Are there sharks in Topsail Beach, NC? Yes, but before you cancel your visit to what has been voted one of the best beach towns in America, let’s try to understand the sharks that live here and if they pose any real danger.
Of the larger sharks that most people are interested in, there are 14 species found off the coast of North Carolina. However, we must immediately emphasize that sightings of sharks at Topsail Beach are pretty rare.
Predatory sharks, including the infamous great white, have been tracked living naturally in the Atlantic Ocean off Topsail Island, typically passing by as they migrate along the East Coast.
But it’s highly uncommon for them to be seen because they usually stay well offshore.
Sharks more likely to be spotted close to shore include the sandbar, blacknose, and spinner sharks.
Fortunately, although it’s always wise to be cautious during any interactions, these are considered considerably less threatening to humans than their more famous relations.
Located just off the coast of southeastern North Carolina, the 26-mile (41.8 kilometer) long Topsail Island consists of three main areas covering Pender County to the south and Onslow County in the north.
Topsail Beach is at the island’s south end, Surf City is in the middle, and North Topsail beach sits in the north.
The threat to beachgoers of swimming in these potentially shark-populated waters is, thankfully, extremely low.
Since records for North Carolina began in 1935 up until the end of 2022, Pender County has only experienced two unprovoked shark attacks, while Onslow County has had ten.
Compare this with the total of 337 ever recorded in the so-called “shark attack capital of the world,” Volusia County in Florida, which even then is considered very low risk, and you can start to appreciate that there isn’t much to worry about.
Topsail Beach is rightfully famous for being one of the most beautiful, relaxing, and least crowded beaches in North Carolina. In fact, it’s so peaceful it’s known as a sanctuary for sea turtles.
The local safety record is excellent. So, make sure you stay within your limits and follow sensible guidelines, such as staying in groups and avoiding swimming at dawn or dusk when sharks are more active, and you can get ready for a wonderful visit.
Types of Sharks in Topsail Beach, NC
There have always been sharks in the ocean around Topsail Beach. Indeed, the area is known as one of the best in the world for finding fossilized shark teeth.
While hunting for prehistoric shark remains can be great fun, we’re here to answer, “What kind of sharks are in Topsail Beach?” in modern times.
Some shark species venture into North Carolina’s estuaries and sounds, including the Pamlico Sound and its connecting rivers far up the NC coast from Topsail Beach, to use the broad and relatively shallow areas as nursery grounds or to feed.
However, locally it isn’t thought that these species usually enter the narrow waters behind Topsail island.
Our focus will be on the open ocean in front of the beaches, which many sharks may visit, including those that rarely enter estuaries under any circumstances.
Let’s look at the types of sharks in Topsail Beach, starting with the most famous and potentially dangerous.
Great White Shark
Scientists have tracked the great white shark swimming along the coast of North Carolina, but before you worry, these giants are known to prefer deeper waters, well away from the beaches.
In 2021, two great whites tagged initially in waters off the coast of Canada were monitored swimming off North Carolina.
It’s thought that these sharks migrate south as winter approaches from as far as Nova Scotia to spend their time in the warmer waters off Florida, Georgia, and South and North Carolina.
Some scientists also think that the sharks may mate or give birth in the North Carolina area due to their typical sightings of smaller sharks, mainly during the winter and early spring.
Although the great white might have a reputation for being the most dangerous shark in the world, there are no records of one ever having attacked someone at Topsail Beach or the surrounding area.
The bull shark is an incredibly versatile predator that can even survive in freshwater rivers.
Like other predatory sharks, sightings of bull sharks at Topsail Beach are extremely rare.
However, in September 2005, local authorities blamed a bull shark for an attack at North Topsail Beach south of the New River Inlet when a beachgoer suffered lacerations to their calf while wading in waist-deep water.
This is the only attack on record by a bull shark. However, it shows that they should be treated cautiously, and it is best to stay out of the water if one has been spotted.
Tiger sharks generally like to swim in reasonably warm waters, so they’re usually only found in North Carolina during the summer.
These large sharks will go almost anywhere they think there might be food, and they have been seen at Beaufort Inlet north of Topsail Island.
At Topsail Beach itself, anglers have occasionally landed impressive specimens of this species. Despite this, there has never been a known tiger shark attack in the area.
Fishing for these and other sharks is usually done around dusk when the sharks might be active and often involves baiting the water. So it is a good idea to avoid this time and always stay away from anyone fishing.
Blacktip sharks are typically expected in North Carolina from late spring to early fall, and although they’re not sighted that often, they’re a species known to be potentially dangerous to humans.
This species likes to hunt baitfish schools in surf zones and will come into reasonably shallow water to feed.
Although they’re rarely conclusively identified, blacktip sharks are suspected in many of the bites that have taken place in the area.
The blacknose shark is a reasonably small species that approaches around 1.3 meters (4.3 feet) when fully grown.
Blacknoses are known to come into shallow waters and inlets to feed. However, they’re rarely seen around Topsail Island, preferring the wider waters of the Pamlico Sound instead.
Fortunately, if they are seen, the blacknose has never been implicated in an unprovoked attack on a human anywhere. However, as they have mouths filled with multiple rows of sharp teeth, they should still be respected.
