South Carolina

Hilton Head shark attacks aren’t officially tracked or reported. Should we be worried?

In just a three-day span last month, two teenage tourists were bitten by sharks in separate incidents six miles apart off Hilton Head Island beaches.

Yet neither shallow-water attack was reported to local authorities or state agencies for tracking purposes – and there are no legal requirements to do so.

In fact, the most widely recognized, longest-running tracking of shark attacks in the U.S. is done by a two-person research team and some volunteers at the University of Florida.

Experts say it’s important to have reporting protocols because the more researchers learn about shark attacks, the better the public can be protected.

Research shows, for example, that more than half of all recorded shark attacks in the U.S. from 2010 to 2015 involved water board activities such as boogie boarding – which one of the teenage tourists said she was doing when bitten last month off a Hilton Head beach.

Documented shark attacks in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans along the U.S. coasts have been on the rise in recent years, a trend that researchers say has occurred because more people are visiting the beach with warming temperatures, an improving economy, and a recovering shark population that was nearly annihilated from overfishing in the 1980s and 90s.

It’s common, for instance, during the heavy tourist season on Hilton Head for lifeguards to order swimmers out of the water after shark sightings. It happened twice in one week this month in the Coligny Beach area.

Still, recorded shark attacks in Beaufort County, which sees more than 2 million beachgoers annually, are rare: In the last 100 years, there have been a total of 18 documented attacks and no reported fatalities.

Fortunately for Beaufort County, researchers say, the largest and most dangerous sharks, including great whites, tend to stay out of shallow waters or visit the area during winter months when there are far fewer swimmers.

But smaller sharks can inflict plenty of pain – and fear. Reagan Readnour and Olivia Wallhauser found that out first-hand.

Terror in the water

On June 18, 14-year-old Reagan Readnour, of Lewis Center, Ohio, didn’t know what was happening as a shark tugged at her calf, pulled her off a boogie board and bit her leg in two places in shallow waters off Hilton Head’s Burkes Beach.

Then she saw blood gathering in the water around her.

“I thought it was my brother messing with me when I felt something grab at my leg,” she said when interviewed last month by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. “I felt a terrible sting and didn’t know what it was.”

Reagan said she screamed as her family helped pull her to shore and get a lifeguard’s attention. The Beach Shore Services lifeguard who treated her wound was informed by a beachgoer that a stingray had bitten the girl. Reagan’s family didn’t recall the lifeguard clearing the water.

Reagan said Beaufort County paramedics called to the scene informed her before she was taken to Hilton Head Hospital that a shark had attacked her. While at the hospital, a doctor confirmed her wounds were consistent with a shark bite, she said.

Three days later, on June 21, 16-year-old Olivia Wallhauser, of Jasper, Indiana, said she was bitten by a shark while swimming off South Forest Beach, six miles south of where Reagan’s attack occurred.

Olivia told the Packet and Gazette this month she was swimming around 6 p.m. when lifeguards weren’t on duty. She said she screamed loud enough for everyone around her to clear the water while her sister and mom helped her out.

“I just thought it was a really big fish,” she said. “Like three nurses came up and helped once my sisters and my mom got me out of the water.”

Her dad rushed her to Hilton Head Hospital with a bleeding, severely scraped foot that also had several puncture wounds. Doctors told Olivia that it was a shark bite, which was later confirmed by the University of Florida researchers who track shark attacks.

Eight days after the attack, an Indiana TV station ran Olivia’s story, while a television station near Reagan’s hometown aired a piece about Reagan’s incident.

But neither attack was reported for tracking purposes to the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, which has jurisdiction over Hilton Head Island; or to state health or wildlife agencies, the Packet and Gazette found. Capt. Bob Bromage, spokesman for the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, said to his knowledge, the Sheriff’s Office has never issued a public advisory message regarding a shark attack.

No reporting requirements

While the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control requires hospitals to report animal bites that could contain rabies, there are no such requirements for shark attacks, said DHEC spokesman Robert Yanity.

“Unless a shark bite would become infected with some disease that would be a public concern, DHEC wouldn’t keep track of it,” Yanity said.

