Mar 19 2011

Are There Sharks Here?

“Are there any sharks here?”.  I hear this question often from pre-teens, and increasingly as summer swimming season approaches.

Yes:  sharks swim here everywhere.  And sharks have been swimming here for a very, very long time.  Sharks came into existence some 400 million years ago during the Devonian period, almost 200 million years before the appearance of dinosaurs.  The fossil record has revealed approximately 2000 different shark species, while almost 1000 species live today.  Sharks have been quite successful.

Fishermen have been more successful and recently shark numbers have declined sharply.  One reason stems from shark biology.  Sharks grow and mature slowly, reaching breeding age around 7 to 8 years old.  They may stay pregnant for up to a year or more and only have a hand full of ‘pups’.  Shark fishing takes have apparently outnumbered shark births.  Contributors to the worldwide decline include targeted shark fishing for fins and food, and incidental catches from longline fisherman and drift nets.

Around Folly’s tidal creeks in the summer, I see 2 to 3 ft Bonnet head sharks almost every outing, swimming along the creek bank, scattering bait as they cruise for a meal.  Less often, I see black tip sharks, up to 100 lbs, exploding out of the water though a school of Menhaden.  One particular weekend, while measuring shoreline changes on Dewees Island, just North of the Isle of Palms, I witnessed hundreds of acrobatic Black tip shark jumps (at least 1 jump every 30 seconds or so, it seemed).  Our survey work took us waist deep into the water mere yards from the action, which was both exhilarating and a bit unnerving.  Also swimming among us, we find large Bull sharks, larger Tiger sharks, and (very rarely) Great white sharks.

On June 14th, 1964, Walter Maxwell found himself attached to a world record Tiger shark while fishing from the Cherry Grove Pier in North Myrtle Beach.  The shark weighed in a day later at 1780 pounds.  I personally have witnessed sharks catches up to 500 pounds within two miles of the beach.  My right thumb sports a nice scar from a careless Bull shark encounter.  Coincidentally, this same thumb found itself inside the mouth of a rattle snake during a 7th grade baseball practice.

“A lawyer fishing for sharks” sounds like the beginning of a joke.  But, in actuality, a (very ethical) local lawyer (and life-long Folly resident) has practically made a second career of catching, measuring, and releasing sharks within the waters surrounding Folly Island.  His boat hull serves as a large measuring stick as he brings the fish alongside.  This man’s data has contributed greatly to the body of science on sharks.

So, lets review:

-Sharks have lived on earth a very, very long time, but man may put an end to them without the help of worldwide conservation efforts.

-Sharks swim among us, but rarely hurt us, which seems to indicate we’re not their primary source of food.

-Large sharks will hurt you if you get too close.

-Lawyers can do good things for sharks.

As a Coastal Geologist and Ecologist, Anton DuMars brings science and education to Folly Beach visitors.

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