Dusky sharks are one of the rarest species in the area and are protected in North Carolina to prevent overfishing.
This shark could potentially be dangerous as it can reach over 3.2 meters (10 feet). However, globally it’s only ever been blamed for two attacks, and it’s never been involved in an incident at Topsail Beach.
Additionally, they tend to stick to deeper waters off the beach and so are only very rarely seen.
The sandbar is one of the most common sharks in North Carolina, and unlike many other migratory species, it lives here year-round.
Fortunately, the sandbar is one of the most docile for its size, and although it looks similar to the more dangerous bull shark, they’re not considered a threat to humans.
Scalloped Hammerhead Shark
Nature’s oddest-looking shark occasionally appears at Topsail beach, although it is usually only when caught by shark anglers.
Hammerhead sharks prefer to stay away from shallow waters, so you shouldn’t expect to see one at the beach. If you should, they’re usually highly timid and will likely disappear immediately.
Lucky Topsail beach visitors occasionally see the spinner shark making its trademark leap above the ocean’s surface as it hunts baitfish.
Spinner sharks are not considered to be dangerous and have never been identified in any of the rare incidents that have taken place at Topsail.
However, as they often hunt in surf zones, surfers have occasionally been accidentally bumped by the shark.
The common thresher is the last of the larger sharks on our list that appear off the coast of Topsail Island.
These sharks usually stay offshore, using their long whip-like-tails to stun schooling fish before eating them.
Threshers are usually nervous around human activity and so are rarely seen.
Are All Sharks at Topsail Beach Dangerous?
No, not all sharks at Topsail Beach are dangerous. None of the larger species we have already mentioned are locally considered a real threat to humans, despite their potential danger.
Smaller sharks, including the Atlantic Sharpnose, Bonnethead, and Smoothhound Shark, can also be considered safe.
However, you should still exercise caution if you see one while in the water, as if provoked or cornered, they could still deliver a painful nip.
Shark Sightings and Attacks in Topsail Beach, NC
Aside from occasionally seeing a spinner shark leap from the water acrobatically, the typical beachgoer is unlikely ever to see a shark.
Sharks tend to keep themselves to themselves and avoid human contact wherever possible.
Although sharks live around Topsail Island, there are much larger populations in the north around Pamlico Sound and in the south in Brunswick.
Incidents involving sharks in the two counties covering Topsail Island are infrequent, and we should remember that they are almost always accidental. In addition, all incidents at Topsail Island have been non-fatal.
Records since 1935 show two unprovoked shark attacks ever recorded in Pender County and ten in Onslow County.
The most recent incident on record happened in July 2022, when a spinner shark grazed a surfer’s leg in the early morning. Injuries were described as minor, and the victim drove herself to the hospital.
In July 2012, a swimmer was bitten off North Topsail Beach and received lacerations to her right ankle and calf.
In July 2011, a young visitor was bitten on the leg while bodyboarding at North Topsail Beach by an unidentified shark and required hospital treatment.
A comparable injury occurred in 2010 when a swimmer was bitten on her left ankle while swimming.
Similar individual incidents also took place in 2008 and 2007, while the first ever recorded was in September 2001 and was also a bite to the foot.
The September 2005 incident we’ve already mentioned remains the most serious of the non-fatal attacks at Topsail Beach.
In the surrounding area, only one fatality has ever been reported. In September 1935, at nearby Brown’s Inlet on New River, Onslow Beach.
Where Are the Most Shark Sightings in North Carolina?
The highest number of shark sightings in North Carolina happen in the areas extending off the coast outside the Pamlico Sound, including Hatteras Island, Cape Lookout, and the Outer Banks.
Risks and Safety Measures
The risks of being attacked by a shark at Topsail Beach are very low. Indeed, in the whole of the United States, the chance of being attacked non-fatally by a shark is over one in 11.5 million, while drownings at beaches are a far greater one in two million.
How Can I Stay Safe From Sharks While Swimming at Topsail Beach?
Having explained that sharks present a very low risk, you can do some things to increase your safety while swimming and perhaps your confidence.
- Try not to splash excessively, particularly while swimming in deeper water
- Don’t swim alone
- Don’t wear shiny jewelry, as sharks can mistake it for food
- Never feed fish or other marine animals
- Stay well away from fishing activities
- Avoid areas if you see seabirds feeding, as there may be baitfish schools
- Stay out of surf zones
There are no lifeguards at Topsail beach. However, you should always check to see if any warning notices have been posted before entering the water.
What Is the Best Time of Day To Avoid Sharks While Swimming at Topsail Beach?
Never swim at or immediately before dawn or dusk, as this is when sharks are most active. In addition, night swimming can be considered a significantly higher risk.
Sharks live naturally off Topsail Beach and don’t represent any real danger to people.
Sightings are uncommon, and the most potentially dangerous sharks tend to stay offshore and avoid humans.
Recorded incidents in the two counties covering Topsail Island are very rare. Only one shark-related fatality has ever happened in the surrounding area, which was in 1935.
Sharks play a vital role in maintaining the natural ecosystem of North Carolina’s ocean, and many species are endangered.
Organizations, including North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Aquarium, study the sharks in the area on an ongoing basis to better understand how they live and to help preserve these essential ocean inhabitants.
British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.