Untamed Lowcountry

SC shark attacks doubled last year, with most on Hilton Head, report says. Here’s why

Shark attacks doubled in South Carolina in 2017 — making it a record-breaking year for attacks in the state — but there’s no need to panic, researchers say.

2017 was “just an average year” for shark attacks worldwide with 88 unprovoked shark attacks and five fatalities recorded, according to a annual report released this week by the International Shark Attack File(ISAF) at the Florida Natural Museum of History.

But South Carolina saw a spike in shark attacks in 2017, with 10 recorded attacks statewide and at least eight of those attacks on Hilton Head Island, according to ISAF data. Florida had 31 attacks in 2017, the most of any state.

The Palmetto State typically averages around five attacks per year, according to George Burgess, lead researcher at the longest running, most widely recognized organization responsible for tracking shark attacks around the world.

Lindsay French, research manager at the ISAF, said in the report that worldwide shark attacks are expected to increase slightly for natural reasons.

“We need to remember we’re going into a shark’s natural habitat when we enter the water,” French said in the news release.

Documented shark attacks in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans along the U.S. coasts have been on the rise in recent years, a trend that researchers say has occurred because more people are visiting the beach with warming temperatures, an improving economy, and a recovering shark population that was nearly annihilated from overfishing in the 1980s and 90s.

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 25 documented attacks and no reported fatalities.

But the good news is a majority of those “attacks” are actually bites by smaller sharks in South Carolina.

Why we saw more shark attacks on Hilton Head this year?

Researchers at the ISAF have confirmed eight shark bites on Hilton Head Island last 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, Burgess previously told the Island Packet.

But there is no need to panic, according to Burgess.

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 story 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 risk rabies, there are no such requirements for shark attacks, a DHEC spokesman told the Island Packet last summer.

Common factors in attacks

The eight Hilton Head shark bites 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. He 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 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.

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 Rogiers 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
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