Shark attacks off Carolinas aren't stopping vacationers

Shark attacks in North and South Carolina are not preventing people from vacationing on the states' beaches, local business owners say—though tourists may be thinking twice about diving into the water.

People help a 68-year-old shark-bite victim on Ocracoke Island, N.C., July 1, 2015.
Laura I. Hefty via AP
People help a 68-year-old shark-bite victim on Ocracoke Island, N.C., July 1, 2015.

It's only July, but the Carolinas have already seen 12 shark attacks in 2015, compared with a normal average of four to six for the region in an entire year. To put that in further perspective, the entire country of Australia, which gets wide media attention for shark attacks, saw a total of 23 attacks in 2014. Five were fatal and 14 caused injury.

But none of that is keeping families away from places like the Outer Banks, Hilton Head or Myrtle Beach.

No one has canceled their summer reservations at Outer Banks Blue, a vacation home rental company in North Carolina, said owner Tim Cafferty. He's actually seen a spike in business.

"Over the last two weeks we've seen more last-minute rentals than we have in the last five years," Cafferty said. "It's really been ironic. I think people understand it's an isolated event, and that the chances are infinitesimally small."

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Cafferty added, however, that the attacks may be leading to greater customer traffic for inland businesses.

"I believe we've seen a better economic situation here, quite frankly, that people are doing other things besides going to the beach," he said. He's seen increased tourist attendance at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, para-sailing on the more enclosed "Soundside" waters, and ropes courses.

The Island Resort and Inn, a hotel off the beach in Oak Island, North Carolina, where two of the attacks have occurred, already has customers rebooking vacations for next year, said office manager Rose Dauphinais.

"I've been coming here since 1976, and this was the first shark attack I've ever heard of," she said, but added that "no one has canceled their trips."

"I'm a surfer myself. My nephew is in town with us working at the restaurant, and we go surfing as much as we can. We just make sure we're in a busy area and staying near life guards." -Donny King, owner, Ocean Boulevard Bistro and Martini Bar

That said, the attacks are serious— and unusual—said George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida.

"It's an all-time high for a yearly total. It's an unprecedented situation," he said. "This is just a slap in the face that we need to be more careful entering the sea."

Even with this year's unusually high number of attacks in the Carolinas, in context, there are more pressing dangers at the beach than sharks, Burgess said. The world saw only three known shark-attack fatalities in 2014. The last fatal shark attack in South Carolina was in 1852.

Burgess added that the number shark attacks is directly related to the number of people in the water.

"It's sort of a back-handed compliment to the chambers of commerce who are bringing that many people into the waters," he said. "The next step is development of beach safety personnel and services to reduce the risk of shark attacks on their beaches that are now drawing so many people."

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Tourism brought $21.3 billion to North Carolina in 2014, said Wit Tuttell, executive director of Visit North Carolina. Six and a half million people spent their time visiting North Carolina beaches in 2014, according to a survey from the organization.

This year's tourism season has yet to take a hit from the shark attacks, said Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors' Bureau. Nettles said his office has seen an increased number of concerned calls from visitors, but that people aren't canceling their trips.

"Clearly something extraordinary is going on, but the three shark encounters we've had in the Outer Banks are relative to the 5 million visitors annually," he said. "Three shark bites is three too many, but it's still a relatively safe environment."

At the Ocean Boulevard Bistro and Martini Bar in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, owner Donny King said he saw an uptick in business at his restaurant during the Fourth of July weekend. He's personally taking precautions, but he's not staying out of the water.

"I'm a surfer myself. My nephew is in town with us working at the restaurant, and we go surfing as much as we can," he said. "We just make sure we're in a busy area and staying near life guards."

CORRECTION: There were 23 shark attacks reported in Australia in 2014. That fact was misstated in an earlier version of this article.