Will a shark really get me? Just be careful, says URI expert

Photo: National Park Service/Cape Cod National Seashore

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — This week, a man escaped serious injury at Marconi Beach on Cape Cod when a shark bit his paddleboard while he was standing on it. But a professor at the University of Rhode Island responded that it’s very rare and not likely for a shark to actively attack a human.

Brad Wetherbee, a researcher and teaching professor for the Department of Biological Sciences at URI, has studied sharks for more than 30 years. He understands the fear some might have about going in the water, but said Thursday the odds are still in our favor.

“I bought a lottery ticket, a lot of people bought a lottery ticket,” before the historic Powerball jackpot this week that reached over $700 million, “but the odds are extremely slim. And it’s the same with getting attacked by a shark,” Wetherbee said.

Consider: There are typically only 10 shark attacks per year in the entire world, Wetherbee pointed out. If they really wanted to attack people, that number would be much higher.

The incident shut down Marconi Beach Wednesday morning. Cleveland Bigelow, 69, had been in about three feet of water when the shark clamped its jaws on the paddleboard.

It had come as a surprise, to say the least. It wasn’t like the encroaching shark gliding toward his prey in the movie “Jaws,” he said: “It’s not like I see the fin coming… I never saw the shark coming or going.”

“Nothing happened to me — other than I got like, a hematoma. That’s from my board hitting me because it flipped up,” Bigelow said.

Wetherbee figures the paddleboard was likely bitten by a great white shark looking for its preferred meal of choice — a seal.

These days, there are more sharks around because there are more seals, “because they have been protected since the early 70’s, the Marine Mammal Protection Act. So the seal population has gone up.”

What’s a hardy swimmer or boarder to do?

“It’s not like you have to stay out of the water, but you might be careful where you are going,” Wetherbee said. “I wouldn’t probably swim offshore in deep waters, especially in some places where sharks have been sighted.”