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When the Shark Bites: Why and How These Attacks Happen on Oregon Coast

Published 03/07/2019 at 5:23 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

When the Shark Bites: Why and How These Attacks Happen on Oregon Coast

(Pacific City, Oregon) – Warnings of a shark cruising the waters of Pacific City are being posted around the north Oregon coast town after a local surfer had an encounter Tuesday. Sign proclaiming the dangers are up near Cape Kiwanda – actually the second time in a little over a year. (Above: Cape Kiwanda).

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Pacific City resident Nathan Holstedt was nearly bitten when the shark went for his surfboard, missing the surfer’s leg by six inches. Holstedt managed to swat the shark with his surfboard and paddled back to shore quickly without injury.

It was a major scare by any stretch of the imagination. Holstedt said he suddenly found himself pulled underwater for a brief period when the creature got hold of his board.

Shark attacks are fairly rare along the Oregon coast, and so far records don’t indicate any known death in the state’s waters because of such an encounter.

How often do these occur? Why? And what does it mean?

It is cause for caution. In this case, not only did signs go up but a state parks ranger is now posted to the beach access to explain the situation. In fact, back in November of 2017, a series of shark sightings resulted in signs being posted to beware. State officials did not actually urge people to keep out of the water, however.

State officials are not necessarily telling people to stay out now, either.

The frequency of shark attacks seems to average every two to three years, and always involves a surfer or someone on a body board. The reigning theory about these situations is that they are a case of mistaken identity, according Jim Burke, director of animal husbandry at Oregon Coast Aquarium.

“There’s clusters” Burke said. “We’ve had a few years where we’ve seen them three years in a row. We’ve had give or take 25 incidents in the last 45 years. Almost entirely surfing or entirely surfing. And they’re always accidental bites.”

Indeed, public information on shark attacks along the Oregon coast backs that up: most records indicate 28 attacks since 1975 and none of them fatal.

Sharks chomp down on a lot of seals and sea lions, and in the water it’s difficult for a shark to tell the difference between seal and surfer. The blackish wet suits don’t help, either.

“Surfers have a similar silhouette when seen from down below,” Burke said. “It’s a case of misidentification. They’re not necessarily targeting a person.”

A strange and surprising bit of shark science is how it tests its prey – an odd kind of “sixth sense” it uses when approaching something it’s hunting.

According to Dr. Bill Hanshumaker, with the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, sharks have an unusual set of sensing organs called the ampullae of Lorenzini, a grouping of pores in its snout. It’s difficult to say if this plays a major part in the shark’s decision to stop biting a human or surfboard if it realizes this is not prey.

“Part of the shark’s offensive weapons are these pores in the nose of the shark,” Hanshumaker said. “It closes its eyes and then relies on an electrical field detection by the ampullae of Lorenzini for close identification. So if a shark misidentifies something – especially around here, for some reason - the shark bites it and lets go. Part of the reason they do that is to lacerate the animal to see if it will bleed out, so they won’t get hurt. I don’t know if it has anything to do with prey identification, but it’s advantageous to not have an animal hurt by its prey.”

What kind of shark tried to chomp on Holstedt is unknown. Great whites are about the only kind of shark found along the Oregon coast known to try and bite humans, but they’re not especially plentiful. Other sharks common to the Oregon coast: the Thresher shark, Pacific Sleeper, Blue shark, Short Fin Mako and the Soupfin.

Most sharks on the Oregon coast are seen after they wash up on the beaches: photos of such incidents below, courtesy Seaside Aquarium.



 





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