When shark expert George Burgess heard about the recent shark bite a tourist sustained while wading in knee-deep water on Hilton Head Island, he greeted the news with more of a shrug than a shock.
"Sharks really don’t give a damn about humans, other than that we’re in their waters,” says Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research through the University of Florida. “We’re lousy swimmers, we flop around near the surface, more times than not we’re really white in color, so sharks actually deserve a lot of credit for leaving us alone almost all the time. Considering we don’t make any precautions, we’re treated very well.”
It’s not that he isn’t sorry that Kim Popp, the wife of Montreal Alouettes General Manager Jim Popp, wasn’t treated very well when her foot was bitten by a shark while on vacation here in May. It’s just that Burgess sees it as more of an underwater “oops” than a sign of an increased predatory danger.
“Due to the breaking surf, the undertow, undercurrents and low visibility, (sharks) sometimes apparently make a mistake. They interpret a splash made by a human as their normal predative fish,” Burgess says. “So they take a bite and, lo and behold, instead of a fish, it’s a foot. “
Shore Beach Service employs about 90 seasonal lifeguards on Hilton Head Island’s beaches, and Operations Manager Mike Wagner says a shark sighting among its staff is very rare.
“We watch for them, but we almost never see them,” says Wagner, who has been with the company for 15 years. “I’ve seen more (sharks) caught by fishermen than I’ve actually seen them in the water.”
The guards are taught how to spot a shark, but most tourists don’t have such knowledge, Wagner says, so any fin or dark shadow below the surface gets called out by skittish swimmers.
“You get a lot of people that think they saw one and it’s just distinguishing a shark from a dolphin,” he says. “Dolphins come up to breathe, so they swim in more of that up-and-down motion. Sharks have the dorsal fin and tailfin, so you might see two fins, one after the other. And they swim more zigzag than straight on.”
Burgess says the most common types found in the surf zone, where we are, include blacktip, spinner, blacknose and sharpnose sharks. Less common but still occasionally seen are the bull shark, tiger shark and hammerhead.
“Of all those, only two are great concern to us humans – the bull and tiger,” says Burgess, who has been studying sharks for 40 years. “They are large sharks that go after large prey items. And they have serrated teeth, much like steak knives, so that when they cut you they can slice the bone.”
Though shark attacks are exceptionally rare – there were 47 in the U.S. in 2013 -- chances of a shark bite do rise slightly in the summer.
“The more people you put in the water, the chances increase. Just like when you have more people driving on the road, there’s more chance of having a car accident,” Burgess says.
But instead of being afraid of sharks, he says we should be respectful, if not admiring.
“Sharks are clearly the most amazing animal on the face of the earth,” he says. “They’ve been around for 400 million years, and they haven’t changed a whole lot. Evolutionarily, they figured out what to do early. Being an animal that’s that successful for that long makes them pretty darn amazing.”
The key to enjoying the surf but staying out of danger is to keep your wits about you and remember that they are not invading our territory. It’s the other way around.
“When we enter the water, it’s a wilderness experience,” Burgess says. “It’s hard to remember that when we put on our bikinis and our sunscreen.”
Tips to avoid sharks
- Always stay in groups since sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual
- Do not wander too far from shore.
- Avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight hours when sharks are most active and have a competitive sensory advantage.
- Don’t wear shiny jewelry; the reflected light resembles the sheen of fish scales.
- Avoid waters with known effluents or sewage and those being used by sport or commercial fishermen, especially if there are signs of bait fishes or feeding activity. Diving seabirds are good indicators of such action.
- Use extra caution when waters are murky and avoid uneven tanning and bright colored clothing. Sharks see contrast particularly well.
- Refrain from excess splashing and do not allow pets in the water because of their erratic movements.
- Exercise caution when occupying the area between sandbars or near steep drop-offs. These are favorite hangouts for sharks.
Source: Florida Program for Shark Research