Despite high-profile shark attacks that severely injured two teenagers in North Carolina in June 2015, experts say it's rare for local beachgoers to encounter aggressive species.
Only once in a while do people on Hilton Head Island spot bull sharks, the most dangerous of local shark species and one of the top three species in the world responsible for unprovoked shark attacks, says George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
It was not clear what type of shark or sharks were implicated in the pair of attacks in June 2015 in the beach town of Oak Island, N.C., about 35 miles from the South Carolina border.
While Chessie, the tiger shark equipped with a tracking device in the Port Royal Sound in May, passed by Oak Island the previous week, she had traveled to deeper waters off the coast of Jacksonville, N.C., by the time of the attacks, according to the nonprofit organization OCEARCH.
Mary Lee, a tagged great white shark that frequents the South Carolina coast, hasn't pinged her location from near Oak Island since 2013.
In the attacks, a 12-year-old girl lost part of her left arm and was in danger of losing her left leg in the first attack, and a 16-year-old boy lost his left arm in a second attack just two miles away, according to The Associated Press.
On Hilton Head Island, lifeguards post yellow warnings flags and temporarily call people out of the water for shark sightings, according to Shore Beach Service. In a video a Hilton Head tourist posted to Youtube on the weekend of the attacks, Burkes Beach lifeguards can be seen waving beachgoers out of the surf as a small shark swims by.
At Hunting Island, the S.C. Park Service uses a purple flag to indicate dangerous marine life is present, and double red flags to close the beach.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources cautions people to never swim alone, or at night, since sharks are primarily nocturnal feeders. Beachgoers should stay close to shore, leave shiny jewelry at home and stay out of the water if they have even a minor bleeding cut.
Swimmers should be cautious of all shark species, but should be aware that bull sharks that strike are likely to continue attacking until they are punched in the nose or otherwise stopped.
They have a stocky, pale to dark gray body with a white underside, small eyes, and a short, bluntly rounded snout.
They grow to about 11.5 feet and live at least 14 years, primarily in shallow, coastal waters from New York to Brazil, often in lagoons, bays and river mouths.
While attacks do happen in the waters off Beaufort County — the last being in May 2014 — five of the most common species are far less aggressive than bull sharks, Burgess says.
They are blacktips, spinners, sharpnose, blacknose and hammerheads. Here's how to identify them:
Gray body with black markings on all but the rear bottom fin, closest to the tail.
- Grows up to 6 feet and lives longer than 10 years.
- Found off the East Coast, from New England to Mexico, but most commonly located between North Carolina and Texas. Uses shallow inshore waters from South Carolina to Texas as nursery areas for their pups in the spring and summer.
Nearly identical to the blacktip, spinners are distinguishable by a longer snout and black coloring on the rear bottom fin, a marking the blacktip lacks.
- Grows to about nine feet and lives up to 20 years.
- Found in coastal waters from Virginia to Florida
Brownish-gray body with scattered white spots.
- Grows to about 4 feet and lives up to 12 years.
- Lives in coastal, shallow waters from New Jersey to Florida, often near surf zones, enclosed bays, sounds or harbors and marine to brackish estuaries.
Yellowish-gray to brown- or greenish-gray body, with a dusky, black blotch on the tip of the snout and possibly on the second dorsal fin.
- Grows to about 4.5 feet and lives up to 19 years.
- Lives in inshore coastal waters from North Carolina to Brazil. They nurse in coastal bays such as Bulls Bay off Awendaw in Charleston County.
Gray body, characterized by a flat, extended head.
- Grows to about 13 feet and lives about 40 years.
- Lives in coastal waters from North Carolina to Florida.