Remain calm

The blacknose is one of 39 shark species that can be found in Lowcountry waters.

Matthew Ward

Contrary to popular belief, you will not see an ominous fin circling the waters before you get bitten by a shark in South Carolina. You want to watch for schools of small fish, though.

There is no cause for heightened alarm, even though a 14-year-old boy was bitten by a shark Tuesday at Kiawah Island. Summer is generally when shark bites may occur simply because there are more people in the water.

Most bites are more of a “quick grab and release” when a small, coastal shark likely mistakes your arm or leg for food. Once the animal realizes that you aren’t the meal it was going for, it leaves — leaving a mark, of course, because of its razor sharp teeth, according to Mel Bell, the assistant director of Office and Fisheries Management for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

“In comparison to most shark bites, it was a minor wound,” Charleston County EMS Director Don Lundy said that day.

There has not been a fatal shark bite in South Carolina since the 1800s.

The boy on Kiawah was bitten on his lower right leg. EMS received the call at 12:45 p.m. He was “very stable” on the way to the hospital and “fine otherwise,” Lundy said.

Lifeguards had the wound dressed by the time the first emergency crews arrived, according to the St. Johns Fire Department.

Most of the sharks along Lowcountry shores are small, coastal sharks, such as the Atlantic sharpnose, bonnethead, finetooth and blacknose. A large coastal shark that may be closer to shore is the blacktip.

“Sharks are always there,” Bell said. “Keep in mind it’s the ocean and not a swimming pool. That’s where these animals live. Be aware and avoid them as best as you can.”

Bell advises beachgoers to look out for the shark’s food source, such as schools of fish, because this is what the small coastal sharks are looking for. He also urges people to stay in shallow water, and to not swim early in the morning or late at night when the animals are likely to be feeding.

Sharks are also attracted to shiny objects, so avoid wearing jewelry in the water. But the only sure way to avoid a possible encounter is to stay out of the water. And that, he said, defeats the purpose of going to the beach.

Getting bitten by a shark is a traumatic event. If someone is bitten, Lundy advises bystanders to help the victim get to shore as they will likely be shocked and in pain. Do not try to assess how severe the bite is; just call 911 immediately.

“Even if they are not sure, we can always turn around or be canceled. We’d rather be called sooner than later,” Lundy said. He added that everyone who spends time around the water should have basic knowledge of first-aid training. The American Red Cross offers classes.

Reach Jade McDuffie at 937-5560 or