Hilton Head Hospital spokeswoman Lydia Hill said the hospital had not seen any shark bites this summer when initially asked by the Packet and Gazette, but later confirmed it had treated a patient with a shark bite on June 18 – the same day Reagan Readnour said she was attacked. The hospital never confirmed that it treated a second patient this summer for a shark bite.

When asked why the hospital doesn’t report shark attacks to authorities or the public, Hill issued the following prepared statement to the newspapers:

“Our top priority is caring for and protecting the privacy of our patients per the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). We report all events that concern public health and safety per state and federal regulations to the authorities as appropriate.”

No South Carolina or local laws require that shark attacks be reported to local authorities or state government agencies for tracking purposes, a review by the newspapers found.

Nationally, the most widely recognized tracking of shark attacks is done by George Burgess and his small team of University of Florida researchers who manage the International Shark Attack File, a long-running database of shark attacks, at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Bryan Frazier, a biologist at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) who has studied sharks for more than 15 years, said the database is the best information source the state uses for tracking shark attacks.

“They investigate each reported shark attack and determine whether or not it was a shark that actually bit them,” Frazier said. “There’s a lot of amateur sites out there that keep track of shark attacks, but we trust them (the International Shark Attack File) for data in South Carolina.”

Without a legal requirement that shark attacks be reported to authorities, it’s up to Burgess and his Florida University team of one other full-time worker and a few other part-time volunteers and graduate students to analyze all shark attacks in Beaufort County and around the world.

Burgess said he wasn’t aware of the two Hilton Head Island incidents last month until contacted by the Packet and Gazette.

“It’s not an unusual situation to have two bites in the same week in a place with a lot of tourists like Hilton Head,” he said. “These weren’t just scratch-types of bites. They were newsworthy events that would normally have been covered on the nightly news.”

“Sometimes,” he continued, “it’s hometown papers that are the only ones reporting these attacks, and they don’t pop up in search engines that my staff looks through. It’s not always easy to find cases in such places like South Carolina.”

Burgess said his team depends on media reports and news releases from authorities, as well victims directly reporting attacks through the International Shark Attack File website.

Burgess and his fellow researchers are based in the state with the most documented shark attacks in the nation. He said his team is well-connected with Florida media and beach authorities in his home state.

But it wasn’t always that way.

“Historically here in Florida, there were attempts to hide shark attacks because it was bad for business, but we’ve been able to change that some and fight the perception some,” Burgess said. “People are starting to come to the reality that sharks are in the ocean, and a shark bite is a natural and rare event when there’s enough people in the water.”

In a way, shark attacks are “a backhanded compliment,” he said, noting, “It means you’ve been putting enough people in the water for an attack. It’s an indication of a prospering community.”

Burgess said his team does a “great deal of detective work” in tracking shark attacks worldwide, including interviewing victims and the doctors who treated them. He said he doesn’t know of any state that requires hospitals to report shark attacks to authorities, but would support a uniform reporting system.

“If we had a system, it’d be better to get the ball rolling on the investigation; it would save time on detective work and money; and it would provide more solid scientific information for studies because you’d get the information fresh and complete,” he said.

And, he added, “It would improve the quality and quantity of the data that would help us reduce the risk (of shark attacks).”

The risk factors

Scientists have discovered some common factors in shark attacks.

From 2010 to 2015, for instance, nearly 60 percent of shark bites involved water board sports, such as surfing, boogie boarding and paddle boarding, according to the International Shark Attack File.

Researchers have found that sharks often mistake erratic splashing and kicking for injured prey.

“Sharks are attracted to irregular activity in the water, like with surfing — the inevitable wipeout and the big splash that follows,” Burgess said. “If you have a shark trailing, that’s often when it will strike.”

Experts also recommend not wearing bright colors while swimming, as sharks are attracted to contrast colors, as well as to shiny jewelry.

Recorded attacks on the rise

Beaufort County has the third-highest recorded number of shark attacks in South Carolina — behind Horry and Charleston counties — and ranks in the top 20 for such attacks among U.S. counties, according to the International Shark Attack File, which includes cases dating back to the early 1800s.

The United States leads the world in known shark attacks, with South Carolina ranking fourth among states, the research shows.

Those incidents have spiked dramatically in the last three decades, according to the shark attack database.

