We had been warned. Caution flags were flying on Thursday on Hilton Head Island’s south-end beaches after a spike of jellyfish stings and a shark spotting earlier in the day.
But none of this could stop my Midwestern father from enjoying one of his last vacation days in the ocean.
I was lost in a novel, sitting in a beach chair in the shade when I heard the screams.
Like a scene from “Jaws” — minus the bloody water and missing children — crowds gathered at the shoreline screaming “shark!” pointing their fingers as a large fin lurked near the shoreline between North Forest and Coligny beaches.
I sprinted to the water, pushed through the panicked crowd, and laid eyes on a single human figure still in the water — my dad, a 6-foot-2, 62-year-old maniac floating freely on his back a few feet from a shark that matched his size.
In retrospect, I should have taken a photo or a video. My reporter instincts usually kick in during moments like this, when I record what’s happening in front of me without hesitation. But the daughter in me froze, and I instead screamed at my dad to get out of the water. I yelled louder than the lifeguard’s whistle.
Strangers in the crowd turned to me as my dad slowly made his way closer to shore. In no hurry whatsoever.
A swarm of people gathered around my father like he was a marine animal miracle worker.
“That’s your dad?! He’s a bad***. He was swimming next to two sharks!” a teenager in a bro-tank yelled. For the record, I didn’t see two sharks, but a few people did say that.
One woman said my dad “must be living right, swimming next to a shark like that,” which made my mom and I actually giggle. He’s a good guy and all, but it’s not like the holy spirit is fighting off sharks to defend him.
My dad just simply shrugged his shoulders in the most modest, Midwestern way and said “I don’t know, I saw the fin and all, but it seemed pretty harmless. So I just kept swimming.”
One girl, about 8 years old, was shaking and crying, holding her mothers hand. Her mom asked my dad to tell her he was OK and said how scared she was for him.
A couple of teenagers said they wanted to get their fishing poles and “get ’em.”
Everyone’s emotional reactions reminded me just how misunderstood sharks are. And I was a part of the problem. I shouldn’t have yelled at my dad like I did, adding unnecessary panic to the situation, because I know better.
Ironically, I’ve been researching shark bites in Beaufort County for more than a month now for an Island Packet project (which will be published this week). I’ve written dozens of shark stories in the past year and have developed an admitted obsession with the animals, especially after catching one this summer on a fishing trip. The smoothness of their super-healing skin, the softness of their human-like eyes, the complexity of their predatory mouths — they’re fascinating creatures.
I’ve spoken to shark attack victims about their experiences. I’ve spoken with local fishermen who have encounters with sharks on a daily basis and biologists who have spent decades studying the ocean’s most feared predator.
And the thing is, that my dad was right for the most part — a vast majority of sharks aren’t a threat to humans. We’re swimming next to them more than we know. The one next to my dad just happened to be swimming close to shore and near the surface, for whatever reason. It is their natural habitat, after all. We’re in their fishbowl, and we tend to forget that.
If I could guess, based on my interviews and research, the shark saw my 200-pound dad swimming calmly and said “not my food source” and went on with his day, the way I look at a squirrel on the sidewalk. Yes, I could technically kill it for food, but I’m not that hungry and squirrel just doesn’t sound good to me. A shark would much rather eat a tasty fish than your leg.
There has never been a deadly shark attack in the Lowcountry on record, according to the International Shark Attack File, which reports 18 shark attacks on record in Beaufort County. You are far more likely to be attacked by a snake, jellyfish or stingray than by a shark. Most South Carolina shark “attacks” are actually accidental bites, where the shark mistakes a human for a food source, according to Brian Frazier, a biologist at SCDNR.
My dad should not have tested his luck swimming so close to a shark. But if you look at the facts, his life really wasn’t in danger either, like so many strangers thought. Sharks and humans can and will exist in the same environment, and it isn’t fair to make the shark be the bad guy all the time. Sorry, Dad!