Sharks aren’t new to Myrtle Beach with sightings off Grand Strand piers almost daily.
But, 2012 was a little different with a flurry of bites including four reported in one day. Then research on white sharks extended the excitement over the animals well past the summer season when two great white sharks – tagged off Cape Cod, Mass. – were tracked within a mile off the coast of the Grand Strand.
The apparent increase in activity is what made the sharks one of the top stories in 2012.
Official numbers of reported, unprovoked attacks all funnel through the International Shark Attack File, but complete data from 2012 hasn’t been released yet.
Bites off the South Carolina coast aren’t as common as sightings, with about two unprovoked shark attacks reported annually since 2000, and 66 reported since 1837 according to ISAF.
Horry County owns about a third of those bites, with 21 reported since 1837. There have been just three in Georgetown County in the same time frame.
On June 14, four people reported being bitten by sharks in a 10 minute time span between 72nd Avenue North and 82nd Avenue North in Myrtle Beach. Photos of their bites were sent to researchers at the University of Florida, which maintains the ISAF, who determined blacktip sharks were to blame.
Sgt. Philip Cain, with Myrtle Beach police, said the sharks were likely in a feeding frenzy and the people hurt happened to be in the middle of the prey the sharks were following as they migrated north.
“The people bitten were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Cain said.
The incident was unusual, said Dan Abel, marine science professor at Coastal Carolina University and a local shark expert.
“In my experience, a cluster of bites is very uncommon,” he said. “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.”
On June 3, a 25-year-old man reported being bit in the foot by a shark about 7:45 p.m. while swimming near the Second Avenue Pier in Myrtle Beach.
And a 6-year-old Ohio girl needed 140 stitches in June 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.
Even with a large number of sharks reported in the area, they don’t go after humans, said Tim Handsel, director of husbandry at Ripley’s Aquarium in Myrtle Beach.
“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,” he 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.”
Swimmers should stay away from piers where fisherman drop bait and sharks often prey, Handsel 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,” Handsel said. “Look around and see what’s in the water around you.”
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.
But then there are Mary Lee and Genie, two Great White sharks tagged by researchers with Ocearch in Massachusetts and tracked along the coast of the United States and found swimming within one mile off the Grand Strand.
Mary Lee, named by Chris Fischer with Ocearch, has been swimming close to the surface frequently, transmitting her GPS location through a satellite tag sometimes multiple times in one day. The tag should stay on her fin for five years, Fischer said. Mary Lee swam as far south as Jacksonville, Fla., but has been migrating between the Carolinas for the last month.
Genie doesn’t surface as frequently. The last position transmitted from her tag was on Dec. 9 near Savannah, Ga.