Sharing the waters

Tiger sharks are one of many kinds of sharks found off the South Carolina coast.

It’s summertime in the Lowcountry, and that means people are out boating, surfing, swimming and enjoying our beautiful coast.

With more people enjoying a cool dip, or some playtime on the water, there’s a greater chance of encounters with marine animals, such as sharks. Recently, a surfer reported an encounter with a shark on Folly Beach, saying that the animal bit his surfboard.

Arnold Postell, the South Carolina Aquarium’s senior biologist and resident shark expert, provides some insight into what kind of sharks are found along our coast, what you can do to stay safe in and on the water, and why these encounters happen in the first place.

Q: What are your thoughts on what happened at Folly Beach?

A: Summer is warming up the waters. Sharks are moving around and more people are swimming at the beach. When surfers paddle for the waves, there’s a lot of splashing. This can easily be confused with baitfish jumping on the surface, or possibly a wounded fish. Basically, it was a case of mistaken identity. Luckily the surfer wasn’t hurt during the incident.

Q: What kind of shark do you think it was, based on the surfer’s account?

A: Very hard to say. The bite on the surfboard wasn’t very clear so it’s difficult to discern bite radius or shape. The account from the surfer was a 5- to 6 -foot shark. That could fall in either a mid-size or larger shark (range).

Q: What types of sharks are typically found in our area this time of year?

Smaller: Atlantic sharpnose, black nose, bonnethead.

Mid-size: Blacktip, spinner, sandbar (aka brown), finetooth.

Larger: Bull shark, lemon shark.

Q: Is this a normal occurrence?

A: It is unusual for a surfer to have an encounter or be bitten off the South Carolina coast. Traditionally, incidents involving surfers are in areas where great white sharks hunt seals such as South Africa. These incidents are normally a case of mistaken identity.

Q: Should people fear sharks?

A: No! I always hope that people realize the low likelihood of a shark incident. They do happen, but tend to be very low probability and luckily don’t tend to be fatal (especially on the East Coast).

The first thing to remember is that humans are not on the normal menu for sharks. Sharks actually tend to be very picky eaters. Statistics show that shark attacks are a very low probability when compared to many normal daily activities like walking across the street or riding in a vehicle. Definitely not worth skipping the beach or not swimming in the ocean.

Q: Are sharks important?

A: Yes! Sharks are a good indicator of the health of an ocean eco-system. Apex predators are necessary. If there is a food source to sustain the apex predators, then the food-chain tends to be complete.

South Carolina has a very good ocean ecosystem managed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and federal regulatory agencies. Their goals of protecting species, restocking and monitoring populations has worked well and has revived certain species that were once severely depleted like red drum, cobia, red snapper and others.

Programs like the South Carolina Aquarium Good Catch Program teach consumers to make good choices toward sustainable seafood options which helps to protect ecosystems.

Q: What should someone do if they encounter a shark while out in the water?

A: The poor visibility in the waters off South Carolina is what lead to the mistaken identity of swimmers or surfers. If the shark could see us, they would stay away. If we could see them, we would stay away. Surfers sit still for periods of time, splash a bit catching the wave and then they are gone. Swimmers splash, but stay in the same general area making them a bit more vulnerable.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t splash in the ocean, but it is good to be aware of shark behavior as we are visiting their habitat.

If someone is bitten by a shark, there isn’t much that can be done. There have been reports of people punching them in the face, gills or poking their eyes. That also can lead to lacerations on the hand and arm on top of the original bite wound. Most shark-bite incidents are a single bite and then the animal releases and swims off after it realizes the mistake. Then it becomes an issue for the victim to get to shore and deal with first aid. Hopefully, there are others in the area to help. Another reason why you shouldn’t swim alone, if possible.

Q: What can people do to stay safe in the water?

A: Historically there have been ideas of avoiding swimming at dusk and dawn or don’t wear shiny jewelry. There may be some benefit to those ideas, but people also get bitten in the middle of the day and not wearing anything shiny.

I tend to look at other environmental factors for some guidance.

Are baitfish jumping or do you see other animals feeding? Sharks are going to follow the food chain.

Is anyone fishing around you, especially up-current from you? Sharks can smell the bait or catch and be attracted to the area.

Come visit the South Carolina Aquarium to learn more about sharks during our dive shows and other educational presentations done every day. tl