Charles Farmer III literally wrote the book on sharks in South Carolina. Really, Farmer is the author of “Sharks of South Carolina.”
Farmer first tangled with sharks as a child in the Bluffton area in the late 1950s, and then became very familiar with them during a 36-year career studying marine resources with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
A year before retiring from S.C. DNR in 2005, Farmer poured his depth of shark knowledge into a book, Sharks of South Carolina.
During his career, Farmer became a shark expert through scientific collections and study along with numerous field observations in the estuary, near-shore and offshore waters of the Palmetto State.
Who better to consult for his opinion on the perceived spike in shark activity along the South Carolina coast this summer?
There has been a rash of shark attacks along the Carolina coast, particularly in North Carolina, and many local fishermen have gone on record saying they’ve never seen as many sharks in area waters as they have in the late spring and summer of 2015.
Sharks are very common at near-shore artificial reefs and anglers on virtually all Grand Strand piers often have to rush to get their catch out of the water before the fish is bitten off by one of the many sharks roaming around the pilings.
Questions abound. Are the sharks really more abundant this year? If so, what are potential reasons for the increase in their numbers?
“Sometimes you can have a sudden abundance of fish in a given year,” Farmer said. “I have been told by fishermen that they are seeing more sharks this year than they’ve seen in a number of years. That’s anecdotal information, no scientific basis at all. But it may be true.”
Since sharks are slow-growing, Farmer doesn’t attribute the uptick in numbers to a good reproductive cycle, which is possible with finfish species such as spotted seatrout.
“What I’m surmising is it is probably because of water temperature, good water conditions, an abundance of small fish, bait fish that these fish feed on, and some subtle change in the migratory path these animals are taking,” Farmer said. “I suspect if you’ve got a lot of baitfish in a given area they stay there and feed. I don’t know anything else to contribute it to. I don’t know any other factors that come into play. The spawning population doesn’t have anything to do with it.”
Before summer even officially arrived on June 21, the Carolinas were experiencing extremely hot conditions for late spring and the ocean water temperature quickly jumped into the mid-80s, a perfect water temperature for the migratory sharks.
At the same time in the month of June, when most of the attacks occurred, schools of menhaden were thick along the beach, more numerous than in recent years. In addition, rain has been scarce since early June, leaving near-shore waters high in salinity, another condition most sharks prefer.
Farmer says most of the sharks found along the beach and near the piers are in the 3-5 foot range. Easily the most common shark is the Atlantic sharpnose, which reaches about 3 feet in length. Other sharks commonly found near the beach, inside inlets, and roaming around the piers looking for a handout are blacktips, sandbar, spinner and the dangerous bull shark.
Move a little farther out to the near-shore artificial reefs located from three to about 20 miles offshore and larger species such as tigers and hammerheads are more likely to be found.
That’s not to say large tigers and hammerheads don’t occasionally roam the waters near the beach. On June 14, 1964, the late Walter Maxwell of Charlotte, N.C., caught the world-record tiger shark off Cherry Grove Pier. The world record still stands for the specimen that weighed 1,780 pounds and measured nearly 14 feet.
One of the more interesting observations Farmer made during his years of scientific research with S.C. DNR was a tiger shark measuring over 13-feet that was caught at the Hector Reef, located about 12 miles south of the entrance to Georgetown’s Winyah Bay.
Farmer notes fatal shark attacks in South Carolina are extremely rare and most don’t result in great bodily harm to the swimmer. According to the International Shark Attack File, there have been only two confirmed fatal attacks in South Carolina waters since 1837, the last occurring in Charleston in 1852.
“I’d say 99.9 percent of the time that shark, usually about 4-5 feet long, is looking for food (in the surf zone),” Farmer said. “What happens is the shark is moving by, moving from one location to another, and they literally bump into someone standing in waist deep water. (The shark’s) natural reaction is to reach out and bite. We have no record of someone being repeatedly attacked. All the ones we’ve had (in South Carolina) is a quick bite, a quick release, and the shark goes one way, the swimmer another.”
Over the years, Farmer has often flown along the coast from the Hilton Head Island-Savannah, Ga., area to Little River, observing swimmers and sea life along the way.
“We’ve flown the coast – I first flew it in 1970,” Farmer said. “The situation then was exactly the same as it is now. Every year, there are people in the water everywhere. You look seaward 100-300 yards from the beach and it was not unusual to see 6-, 7-, 9-foot animals in the water, kind of swimming along slow. I’m convinced those aren’t the animals involved (in the shark attacks). It’s got to be the smaller animals, the animals that are more numerous.”
Farmer also says the large number of swimmers in the water along the South Carolina coast means human-shark encounters are more likely than in the past.
“There’s no arguing there are more people in the water,” Farmer said. “Our tourism industry is up. The No. 1 reason tourists come to South Carolina is to go to the beach. If you go to the beach, you’re usually going swimming. These animals are in the water doing their thing and you’ve got these potential targets in the water.’’
Gregg Holshouser: 843-651-9028, firstname.lastname@example.org