Shark bites surging on Hilton Head. Here's why we saw 8 attacks last summer
Carrie Rogiers was shocked to find out a shark was responsible for the “Freddy-Krueger-like” marks on her daughter’s left foot.
The bite came July 20 as 8-year-old Ellie, of Fort Thomas, Ky., was swimming in shallow water on Hilton Head Island’s South Forest Beach.
“Something bit me,” the child shouted as she ran from the surf.
The lifeguard who cleaned the wound told Ellie she probably stepped on a horseshoe crab. Her pediatrician was unsure what sort of animal was responsible.
Three weeks later, experts at the International Shark File (ISAF) confirmed that Ellie had been bitten by a small shark.
“I’ve been going to Hilton Head for years and I’ve seen sharks but never imagined this,” Carrie said. “I just think other parents and the lifeguards there should be aware that this does happen. Thank God she’s OK.”
And it turns out, Ellie’s story isn’t all that unusual.
Researchers at the ISAF have confirmed eight shark bites on Hilton Head Island this summer. Seven of them were considered non-provoked and involved children. The most recent bite, which took place Aug. 13, was considered provoked because the adult male stepped on the small shark that bit him, according to George Burgess, lead researcher at the longest running, most widely recognized organization responsible for tracking shark attacks around the world.
But there is no need to panic, according to Burgess.
He’s has been tracking such attacks since the 1980s. His team has investigated and confirmed more than 6,100 shark bites for the database that was originally developed in the 1950s, when the U.S. Navy decided to study shark attacks scientifically in order to prevent them.
Burgess and his team are still searching for answers as to why sharks attack humans. Each attack, he said, reveals another piece of the puzzle.
In the last two weeks, the ISAF has spent a lot of time studying shark attacks on Hilton Head. Burgess and his team have been busy collecting reports from parents who didn’t know what creature hurt their child while swimming off Hilton Head this summer.
The ISAF has investigated nine incidents from Hilton Head by looking at photos of the injuries and studying the size and shape of the lacerations. Eight of the injuries were confirmed shark bites.
On record, there has been 25 shark bites in Beaufort County history, according to the ISAF.
South Carolina usually averages between three and four confirmed incidents in a year.
2015 was a record-breaking year for shark attacks when seven people were bitten in South Carolina.
Numbers from 2017 from Hilton Head have surpassed that.
Why we’re seeing more shark attacks on Hilton Head this year?
People now know to report the incidents in South Carolina, according to Burgess. He credits the Island Packet’s investigative story questioning if shark attacks go unreported as well as a follow-up about a Kentucky boy who was bitten by a shark this summer on Hilton Head for the dramatic spike in shark attacks reports this summer.
“Those stories opened up the floodgates for reporting shark attacks in South Carolina to us,” he said. “We now know that we were missing shark bites in South Carolina and the incidents were actually under-reported and misdiagnosed.”
While the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control requires hospitals to report animal bites that could contain rabies, there are no such requirements for shark attacks, said DHEC spokesman Robert Yanity.
Bryan Frazier, a biologist at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) who has studied sharks for more than 15 years, said the ISAF is the best information source the state uses for tracking shark attacks in South Carolina.
Burgess works in Florida, the state with the most shark attacks in the world, averaging around 25 shark attacks per year.
“Here in Florida, we almost always hear about the incident right after they occur,” he said. “In South Carolina, it seems like a lot of the tourists and local hosts are unaware that these types of injuries are indeed shark attacks.”
All eight injuries this year on Hilton Head were minor, Burgess said.
“They were the kinds of bites that we would normally report in Florida because our beach shore services people can identify shark bites,” he said.
Burgess said his team is still investigating the circumstances surrounding this summer’s spike in incidents on Hilton Head.
Common factors in attacks
The eight shark bites on Hilton Head reveal several common factors biologists are looking into, Burgess said.
“It’s been almost uniformly young kids bitten by small sharks in shallow water, which defeats the safety in shallow waters myth,” he said.
