a four-footer. The shark’s teeth didn’t break her skin.
“I was dumbfounded,” she said, as she served customers waiting in line the bakery’s signature Apple Ugly pastry. “I kicked it and it swam away.”
She referred a reporter to one customer, Jordan Bartholomew. Shirtless, he identified himself as a local surfer who was bitten by a shark in 2008.
“It’s not normal for this many sharks and this many incidents to be happening here,” he shrugged. “Sharks have like sensory stuff pushing them to shore.”
Chuck Bangley, a shark researcher at East Carolina University, said unseasonably warm water brought more turtles and fish closer to shore, which means the sharks that eat those creatures are also drawn to shore. And the hot temperatures drew more people to the beach.
Also, the Continental Shelf is narrow in the area near the Outer Banks — like another area popular for shark bites, near New Smyrna Beach in Florida — which means sharks are “pushed closer to shore” there, said Bangley.
“Any time you’re in the water, the odds are good a shark is a few hundred yards away,” he said.
There have been similar shark alarms before. The last Summer of the Shark was in 2001 — or so proclaimed the media at the time (see Time Magazine, July 3 of that year). It culminated on Sept. 10, 2001, when a man from Russia died and his girlfriend was seriously injured by a shark, not far from the Avon Pier.
It was North Carolina’s only fatal shark attack ever, but it was quickly overshadowed by larger events. People forgot about sharks along much of the East Coast, and sharks apparently forgot about people — at least until this year.
Popular culture feeds the fear. There’s “Jaws” — which is, by the way, 40 years old this summer. And there’s Shark Week on the Discovery Channel — which runs, coincidentally, this week.
“Yeah, I’m watching Shark Week,” laughed Mike Strickler of Avon, as he fished from the pier. He won’t swim in the water.
It is easy to overstate the risk that sharks pose. Some 5 million people visit the Outer Banks annually, which means that the odds that any one of them will be bitten by a shark are small. There are usually more shark attacks in Florida than any other state, according to experts. They’re rarer than rip currents, jellyfish stings and stingray attacks, and much less common than man-made calamities.
“How many car accidents were there in North Carolina this week?” asked Kathryn Peperkorn, 45, of Rocklin, California. (Answer: There were 10 car crash deaths over the July 4 weekend.)
Peperkorn and her husband and their four children were enjoying a blindingly sunny day at Cape Hatteras National Seashore — and all were going in the water.
“My kids are more in danger coming here in the car,” she said, squinting at her four kids, aged 7-14, who waded knee-deep in the surf. “I’m not someone who lives in fear.”
She added that they weren’t going to swim far out and were staying in view of the lifeguards. “We’re not going to be stupid.”
After all, there’s no denying this year’s attacks. And judging from Salken’s tale of being nipped on the ankle, there have been other, lesser incidents that have gone unreported. Maybe 2015 has been a banner year for attacks, but local swimmers and surfers say they’re used to seeing at least a few sharks each year.
“Sharks have always been here,” said lifeguard Michael Morris, as he admired as osprey diving for fish. “This is an ocean. You can’t control an environment like that. It’s not Disney.”
And yet, for a few, all-too-brief vacation days each year, we go into the shark’s habitat. We load up our grills and crank the classic rock and we dive in, blissfully unaware or willingly ignorant of the danger. We swim in the shark’s home, and try to forget that it exists.
Against the backdrop of a stunning sunset, 44-year-old Gary Pollock of Wilson cast his line off Buxton beach at dusk. During his annual vacation, he hasn’t seen any sharks, although his wife reported a “shark scare” earlier in the day, he said.
The idea that sharks might be in the ocean didn’t faze him. “They live out there,” he shrugged, lighting a Marlboro. “They’re like deer. I have no fear of them.”
He added: “The ocean’s a rough place. It’s not where we’re supposed to be.”
With a smile, he also conceded that he won’t swim in the ocean. Ever.
“It’s because I fish,” he said. “I know what’s out there.”
And what’s out there are the predators. Lurking. Swimming. Unseen until it’s too late.
Perhaps the shark gets a bad rap. Perhaps the shark is just another predator. Like us.
Or, as Ernest Hemingway wrote in 1952 to a literary critic regarding “The Old Man and the Sea,” a story that was rife with sharks and the imagery of savage beasts:
“There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse.”