With the recent news reports of the Great White shark named Mary Lee prowling our offshore waters, I thought a revival of this column about some “historic” shark attacks was merited. (Mary Lee, a female great white shark who is sixteen feet long and weighs 3456 pounds, has been tracked off the coast of South Carolina regularly since Ocearch started following her in September. Prior to that she was tracked around Nantucket. To follow Mary Lee's travels, go here.)
Anyone who has seen “Jaws” will be pleased to hear this tidbit I learned recently about swimming in the waters of the South Carolina coast: Every time you step into the water there is probably a shark within fifty feet of you.
Before you cross off swimming in the ocean completely, take heart in the knowledge that the shark with which you share swimming space is probably a harmless sand shark, more of an overgrown catfish than a man-eating machine. Also, throughout history the number of shark attacks on the South Carolina coast are incredibly few. Thankfully, man is rarely on a shark's menu. We're not usually part of their food chain.
Of course, if you really want to push your luck, swim in an inlet. There you hit double jeopardy and run the risk of being simultaneously pulled under by the currents while being eaten by a shark.. Sharks love inlets. For sharks, inlets are a bit like a marine automat. Food is everywhere and the variety is ever-changing, with schools of delectable fish passing in and out with each rising and falling tide.
All kinds of sharks “infest” South Carolina waters—from harmless sand sharks to the so-called man-eaters, hammerheads and tiger sharks. Yet most shark-and-human encounters leave the shark on the losing end of a fishing pole, a case of man-eating-shark, not the other way around. While shark fishing is big sport and has led to some record catches, our chances of encountering one of these behemoths while swimming are slim. Even more distant is the possibility of meeting the legendary “Jaws” in inshore waters. Great Whites are normally seen far offshore.
That said, shark attacks in lowcountry waters have occurred. While they are so few you can practically count the number on two hands, the accounts are enough to make you ponder a swim in salt water.
In 1935, E. Milby Burton, who for years was director of the Charleston Museum, wrote an article for Scientific Monthly entitled “Shark Attacks Along the South Carolina Coast.” In it he recounts enough shark attack stories to make anyone thoughtful about putting a toe in the ocean, especially around the waters of Morris Island and Folly Beach.
For instance on July 31, 1934, Lewis Kornahrens was standing about waist deep in the breakers at Folly Beach when he was suddenly grabbed on both legs at the same time. Mr. Kornahrens was a fighter. He responded by hitting the shark in the face with his fist, at which point it turned him loose. Some intrepid soul came out to help and later allowed that he saw “about six feet of the fish,” but didn't hang around long enough to observe more closely. Smart move.
In July 1907, Mr. C. B. Hernandez was swimming in a small creek near Coles Island (just behind the south end of Folly) when he was attacked by a shark which he saw quite clearly as being at least five feet long. On May 19, 1919, Mr. W. E. Davis was swimming in James Island Sound on an extremely high tide. He dove into water and suddenly something seized his left foot. It required more than 70 stitches and his foot was barely saved by an operation. On August 2, 1925, Mrs. Walter K. Kahrs was in waist deep water off Folly when she was attacked. She suffered multiple lacerations on both thighs, her right buttock and hip, for a total of 78 stitches.
Burton also recounts the memorable shark attack on June 21, 1933, when 15-year old Drayton Hastie was swimming at the north end of Morris Island. Recalled Hastie: “Far up the shoreline I saw what I thought might be the dorsal fin of a large shark cutting the rough surface. I stood up and strained my eyes to make certain. Yes, it must be a fin, I concluded… Reaching the place and finding nothing that resembed a fin, I believed that I had mistaken a choppy wave for a fin… I did not like the idea of swimming with sharks all around, so I sat down in about three feet of water, at which place the beach sloped gradually until about six feet beyond where I was sitting, at the point it made a deep drop. I was almost certain that in such shallow water I would be safe from anything large enough to bite.
"I felt a swerve of water, which was immediately followed by an impact which brought me to my senses. Something clamped down on my right leg. I was aware of a tearing pain up and down my leg, and that I was being pulled outward by something which seemed to have the power of a horse. Looking down, I saw, amid the foam and splashing, the head of a large shark which had my knee in its mouth, shaking it as a puppy would shake a stick… Although some people said I had been bitten by everything from crabs up to whales, I still have a perfect design of a shark's mouth around my knee, measuring ten inches across."
A tiger shark, perhaps? They are our biggest “man-eaters” and, having seen one up close and personal while crabbing at Breach Inlet (a bit like watching a menacingly-striped submerged Cadillac limo with a dorsal fin swim silently by), these huge monsters have my utmost respect.
One of the largest on record was taken off Cherry Grove Pier in 1964 by shark fisherman Walter Maxwell. Incredibly, Maxwell caught two tiger sharks that day, but the “big” one got away. That one “nearly overlapped the pier's end,” said Maxwell, “That’s 20 feet long. The little one I caught only went 13 1/2 feet and, after losing an estimated 10 percent of its body weight, weighed in at 1,780 pounds.” The “little one” was a world record.
Thankfully, today most beach communities have banned shark fishing from piers because it is (duh) bad for tourism.
Tiger sharks are scavengers and known to eat just about anything—rocks, birds, shellfish, turtles, horseshoe crabs, garbage, clothing, nuts, bolts. Car parts. Perfectly preserved dolphins. People.
In 1982, when a tiger shark caught off Daws Island in Port Royal Sound was cleaned, they found human remains in its stomach. Even the coroner could not tell who the person was or how the person had died. Suffice it to say that poor Jonah did not get out of the proverbial whale’s belly.
Statistically, the risk of shark attack compares to the chances of getting hit by lightning or being attacked by an alligator. Neither provide much comfort. Sharks are in our waters.
I’m with Drayton Hastie who said with classic understatement, “I do not like the idea of swimming with sharks all around.”
Suzannah Smith Miles is a writer and historian of South Carolina's Low Country whose observations about Charleston, SC and its surrounding islands echo the experiences of many on Nantucket. Her books include Writings of the Islands: Sullivan's Island and Isle of Palms, Writings of the Low Country, Reflections on the South Carolina Coast, and East Cooper Gazeteer: History of Mt. Pleasant, Sullivan's Island and Isle of Palms. This essay first appeared in The Moultrie News.