Outside the dive tank at the South Carolina Aquarium.
Outside the dive tank at the South Carolina Aquarium.
Recently, a YouTube video appeared on Surfermag.com’s bulletin board in a post titled “The One That Got Away.” The clip featured a stellar exchange between a very southern family after a “big-ass” shark leapt out of the water and made short work of a tasty red drum. Outside’s Joe Spring picked up the clip, as did with most American TV networks—and the astonishing moment went highly viral. Within a week, “The One that Got Away,” had garnered over eight million views and a slew of comments, slow-motion rebroadcasts and parodies—most embarrassingly awful.
After viewing the clip, what most caught my attention was not so much the breaching shark, or the hilarious Dukes of Hazzard dialogue between Sarah Brame and her family, but where the shark was—in a brackish tidal creek, just up the road in Cherry Grove, South Carolina. It looked like the fish, crab and shrimp-filled, pluff-mud bottomed tidal creek behind my house in Charleston. In fact, it looked like thousands of murky marshland backyards between the Chesapeake Bay and South Padre Island. I stand-up paddle, fish and swim, with my three- and seven-year-old kids in our creek, all the time.
Everyone here swims in the local waterways. Heck, my daughter even has a "pet" dolphin, just like Sandy in Flipper. Thus, Ms. Brame’s video carried a particular resonance by suddenly making me leery of jumping into waters I previously thought safe—especially because that barrel-shaped predator appeared to be a Carcharhinus leucas—a bull shark, or a fairly indiscriminate eater South Africans call a Zambezi. Bulls have no problem surviving in freshwater. They have been found far up the Mississippi River into Illinois and Ohio. In 2005, a big bull mauled a horse on a river in Brisbane, Australia.
I’d like to think that if were we threatened by a bull shark, our dolphin, affectionately called “Dolphy” by my daughter, would step in to save the day, but that’s probably unrealistic. So in the interest of determining whether all rivers and creeks along the southeastern seaboard should now be off-limits to swimming, I spoke with Arnold Postell, senior biologist and dive officer at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston. The conversation left me mostly relieved. Mostly.
Arnold, you’ve seen the video. Living on a Carolina tidal creek with kids, I must say that it carried a certain resonance.
Well, I grew up here in Charleston and personally swim in the creeks with my kids—they’re three and five years old—all the time. Especially Hamlin Creek behind the Isle of Palms. It’s interesting too, because about two miles away, at the cut between Isle of Palms and Dewees Island, is where I collect most of the sharks for the aquarium. It’s a well-known shark calving ground. I can go there and catch 200 sharks a day potentially. But 99 percent are 12 inches in size.
What will you find in these southern waterways?
Hammerheads in particular pup behind Dewees. So the big mommas cruise through there. They’re just not hunting. If I catch anything larger in the creeks, it’s usually sandbar, blacktip and bonnetheads—the junior hammerheads. Another is the Atlantic sharpnose. They’re so skittish you usually won’t see them at all unless you’re fishing. If I catch 200 sharks a day, 190 might be juvenile sharpnose.
There are multiple shark species who swim in the creeks for multiple reasons. Whether it’s coming in to pup, whether they live their whole lives there or are just cruising by. For me, swimming in the creeks is really just sort of holding true to the belief and concept that we’re not the food source for sharks. And it’s true because, honestly, if you’ve ever seen aerial photos of Charleston, Myrtle Beach and areas like that where people are surfing and swimming, then you’re going to see sharks in the photos. They don’t want to bother us, they don’t want to eat us, they don’t want to interact with us, really. So knowing the animals are there and knowing their behaviors, that’s what lets me put myself, my kids and dogs in a creek. It’s knowing those sharks are potentially around, but they don’t want that interaction.
What are the big sharks in our waters?
Black tips and sandbars I would put at the top of the list for sharks people will actively encounter on the beaches—they’re the ones that bite people in the surf. There are hammerheads, tigers and bulls offshore and in the winter there are great whites. There was a dead white that washed up on Morris Island a couple of years ago and I know they swim in the mouth of the big harbor jetties, but not in 80-degree water.
How big do they get?
Well, you’re talking easily 10, 12-foot bulls—maybe bigger. Tigers and hammerheads are in the same realm. A lot of those larger ones, though, don’t come into the creeks. When the big hammerheads come, they pup then get the hell out. Bulls are really the only ones that will follow their food source from the ocean all the way into freshwater.
