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How likely are shark attacks in North Myrtle Beach?

By Jim Hulen, North Myrtle Beach

June 13, 2011 North Myrtle Beach, SC – Last February, Stuart Beach Florida made headlines when a kite surfer died from a shark attack. Some responsible media included in their reporting that shark attacks are rare. Others omitted that and other critical facts and chose to hype the rate of recurrence.  However, the last fatal shark attack in Florida was in 2005, when a 14-year-old girl was killed in Miramar Beach and at Stuart Beach was in 1882.

Consolidating information about shark attacks was a project initiated by the U.S. Navy in 1958 as part of an effort to develop shark repellent. Currently, the data is maintained and updated by the Florida Museum of Natural History and consists of over 4,000 attack investigations over the 340 year period from 1670 to 2010. Growing population and recreational preferences for beach vacations have increased the number of shark attacks but the incidence of attacks per capita has basically stayed the same rare occurrence over decades.

According to the Florida Museum of Natural History data, half of the nation’s shark attacks occur in the state of Florida while the occurrence of South Carolina shark attacks are less than ten percent of that state’s.

Around twenty three shark attacks occurred in the last 10 years in South Carolina – none of which were fatal.  Media reports tended to exaggerate minor incidences. For example, last year, headlines screamed that a shark had attacked a ten year old in Myrtle Beach.  However, emergency workers described the boy as having a number of "small puncture wounds" to his calf and medical officials at the local hospital described the injury as a “small bite.”

The most recent fatal shark attacked recorded in South Carolina was in the far distant past – 1882.  A shark killed Charles Chambers while he wading ashore from a capsized vessel in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

The National Shark Research Consortium identifies several factors that contribute to the rate of shark attacks including beach topography, wave action, and density of food sources.
Researchers find that most attacks occur in near shore waters, typically inshore of a sandbar or between sandbars where sharks feed and can become trapped at low tide. Rivers or streams entering the Atlantic Ocean create sandbars. As the nearest rivers are  50 miles or more north or south of the city, sandbars are rare near the North Myrtle Beach shoreline.
There is, however, one exception explained further in the article by a local public safety officer. Areas with steep drop offs are also likely attack sites. Sharks congregate there because their natural food items also congregate in these areas.
The high-energy waves of the Atlantic in Florida hurl smaller fish that sharks feed upon are not present in North Myrtle Beach.  Oceanologists attribute the mild wave action to the long slopping ocean bottom that is only 12 foot deep a quarter of mile from the shoreline and, then, only drops to 30 feet 30 miles out.

Dense food sources also are not prevalent near North Myrtle Beach. The continental shelf, a rich source of food fish for sharks, is 50 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean from North Myrtle Beach unlike the east Florida Coast where it is sometimes within a mile of the shoreline. 

Dr. Daniel C. Abel, Assistant Professor, Marine Science at Coastal Carolina also added some additional factors that make shark attacks in this area less likely than in Florida – water temperature, population concentrations and migratory habits.

“The Carolina coasts house the lesser aggressive sharks like the sandbar and bonnethead sharks. While it is true that the more aggressive Tiger and Bull sharks migrate into this area, their population density is higher in Florida than in the Coastal Carolinas.”
Dr. Abel is a marine biologist. His research focuses on understanding the ecology of sharks and rays along the S.C. coast.

Sharks migratory patterns are to move from cold water to warm water. In the western Atlantic, bull sharks migrate north along the coast of the U.S. during summer, swimming as far north as Massachusetts, and then return to tropical climates when the coastal waters cool. Tiger sharks also undergo similar seasonal migrations.

According to NOAA, this area has seven months with ocean water temperatures under 70 degrees Fahrenheit, while Miami, Florida maintains an ocean water temperature above that year round. This results in less time for sharks to be in our waters and more time required for sharks to return to our area from warmer waters.
Seventeen year veteran, North Myrtle Beach Public Safety Beach Officer, David Capps said, “I can remember about 3 incidences in the past two years – all of them minor nips.”
He described two of them.

“A surfer was in the water floating on his board, when a small eighteen inch shark clamped on his toe. He killed it and got his picture holding the shark in the North Myrtle Beach Times.”

The second incidence he described was really caused by foolish behavior on several people’s part.

Officer Capps continued, “A tiger shark was feeding on a school of bait fish in waist-deep water – creating a commotion. People actually waded out to get their picture taken petting the shark! The shark got confused and nipped people while trying to feed on the bait fish.”
Officer Capps cautioned, “There is one point where sharks congregate. Where drop-offs occur, bait fish congregate and so do sharks. A drop-off occurs where the Cherry Grove marsh enters the Atlantic at Hog inlet. At low tide, not knowing about the drop off, people are tempted to walk across the inlet to Watie’s Island. At low tide the drop is about 19 feet.”

So relax, understand shark behavior, where they congregate and, definitely, don’t pet them.

As Dr. Abel said, “The risks we all take on a daily basis makes the risk of a shark attack insignificant.” If you are still concerned, choose to vacation in North Myrtle Beach instead of Florida.

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