Tis the season: Shark safety at the beach

Sharks in the surf at Fripp Island Beach.

Sharks in the surf at Fripp Island Beach.

Beaufort is an area surrounded by water. Water is part of our daily life here. We enjoy a variety of water sports, fishing, boating and those hot summer days at one of our favorite local beaches. Enjoying a day at the beach is a favorite local pastime and it’s a reason that droves of people flock to the Beaufort area each year.

With the start of our local beach season and the reopening of Hunting Island State Park, lots of folks will be flocking to the water to cool off and we thought we’d take a look at some of the facts and answer some commonly asked questions about the ocean’s most feared predator. We haven’t forgotten the spike in shark activity in the Carolinas and across the southeast in the past few years either.

We’re around sharks all the time.

Yes, Mary Lee, a great white shark weighing in excess of 3,500 pounds has been spotted roaming Beaufort’s waters on a frequent basis, along with tagged tiger sharks.

Yes, scientists have determined that Port Royal Sound is an Atlantic hotbed for great whites to give birth and leave their young to feed on the plentiful food the area has too offer.

Yes, the folks at Outcast Charters over on the other side of the county are pulling in huge great whites and big tigers over the past few years.

But, this is nothing new. It’s ALWAYS been that way….and we are now just finding out. We humans are always the last to know.

Understand, it’s no different. They’ve always been there. Whether you swim at the beach in 1983 or in 2016…they’ve always been there, and there’s no more risk of encountering one today than before.

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Of the over 375 different species of sharks found in the world’s oceans, only about 30 have been reported to ever attack a human. Of these, only about a dozen should be considered particularly dangerous when encountered, and we’ve always had them here.

The shark species responsible for most unprovoked attacks on humans are the great white, tiger, and bull sharks. All sharks, large and small, are however predators and could be capable of inflicting wounds if provoked. They should all be treated with respect when encountered.

A local fisherman lands and releases a large shark along the beach at Hunting Island.

A local fisherman lands and releases a large shark along the beach at Hunting Island.

Humans have a fear for sharks that may be in part innately rooted in our past when we did need to be on constant alert for large predators. More importantly, in today’s world we constantly are subjected to the media’s stereotypic characterizations of sharks, which are rife with misinformation and actively promote fear and loathing.

Ever see Jaws?

Finally, we as humans are used to controlling the world around us – damming rivers, flattening mountains, shooting a charging elephant – but sharks, like typhoons, lightning and tornadoes, are something we cannot control, hence our great interest in them.

The chances of being attacked by a shark are very small compared to other animal attacks, natural disasters, and ocean-side dangers. Many more people drown in the ocean every year than are bitten by sharks. The few attacks that occur every year are an excellent indication that sharks do not feed on humans and that most attacks are simply due to mistaken identity. For more information on the relative risk of shark attacks to humans click HERE.

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Worldwide there is an average of 50-70 shark attacks every year. The number of attacks has been increasing over the decades as a result of increased human populations andPhoto courtesy Dawn Ramsey the use of the oceans for recreational activity. As long as humans continue to enter the sharks’ environment, there will be shark attacks. For more information on shark attack statistics click HERE.

There are many types of shark attacks.

Provoked attacks are caused by humans touching sharks. Often this involves unhooking sharks or removing them from fishing nets. However, recently there have been a number of incidents involving divers who were attacked after grabbing or feeding a shark while underwater.

Unprovoked attacks happen when sharks make the first contact. This can take three forms:

  • Hit-and-Run Attacks happen near beaches, where sharks try to make a living capturing fish. In pounding surf, strong currents, and murky water, a shark may mistake the movements of humans, usually at the surface, for those of their normal food, fish. The shark makes one grab, lets go, and immediately leaves the area. Legs or feet are often bitten; injuries usually are minor and deaths rarely occur.
  • Sneak Attacks take place in deeper waters. The victim doesn’t see the shark before the attack. The result can be serious injury or death, especially if the shark continues to attack.
  • Bump-and-Bite Attacks happen when the shark circles and actually bumps the victim with its head or body before biting. As in the sneak attack, the shark may attack repeatedly and cause serious injury or death.

Although the relative risk of a shark attack is very small, risks should always be minimized whenever possible in any activity. The chances of having an interaction with a shark can be reduced if one heeds the following advice:

  1. Always stay in groups since sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual.
  2. Do not wander too far from shore — this isolates an individual and additionally places one far away from assistance.
  3. Avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight hours when sharks are most active and have a competitive sensory advantage.
  4. Do not enter the water if bleeding from an open wound or if menstruating — a shark’s olfactory ability is acute.
  5. Wearing shiny jewelry is discouraged because the reflected light resembles the sheen of fish scales.
  6. Avoid waters with known effluents or sewage and those being used by sport or commercial fisherman, especially if there are signs of bait fishes or feeding activity. Diving seabirds are good indicators of such action.
  7. Sightings of porpoises do not indicate the absence of sharks — both often eat the same food items.
  8. Use extra caution when waters are murky and avoid uneven tanning and bright colored clothing — sharks see contrast particularly well.
  9. Refrain from excess splashing and do not allow pets in the water because of their erratic movements.
  10. Exercise caution when occupying the area between sandbars or near steep dropoffs — these are favorite hangouts for sharks.
  11. Do not enter the water if sharks are known to be present and evacuate the water if sharks are seen while there. And, of course, do not harass a shark if you see one.
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