The phones rang steadily at Oak Island’s largest house-rental company on Monday, a day after two youths were mauled in separate shark attacks just off the beach.
“We’ve had a few people try to cancel their reservations,” said Melaney Robbins, vice president of Oak Island Accommodations, which manages about 700 rental properties on the island. “But we’ve had more calling to make new reservations. We have bookings coming in today for this weekend.”
Across the Brunswick County island – on the fishing pier, at local restaurants and in shops that have just opened for the season – tourists and business owners were anxious for updates on the victims’ conditions and speculation was rife over whether there had been more than one shark involved.
News of the attacks had traveled quickly among local residents, who share information through a private Facebook page.
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In the first attack, a 12-year-old girl from Asheboro lost part of her left arm and received a serious leg injury. In the second, a 16-year-old Colorado boy lost most of his left arm. Both were in good condition Monday at the New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, hospital spokeswoman Martha Harlan told the Associated Press. Neither child’s name was released.
Officials said both youths were swimming in water about waist-deep. Town Manager Tim Holloman said that after the second attack, officials went up and down the beaches asking people to get out of the water.
Holloman called that a “voluntary evacuation” and said the town is researching whether it could legally require people to get out of the water in the event of another such emergency.
Oak Island Mayor Betty Wallace told the AP that information was too spotty after the first attack to justify immediately clearing the water.
Throughout the day Monday, the Brunswick County Sheriff's Office conducted patrols of the coast line using boats, helicopters and all terrain vehicles. Holloman said he would meet with local leaders Monday night to decide whether to continue the patrols on Tuesday.
Marine biologists say a single shark bite is a rare event, and to have two so close together is extraordinary.
Angler: Many sharks in water
The first attack happened next to the Ocean Crest Pier, a popular spot with anglers. Fishermen hoping to snare game fish such as Spanish mackerel off the end of the pier had pulled in a couple of sharks on Monday.
One man who said he was from Hope Mills and wore a shirt that said, “Quit wishin,’ Go Fishin,’” said he began to notice sharks off the end of the pier about two weeks ago and said it wasn’t that unusual.
“People have no idea how many sharks are in these waters,” he said.
Holloman said the town tries to discourage fishermen on the island’s two piers from chumming for sharks.
The second attack was not adjacent to a pier.
The attacks came at the start of the first full week after most traditional school systems across North Carolina had released students for the summer. Shopkeepers said the crowds were about normal for the start of vacation season, when Oak Island’s population goes from fewer than 10,000 people to more than 30,000.
Mom: ‘Just not worth it’ yet
Along the island’s 12 miles of beaches, vacationers planted umbrellas and chairs in the sand on Monday, but most swimmers remained close to the water’s edge. A few mothers sat in water just a few inches deep with their small children.
“We’re out here having a great time,” said Tom Egan of Charlotte, who is spending the week at Oak Island with his wife and their three children, all under age 10. “But we’re only going into the water as far as our knees today. Until we know more about what’s going on, it’s just not worth it.”
Shirley Mason came to the island Monday with her daughter, Stephany Pace, and two grandchildren, ages 4 and 6. The four, from Harnett County, were visiting family at Carolina Beach but decided to come to Oak Island for the day because they like the wide beach and the thinner crowds, Mason said.
“We know not to let the babies go in the water,” she said. When asked how far she let them get in, she marked a spot about 4 inches up her ankle and said, “About right here. That’s it.”
Mason and her daughter said people should not be completely surprised by occasional shark bites and should always be cautious when playing in the ocean. Riptides can cause drownings and Portugese men-of-war, such as those that have washed up on some North Carolina beaches recently, can cause serious injuries.
With vacationers approaching the water so tentatively, the greater danger on Monday may have been heat-related illnesses; at 3 p.m., it was 91 degrees but with the heat index, felt like 106, according to the National Weather Service.
After Sunday’s attacks, town leaders sent an email to local rental companies packed with information about how to spot and avoid sharks and whom to call if one was spotted close to shore. It included a color flier produced by North Carolina Sea Grant, featuring a chart to help identify seven common types of sharks found in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
“Am I going to print this out and give it to all our guests when they check in on Saturday and freak them out?” Robbins asked at the rental office. “No. But I have kids, and I know it’s scary. It’ll be a while before they want to go back in the water.”