Burgess also said the size of the injuries is “directly related” to the age of the victim and the depth of water they were swimming in.
Olivia Wallhauser, a 16-year-old from Jasper, Ind., was the oldest person to be attacked this summer. She was swimming in water up to her shoulders when a shark bit her foot deeply enough that it required a trip to the emergency room.
Reagan Readonour, a 14-year-old Ohio girl was the first person to be bitten by a shark this summer on Hilton Head and Burgess said her injuries were the most severe.
“We’re seeing that the injuries are dependent on the depth of the water,” he said. “Little kids are being met with small species of sharks. Teenage kids that go into deeper water are met with a little larger sharks.”
The location of the injuries also revealed interesting information.
“Most of the injuries have been to the feet and the sole, which is meaningful to us,” Burgess said. “The bottom of feet and soles are lighter in coloration compared with the rest of the human body . We know that sharks see contrast well and they are likely mistaking these children’s moving feet as natural prey.”
Burgess said the injuries are minor because the sharks learn immediately upon contact and release, leaving only lacerations, and sometimes, small scratches behind.
“Some of these injuries are so minor, we’re thinking they might be finetooth sharks doing this, because their teeth aren’t even small enough to get to break the skin,” he said.
Burgess and his team haven’t identified which species of sharks is the responsible for the bites. Burgess said blacktip and spinner sharks, which are smaller and have weaker bites than the “Big Three,” account for the vast majority of South Carolina attacks. Blacktip sharks are known for lurking in shallow water close to shore.
“We’re still looking at a variety of factors and are working with biologists to see why this is happening,” he said. “All we know now is that (shark bites) in S.C. are a lot more common than we thought they were.”
The increase in the amount of rainfall in the Lowcountry this summer could be a factor, Burgess said.
“Storms make the water murkier, which increases the chances for shark bites because the shark is more likely to make mistakes in water that isn’t clear,” he said.
Why it matters
Carrie Rogiers wants other people to be aware of incidents like her daughter’s.
“Her foot bothered her for a while, but really she’s fine,” Rogiers said. “I just think it’d be good for lifeguards and parents to be aware this happens.”
Rogiers said she isn’t sure they’d do anything different, and she wants her daughter to not be afraid to swim in the ocean again. They made sure to keep the wound clean while it healed, which Burgess stresses to victims.
“There is a concern with infection with sharks, as the ocean is a very biota for bacteria,” Burgess said. “Bite victims should go to the doctor to prevent infections, even if they’re small.”
Rogiers’ shark attack report, along with the other seven attacks, are “essential to the research” being done at the ISAF, according to researcher Lindsay French. The reports are helping scientists find solutions for preventing attacks.
For instance, waterproof shoes could help reduce your chance of getting bitten since sharks are attracted to the contrast in color at the bottom of feet, Burgess and French said.
Burgess recommended swimmers not enter the water in the evening and night times, when sharks are more likely to attack, and avoid all areas where people are fishing off the beach.
“I know at least one of these children were swimming in the same area someone was fishing and it’s definitely a correlating factor,” he said. “There should be rules for designating swimming and fishing rules. There is no doubt that fishing on the beach attracts sharks.”
2017 shark bites on Hilton Head
- June 18: 14-year-old Reagan Readnour bitten while boogie boarding on Burkes Beach
- June 21: 16 year old Olivia Wallhauser bitten while swimming on South Forest Beach
- July 11: 12-year-old bitten on Singleton Beach
- July 21: 8-year-old Ellie Rodgiers bitten on South Forest Beach
- July 28: 10-year-old Johnny Simatacolos bitten on Sea Pines Beach
- Aug. 10: 10 year old Thomas Cresko bitten on Palmetto Dunes
- Aug. 10: 13-year-old Linton Suttle bitten on Sea Pines Beach
- Aug. 13: 33-year-old male bitten on South Forest Beach
** Confirmed by the ISAF