What kinds of sharks are found off the North Carolina coast?

21 June 1999

Many kinds of sharks can be found in the waters off North Carolina. According to shark researcher Frank J. Schwartz, more than 50 species of sharks are known to swim in the estuarine, shelf and deep ocean waters of North and South Carolina. Twenty-eight of those species are considered the most common sharks of North Carolina.

That sounds like a lot of sharks; however, consider that those 28 most common North Carolina species include sharks that live offshore in deep water, or those that only visit our coast during certain times of the year. Whether or not other species visit the Tar Heel coast can depend on a number of factors, including water temperature, food supplies and breeding patterns.

For example, North Carolina’s coast is considered to be a birthing ground for six kinds of sharks, including the tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvieri). Year-round sharks that prefer deep ocean water include the oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus) and the blue shark (Prionace glauca). These very rarely, if ever, come close to shore.

The thresher shark (Alopias vulpinus) also prefers deeper waters, where it can be found year-round, however, it may come closer inshore during July and August. The thresher is distinguished by its long tail or caudal fin, which it uses to herd and stun prey.

The silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) also is a year-round offshore shark that can be found closer in from May to December. The Atlantic sharpnose (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae) and smooth dogfish (Mustelus canis) are year-round North Carolina residents that may be found closer to shore. The sharpnose is one of the most abundant sharks in North Carolina waters during the summer, and its offspring are common catches off our piers. Fishermen often refer to them as sand sharks. Its average size is three feet. The smooth dogfish averages four feet in length. It is commonly found in depths less than 60 feet and feeds primarily on crabs and shrimp.

During the summer and fall months, sand tiger (Odontaspis taurus), sand bar (Carcharhinus plumbeus), spinner (Carcharhinus brevipinna) and scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini) sharks are among the most common inshore visitors to our coast. The great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran) also ventures inshore between June and September, as does its smaller cousin the bonnethead (Sphyrna tiburo) shark. Bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas), blacktip (Carcharhinus limbatus) and blacknose (Carcharhinus acronotus) sharks can be found inshore during spring and summer.

Of the 400 species of sharks that swim the world’s oceans, experts consider only half a dozen to be dangerous. Most are shy and harmless, avoiding people and other large animals when possible. While it may seem as though sharks are plentiful off our coast, the chance of a close encounter is slim.

Additional Resources

Books:

* Sharks of the Carolinas, Frank J. Schwartz
Institute of Marine Sciences, UNC, March 1989

* The Sharks of North America, Jose I. Castro
Texas A&M University Press, 1983

* Shadows in the Sea: The Sharks, Skates and Rays, Thomas B. Allen
Lyons & Burford, 1996