Burgess, who has overseen the shark attack database since the late 1980s, said the project was passed between various organizations after its birth in the 1950s, when the U.S. Navy decided to study shark attacks scientifically with the aim to prevent them.

Burgess said his research team started with around 1,000 documented attacks. That number has grown to nearly 6,100.

“Shark attacks are up because we have more humans on the planet and more humans swimming on beaches than ever before,” he said.

In Beaufort County, 14 of the 18 documented shark attacks over the past 100 years occurred between May and July, according to the International Shark Attack File.

Burgess said the database adds about six fatalities worldwide annually, and with each year, scientists know a little more about what sparks attacks.

“Fatalities are down though, so that’s some progress, mostly on the medical side,” he said. “At the turn of the 20th century, about 20 percent of attacks were fatal. Now, it’s about 10 percent.”

Lessons from 2015

In 2015, Beaufort County, the state of South Carolina and the world tallied record numbers of known shark attacks.

Three people were attacked that year off Hilton Head and Hunting islands, according to the shark attack database. Across the world, 98 people, including seven in South Carolina, were bitten.

Burgess said several factors made 2015 “a perfect storm” for shark attacks.

The El Nino weather effect made the waters warmer for a longer period, which Burgess said resulted in more attacks off the California coast. There were fewer storms in developed countries, and the U.S. economy was better than usual, so more people were vacationing at the beach.

“All these factors made for more people in the ocean, which inevitably leads to more bites,” he said.

Food supply and shark migration patterns also play a role in attacks, Burgess said.

“Often times we will see more sharks closer to the shore and a spike in bites that occur naturally when some of these sharks don’t have food sources, or their food sources move,” he said.

Frazier, the S.C. DNR biologist, said sharks follow their food, which is “close to shore sometimes.”

The Atlantic also is experiencing a growing shark population, as East Coast species are recovering from years of overfishing, according to researchers. Earlier this year, a study analyzing data gathered by biologists in the Southeast found that after two decades of conservation and management measures, many of the region’s most common shark species show signs of bouncing back.

“While the populations are increasing, we don’t know if they’re recovered yet or just seeing signs of recovery,” Frazier said.

Low likelihood of attacks

Shark attacks, however, are a rare phenomenon on Hilton Head Island, which sees more than 2 million beachgoers every year. Over the past 100 years, there have been a total of 18 documented attacks – none fatal – off Beaufort County’s coast, according to research by Burgess’ group.

Beachgoers are far more likely to die of the flu than to be killed by a shark, the National Aquarium in Baltimore found in a study. The odds of a shark bite are about 1 in 3.7 million, according to the study.

It is true that the “Big Three” sharks – bull, tiger and great white – that pose the most threat to humans around the world can be found off the Lowcountry coastline.

But great whites typically are in the area only during the winter when there are far few swimmers in the ocean, and tiger and bull sharks rarely attack in South Carolina, according to experts.

Burgess said blacktip and spinner sharks, which are smaller and have weaker bites than the “Big Three,” account for the vast majority of South Carolina attacks, noting, “I would imagine they are 90 percent of the bites.”

“The resulting injuries are minor,” he said. “They are what we call hit-and-run attacks. Grabbing at a leg and thinking it’s a fish. These result in puncture wounds and lacerations.”

Painful and frightening, but typically “no loss of flesh,” he said.

That description fits most of the described injuries in recent documented attacks in Beaufort County. No victim on record has lost a limb.

In addition, 78 percent of recent Beaufort County bite victims were swimming in waist- to knee-deep water close to shore, where, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, blacktips prefer to stalk schools of fish.

“You find them anywhere between 3-foot shallow water and five miles off shore,” said Hilton Head charter captain Chip Michalove, who has fished and tagged numerous sharks over the years.

The shark attack database shows that 14 of the 18 recorded attacks in Beaufort County took place between May and July, when blacktip and spinner sharks typically frequent the area.

Humans by nature usually are afraid of sharks, killing, on average, approximately 2 million sharks worldwide for every person killed by a shark, according to research by National Geographic.

But sharks are play an essential role in the ocean ecosystem and must be protected, Burgess said.

“Getting rid of them because they scare humans isn’t an option,” he said. “We’re trying to bring people to the reality that sharks are predators, but good ones that we need.”