June 22, 2012

Experts: No reason to panic over shark bites at Myrtle Beach

Crystal Player considers herself lucky that she didn’t join a group of people who have been bitten by sharks over the last 17 days along the Grand Strand.

Crystal Player considers herself lucky that she didn’t join a group of people who have been bitten by sharks over the last 17 days along the Grand Strand.

Player encountered a shark while swimming at Myrtle Beach State Park, less than a week after four bites – now confirmed to have been inflicted by Blacktip sharks – were reported within a 10-minute span along Myrtle Beach.

“All of the sudden people from the pier were yelling at us they were like shark, shark, shark,” the 26-year-old Myrtle Beach resident said of her encounter Tuesday while swimming in waist-deep water near the park’s pier. “By the time I turned around and looked back there was literally a shark fin like five or six feet away from me. There was a little girl next to me and I grabbed her and ran.

“That’s the first time I’ve seen a shark like that besides going to Ripley’s Aquarium.”

That will likely be the last time Player will see a shark swimming near her because experts say such encounters, including the four people bitten last week, are rare.

“In my experience, a cluster of bites is very uncommon,” said Dan Abel, a Coastal Carolina University marine science professor and local shark expert. “Blacktip shark populations, which at one time were declining, have completely recovered. They are migratory sharks, and in some areas, may school in large numbers.”

That is exactly what authorities said happened June 14 when four people were injured while swimming in the ocean between 72nd Avenue North and 82nd Avenue North.

Myrtle Beach police Sgt. Philip Cain said experts at the University of Florida looked at photos of the injuries and determined that Blacktip sharks were responsible. Cain also said that the species swims in schools and migrates north for the summer, and a large school was spotted about three weeks ago off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla.

Cain said Thursday that he suspects the sharks were in a feeding frenzy and the people hurt happened to be in the middle of the prey that the sharks were following as they migrated north.

“The people bitten were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Cain said.

The school may still be migrating through the area, so beach officials are on high alert. The ocean was closed at Myrtle Beach State Park beaches twice Thursday when swimmers spotted sharks swimming in the area. There were no incidents and swimmers were allowed back in the water after about 30 minutes.

Experts noted that even though at least 10 different kinds of sharks are common along the Carolinas Coast, a big Great White-type shark – such as the one portrayed in the movie “Jaws” – attacking someone isn’t likely to happen.

Before this year, there had only been 21 confirmed unprovoked shark attacks in Horry County – none fatal – since 1837, three in Georgetown County.

The most common types of sharks along the coast include Sandbar sharks, Blacktips, Atlantic Sharpnose, Bull, Lemon, Smoothhound Dogfish, Spiny Dogfish, Finetooth, Bonnethead and some other Hammerheads, Abel said.

“We should recognize that the ocean belongs to the sharks. Moreover, a healthy ocean needs sharks,” Abel said. “Keep away from where people are fishing, and also keep away from schools of smaller fish. And the usual: don’t swim at dawn or dusk.”

Tim Handsel, director of husbandry – the science of raising animals – at Ripley’s Aquarium, works with sharks every day. He also said the cluster of sightings and bites is not common in the Myrtle Beach area.

Besides the four injured on June 14, a 25-year-old man was bitten on the foot about 7:45 p.m. June 3 while swimming near the 2nd Avenue Pier in Myrtle Beach, police said. A 6-year-old Ohio girl needed 140 stitches Monday to repair damage to her leg from a bite at Ocean Isle Beach, N.C. Her mother saw sharks chasing fish that were jumping around the girl, who was playing on a Boogie Board.

“We had a feeding situation that occurred at the wrong place at the wrong time, or we had some small sharks that were feeding on some fish and happened to work them into shallow water and encountered the bathers,” Handsel said. “That’s really an uncommon event, especially along the Carolina coast. We will have a bite and that will be an isolated event and you won’t have another for a year or two.”

Even with a large number of sharks reported in the area, they don’t go after humans, Handsel said.

“Sharks have many sensors to help them locate prey like movement in water, very good eyesight, the ability to smell bodily fluids in the water and they also have the ability to sense very low electric fields that are around living things,” Handsel said. “In the summertime, the number of people in the water goes up dramatically and there’s a lot of input in the water and that can scare a number of animals away from the area, but it can also attract.

“In general terms sharks are going to be feeding in the twilight hours, at dawn, at dusk.”

Swimmers should stay away from piers where fisherman drop bait and sharks often prey, he said.

“The beaches are safe, the ocean is safe. Yeah, occasionally someone will be mistaken and receive a bite or accidentally step on a stingray and get a spine in their foot,” Handel said. “Look around and see what’s in the water around you.”

Seeing a shark swim by her hasn’t discouraged Player from getting in the water, but has changed her habits.

“I love Myrtle Beach. I’m a water baby,” said Player, who moved here in 2009 from California. “I’m headed to the beach today [Thursday]. I would recommend to not get in the water near any of the piers.”

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