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Sharks vs. Kayakers: Massachusetts Attack Is a Sign of the Times

Image: Bite mark

A photo provided by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries shows a hole in a kayak that, according to agency experts, was made by a bite from a great white shark off the coast of Plymouth, Massachusetts. John Chisholm / Mass. Div. of Marine Fisheries via AP

Great white sharks are on the increase, and so are kayakers — so it makes sense that we'll see more potentially scary encounters like the one that shook up two kayakers off the coast of Massachusetts this week.

"Folks in kayaks tend to be out there for ecotourism, and as a result, kayakers tend to be among concentrations of biota — including seals, and sharks," George Burgess, who maintains the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History, told NBC News. "As such, we are seeing more incidents involving kayaks than we used to."

Kayakers Survive Great White Shark Attack 1:36

Wednesday's incident occurred off Plymouth, in an area where a witness had earlier reported seeing a shark attacking a seal. Later in the day, kayakers Ida Parker and Kristin Orr were trying to take pictures of seals when a shark came up from beneath one of the kayaks, WVIT reported.

"We were just talking and paddling," Parker told WHDH. "I look over to talk to her, and it came completely out of the water and got the bottom of the boat, and flipped her over and knocked my kayak completely over."

The shark left tooth marks on one of the kayaks but did not injure the women. A bystander called 9-1-1, and harbor officials went out to rescue the pair. Afterward, officials advised Plymouth beachgoers to stay out of the water.

'Sharks acting like sharks'

Although the incident sounds like a scene from "Jaws," Burgess said the shark didn't have any malevolent intent. "They're just sharks acting like sharks," he said.

In recent years, great white shark populations have been rising in the Atlantic, due to conservation measures that were put into effect years ago. Researchers say there's also been an increase in the region's population of gray seals, on which the sharks prey. That's a big factor behind an upswing in summer shark sightings off Massachusetts' coast.

Listen to 911 Call After Close Encounter With Shark 2:09

Did the sharks think the kayaks were seals? Burgess wouldn't go that far. "We can't get into the heads of sharks," he said. But it's well-known that white sharks are prone to investigate objects that are floating on the sea surface, either to find out whether they're food or just to practice their hunting skills.

"One of the best ways to attract sharks, for filming or research purposes, is to put a piece of Styrofoam or a surfboard out there," Burgess said.

Is it safe to go into the water?

The flip side of the issue has to do with kayaking's popularity. A study conducted two years ago by the Outdoor Foundation reported that paddlesports rank among the fastest-growing outdoor recreation activities in America. There are now more than twice as many sea kayakers as there were in 2006, the foundation said. That translates into twice as many opportunities for kayakers to encounter sharks.

Does that mean you should put the kayak away during the summer months? Not at all, Burgess said. "It's a risk-vs.-return kind of question," he said. "As a kayaker, it's one of those risks you have to assume."

The advice for kayakers in shark zones isn't much different from the advice for swimmers, surfers and divers: Don't go alone. Be extra-careful in the dark or at twilight, when sharks are most active. Avoid areas where sharks are thought to be present. If a shark is sighted, paddle the other way. And have a strategy in mind in case a shark decides to go after your boat.

"Anybody who has spent any time on the sea knows you never let your guard down," Burgess said.