Carefree fun returns to beaches after shark fears fade

This May 2013 photo shows vacationers enjoying the sand and sea in Myrtle Beach, where officials decided against taking extra precautions to protect swimmers from sharks after a spate of bites and attacks in June and July.

The spate of shark bites and attacks appears to have subsided as abruptly as it began. If beachgoers in the Lowcountry hesitated much to get in the water, they didn’t take long to get over it.

Meanwhile, beach towns and parks in the Charleston area aren’t looking at any additional safety precautions. A proposal in Myrtle Beach to ban anglers from throwing fish parts into the ocean from piers or the shore died Tuesday for lack of a vote by City Council, according to Mark Kruea, city spokesman. Council members “felt it was too onerous for the pier owners and too smelly to maintain the cans on the piers,” he said.

The rash of bites and attacks — seven in North Carolina and three in South Carolina — in June and early July was outstripping yearly averages with a long stretch of summer still ahead. But since a 12-year-old vacationer was bitten June 30 at Isle of Palms, no bites have been reported here. The last North Carolina attack was July 6 at Surf City.

“It’s going to be difficult to ever quantify what the factors were, but I think the lack of bites is probably our biggest indicator that whatever condition, be it environmental or prey availability, has likely changed,” said S.C. Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Bryan Frazier, who studies sharks.

“That’s not to say that people won’t continue seeing sharks on the beaches and that we won’t have a few more bites in the Carolinas before the summer is over, but I believe that we won’t see another spate of activity like that this summer,” he said.

Meanwhile, the flocks of summer sun-seekers aren’t avoiding the water in the beach towns around Charleston. Employees are being asked about sharks and shark precautions at the beach parks run by the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission at Isle of Palms, Folly Beach and Kiawah Island. But lifeguards aren’t noticing any reluctance about getting in the water, said spokeswoman Sarah Reynolds.

Hunter George of Mount Pleasant had worried his adult children and their children wouldn’t want to get in the surf while visiting over the Fourth of July holiday. But everybody went swimming throughout the week, he said.

“They were scanning the water before they went in, but then they just forgot about it and rode the waves. There was one event where the lifeguards went on alert because we heard they had received a report of a possible shark sighting. But then apparently it turned out to be a dolphin in the choppy water,” George said. “There were a lot of people in the water at Isle of Palms.”

Winds and warming summer waters might have spurred the bites and attacks, by moving prey fish into shallower waters close to the beach, where sharks prefer to feed because the prey is more concentrated, biologists said. Meanwhile, the wind-stirred waters made it harder for sharks to distinguish the prey.

Bait from fishing off a nearby pier has been blamed for the attacks in which two teens lost limbs off Oak Island, N.C., in mid-June, the strikes that seemed to start the rash of attacks and bites. That led Oak Island officials to ask the state to ban shark fishing during the Fourth of July holiday, but the request was denied.

Then the Myrtle Beach proposal failed.

In South Carolina, many local beach town laws ban “chumming,” or throwing a large amount of bloody fish meat into the water to attract sharks. Most of the piers ban “targeting” sharks, or using large bait — chum or hooked — to fish exclusively for them, Frazier said.

Lifeguards warn swimmers and anglers about getting too close together. The beach towns around Charleston haven’t proposed to do any more, according to spokespeople for Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms and Folly Beach.

At least 39 of the world’s 400-plus shark species are found off South Carolina. Most attacks are just “tasting nips” when a human thrashing in murky water is mistaken for prey, experts agree. Few nips occur, despite thousands of people in the water each year.

Serious wounds are rare in this state, and South Carolina hasn’t had a fatal attack since the 1850s.

“I’m not making light of the shark attacks, but we have more problems with stingrays and jellyfish,” said Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin. “The only way you can make a swimming zone somehow ‘safe’ is to move it to a pool.”