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  • Ian Livingston Brooking

As students return to the beach, so do sharks

It is about that time of year again – time to go to the beach.

From tourists to Coastal students, many are packing their sunscreen and tanning lotion and heading to the beaches to soak up the sun and splash around in the Atlantic Ocean. While one would like to think that the ocean is a place where all the cares in the world melt away, there are some dangers that are present when one steps into the ocean.

Sharks are always a potential threat to beachgoers when stepping into the waves, but there are ways to be cautious and know what to do if you see or come in contact with a shark.

Dr. Daniel Abel, marine science professor at Coastal Carolina, talked about the precautions one should take when going to the beach this summer.

“If you see a shark, whether it is close or off in the distance, it is best to get out of the water,” said Abel. “If you large schools of baitfish swimming around, it is wise to stay away since sharks can be lurking in search of meal. And it is also wise to stay away from piers because of fishing purposes.”

Blacktip Reef Sharks are the most common sharks to be spotted off the coast of South Carolina. However, towards the end of March, a 12-foot-five-inch long, 1,300-pound male Great White Shark by the name of Hilton was spotted off the coast of Charleston.

Hilton, named after Hilton Head Island, was tagged by the shark research team OCEARCH back in March of 2017 and has pinged nearly 100 times in an area that rests between Jacksonville, Florida and Charleston, South Carolina.

Cheyenne Cunningham, a senior marine science major with a concentration of ocean policy and legal studies, talked about how common Great Whites like Hilton make their way through the waters of the Lowcountry.

“It would be trivial to think that Hilton is the only great white shark to occupy the area,” said Cunningham. “Ocearch shark tracking is relatively young to the public, and the ocean is filled with sharks that have yet to be tagged. There is no need to be worried – beachgoers are surrounded by more sharks than they realize while swimming in the ocean.”

And while there are many sharks in the waters off the coast of South Carolina, Cunningham says that sharks do not really serve as a major threat to beachgoers, despite what Hollywood has forced some people to believe.

“Sharks are commonly misunderstood,” said Cunningham. “The chance of a shark encounter is highly improbable- sharks actually try to avoid humans. However, murky water can diminish contrast between humans and fish which could invoke danger. At any degree of threat, it is important to remain calm and to remove yourself from the situation swiftly.”

A commonplace for sharks to congregate is Winyah Bay. Winyah Bay is where Abel takes his students to conduct research due to the diversity of marine life that is there.

“Winyah Bay is a large estuary,” said Abel. “Estuaries provide adequate food and is a nursery for a lot commercial species of fish and many food items for sharks. Winyah Bay has a big mix of sharks. When we go out there, we have caught at least 12 species of sharks. Winyah Bay may not be as special as other estuaries, but it is certainly one of the largest and that provides a lot of nutrients and has its benefits for several species.”

When it all comes down to it, sharks really do not pose as big as a threat. Due to the continental shelf that runs about 50 miles offshore in North Myrtle Beach, the estuaries where the sharks gather to breed and feed are generally farther away from visitors here than in places like Florida where the shelf is just 1 mile from shore at some beaches.

Since 1837, there have been 82 recorded shark attacks in the state of South Carolina and only two fatalities. According to statistics from the National Security Council, people have a greater risk of death by fireworks (1 in 340,733) than being killed in a shark attack (1 in 3,748,067).

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