EDISTO BEACH — Beth Oberhaus was sitting on the bow of the charter boat when she noticed a fin breaking the surface of the water in St. Helena Sound, less than a mile south of Edisto Island.
The charter, which included her husband Brandon, her two children, Brayden, 9, and Berkley, 7, and cousins Jamie and Kayla Pollitt, had been fishing for about an hour and had very little luck, catching several small sharks, but nothing memorable.
That was about to change. As the fin got closer, Oberhaus saw, just beneath the surface, a large shape come into focus.
“At first I thought it was a shark, but as it got came closer, it didn’t look like a shark,” said Oberhaus, who had come down with her family last week from Cadillac, Mich., for a weeklong vacation on Edisto Island.
“I didn’t get a great look at it, but I knew it definitely wasn’t a shark.”
A few seconds later, the 21-foot Mako boat shuddered violently, almost knocking Oberhaus into the water.
As it turned out, Oberhaus was right, it wasn’t a shark, but a 13-foot manta ray that had collided with the vessel.
Like Oberhaus, Jimmy Skinner, 26, a captain with six years of experience for Fontaine Charters, thought a shark had slammed into the boat.
“I saw a pretty big fin come out of the water and I assumed it was a hammerhead,” Skinner said. “We had been catching some whiting and we were bringing one into the boat when I saw it, so I figured it was just a shark coming in after the whiting.”
It wasn’t until the manta ray got underneath the boat and Skinner could see its full 13-foot wingspan that he knew it wasn’t a shark.
“The boat is six feet wide, and you could see the tips of its wings three feet on either side of the boat,” Skinner said. “That’s when I realized that this thing was huge.”
The manta ray tried to make its escape but got tangled in the boat’s anchor line. The manta, which Skinner estimated was between 800 and 900 pounds, turned the boat 90 degrees to starboard.
A second later the animal thrashed again, turning the boat in a 180-degree arc to port. As it struggled to get free, it headed toward open water, snapping the bow cleat and dragging the boat in its wake out to the ocean.
Skinner had had enough, cut the anchor line, setting the manta and the boat free. The 150-foot anchor line and the 8-pound anchor sank 25 feet to the bottom of the sound.
Everyone on the boat was silent for a few seconds.
“Then my husband said, ‘That was awesome,’ and we all started laughing,” Oberhaus said. “And it was awesome.”
The incident had lasted probably less than 30 seconds, but it was the memory of lifetime for everyone on board.
“Jimmy was very calm the whole time,” Oberhaus said. “He’s an excellent captain and I never felt like I was in danger. He got the kids to get down in the boat so they wouldn’t get knocked into the water. It was an incredible experience. It was the highlight of the vacation.”
A full-grown manta ray can have a wingspan of more than 20 feet. And while they have been seen off the South Carolina coast, they are not all that common.
“You rarely see them that close to shore,” said Joe Smoak, who works for the state’s Department of Natural Resources. “When you get out in deep water, you see them sometimes jumping around. Mantas are very big, much bigger than the stingrays that we normally see around here, which can have maybe a six-foot wingspan.”
The power of the manta ray surprised Skinner, who has had his share of fish stories over the years. Skinner figures he captains about 150 charters every year, with two or three a day during the busy summer months.
“It just spun us around like we were nothing,” Skinner said. “The boat probably weighs more than a ton; it made us feel like we were in a little johnboat.”