A shark bit 10-year-old Jei's right forearm while he and his older brother were splashing in waist-deep water Sunday, his mom Tonya Turrell told the Island Packet.
They had only been at the beach for about an hour when Tonya heard her younger son screaming and made out the word “shark!” That's when she saw the blood, she said.
Jei was airlifted to the Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah. The rest of the family followed in their car.
“That was the longest hour of my life, driving here,” his mom said. They didn’t know how bad his injuries were. They didn’t know what to expect. All they were told was that getting him to a trauma center was the first priority.
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Both boys saw the shark’s nose as it bit down, they told their mom. It didn’t seem like a big shark, they said, but Turrell thought it had to have been 4 to 5 feet long.
Experts at the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), a long-running database of shark attacks at the Florida Museum of Natural History, confirmed by looking at photos of Jei's wound that he was bitten by a shark. Experts weren't immediately sure what kind of shark it was.
"The most likely culprit based on the locality and size of the bite would be a blacktip or spinner shark," Lindsay French, research manager at the ISAF, told The Island Packet.
The shark’s teeth — upper and lower — cut all the way to the bone of Jei’s forearm, his mom said. She was grateful that the shark didn’t take any part of his arm with it, but Jei did lose a good deal of blood.
"I wrapped a white towel around it and (afterward) it was completely dark red,” Turrell explained. She applied pressure to his wounds and they took him to a lifeguard, who called for medical professionals.
He underwent surgery Sunday and was on the road to recovery in the hospital by Monday morning, though his hemoglobin level was not yet where it was supposed to be. On Facebook, his mom asked for prayers from friends and family.
"He is a trooper,” Tonya Turrell said of her little boy. “He is so brave.”
Jei has been in some pain, but he has also been able to laugh. A kids’ menu at the hospital was named “Shark Bites” for kid-sized appetites. He got a kick out of it, his mom said.
Jei probably won’t be venturing into the ocean again, he told his mom. The trauma of his experience will keep him on land, at least for the foreseeable future.
New to the Lowcountry
The Turrell family, recently from the Orlando, Fla. area, closed on a house in Hampton County over the weekend and are newly minted residents in the Lowcountry, Tonya Turrell said. Since the family belongs to the Disney Vacation Club, they were spending time at the Disney Beach House on Hilton Head on Sunday.
Originally from Hawaii, Mom takes the family back every year, usually to the Disney resort Aulani on Oahu. At the resort’s man-made lagoon there is a netting system which is meant to keep larger creatures like sharks out of swimming areas, she said. Before Jei got in the water on Sunday, he asked his mom if there were nets like that here. She told him no but thought, what were the odds of a shark attack?
“I just think it’s important for people to know it’s not as rare as we would like to think,” Tonya Turrell said. Had she known about the shark sightings and beach evacuations reported on Thursday, she would not have taken her kids to the beach.
"We won’t be going back,” she said.
Recent local shark attacks
There are almost daily water evacuations on Hilton Head beaches in the summer season, according to Mike Wagner, operations manager for Hilton Head Island Shore Beach Service.
Lifeguards stationed near The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa and Islanders Beach had another water evacuation Monday, Wagner confirmed. He stressed that evacuations are common occurrences on Hilton Head, especially when the beaches are busy.
Some of those evacuations are for shark sightings, some could be for lightning strikes, but most of the time they’re used to bringing in swimmers who are venturing too far out into the ocean, he said. The Shore Beach Service does not specifically keep track of statistics for shark sightings.
Sunday afternoon’s incident was the first reported shark bite of 2018 on Hilton Head, Wagner said.
On Thursday, there were evacuations in the late morning and early afternoon after a shark was spotted swimming back and forth in shallow water along Hilton Head beaches. If a shark is spotted in the water, there’s an evacuation regardless of the creature’s size, Wagner said. It is not uncommon to see sharks from Hilton Head beaches any time of the year, he said.
The number of shark attacks in South Carolina during 2017 doubled from the previous year, according to an annual report released in February 2018.
There were 10 confirmed shark attacks in South Carolina. Of those, eight were on Hilton Head Island. Seven of the Hilton Head incidents occurred in shallow water and involved children.
“It’s been almost uniformly young kids bitten by small sharks in shallow water, which defeats the safety in shallow waters myth,” George Burgess, ISAF researcher, previously told The Island Packet.
Experts have stressed that the increased amount of shark attacks are no reason to panic.
People now know to report the incidents in South Carolina, Burgess told The Island Packet. He credits The Packet’s investigative story questioning if shark attacks go unreported as well as a follow-up story about a Kentucky boy who was bitten by a shark on Hilton Head for the dramatic spike in shark bite reports last 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.”
Still, recorded shark attacks in Beaufort County, which sees more than 2 million beachgoers annually, are rare: In the last 100 years, there have been a total of 26 documented attacks and no reported fatalities.