Is that shark in the video a Bull shark?
I’d say it was, though I didn’t actually blow it up. That would be a very common potential predator shark in our creeks. It’s a species that can go from pure fresh to pure saltwater all in one motion. They have some ability to osmoregulate differently than other species out there. The shark summer back in 1916 in New Jersey (five people attacked in July, four killed)—those were probably Bull Sharks, not great whites.
A lot of that, again, is because they go into freshwater. One of the biggest shark finning industries was in Lake Nicaragua in the 1930s and '40s, and you’d have incidences of fishermen disappearing. Those were bulls migrating to the lake and back.
Some sharks can go short term, but then have to get out. Tidal changes here make fish get used to five, 10 parts per thousand changes in salinity. But bulls can go from 32-33 parts (in the ocean) to zero salt.
Doesn’t that require the cells in their bodies to go from pumping saltwater out to taking it in? Don’t saltwater fish die when you put them in freshwater because it basically makes their cells burst?
Yes, that’s what happens. We actually use freshwater when we put our saltwater fish into quarantine. We do that to get rid of external parasites—it basically makes the parasites’ cells explode—because they can’t take the osmotic pressure change between fresh and saltwater. Take a saltwater fish and put it in freshwater for five, 10 minutes. Most of them will flip upside down and look horrible, but put them back into saltwater quickly enough and they’ll be okay. Bull sharks are one of the few species that can not only deal with that change but thrive. So you’ll see larger bulls in the creeks sometimes—but again, that is food-driven behavior, and we’re not their food.
I can’t recall hearing of any bull attacks in the rivers or creeks here in my lifetime. It’s interesting though, because the shark doesn’t seem to give any indication of its presence before or after the attack.
You’re not going to always see the classic dorsal fin where they circle before an attack. So it doesn’t surprise me that this was a submarine attack. Typically, attacks on people here are from sandbar sharks and black tips and they happen in the surf. In that video, the people caught a red drum and that is what drew the attention of the shark. It’s bouncing and writhing around and the shark is going to think it’s a sick or wounded animal, which, in the end, it kind of is. So the shark’s doing his job. Food brings them into the creeks. And that’s why they also come into the creeks to give birth—that way their young have the best chance of getting food. Menhaden, blue crabs, shrimp, mullet, everything else.
In some places, like Wilmington, North Carolina, the water tends to be a little clearer. Here, all the rivers make it so murky. Does it work in the favor of my three-year-old son swimming in a creek with clearer water?
I pretty much always say the clearer the water the better. If you go with the premise that an attack is almost always a mistake, the reason is that the shark can’t see you very well. It sensed a vibration, maybe picked up the smell of something that wasn’t you but was in the neighborhood. How many bites do you hear of in the Bahamas? The water’s crystal clear and everybody sees everything. The shark sees you, and you see the shark.
What sharks do you have in the "Great Ocean" exhibit now?
We have one blacktip, five sand bar and four sand tiger and two nurse sharks.
No bulls in the tank?
Let me try to word it correctly. Bulls are a species I would definitely monitor if I knew they were immediately around me. I’ve seen them diving off Charleston and, like most species, they can be very curious. But they do have a different reputation than some species. I don’t know if I’d put them in with divers as frequently as they’re in the tank. I have a very healthy respect for the species. For awhile they’d probably be fine, but they would get too comfortable with us.
Was there any takeaway for you in watching the video of the Carolina bull shark?
The point I always try to get across is, you know, we’re really not on their menu. But use a little common sense. Baitfish say an awful lot. If you are in the water and you’re seeing baitfish jump, well, something is chasing the baitfish. I would not jump into murky water with a bunch of baitfish. Do I think I’d get bit? No, but you want to mitigate the risk. You also shouldn’t clean your fish and chum the water and then just jump right in.
Also, after watching that video, maybe I wouldn’t go fishing and then jump right in the water either. I love fishing. I bought rods for my boys so they can fish off their grandfather’s dock, but you have to balance what you’re doing. So would I want them fishing for a long time and then jumping right into the creek? It would be something to consider. But again, I’ve been swimming in those creeks all my life. I throw my dogs in. My three- and five-year-old kids jump in without batting an eye. I don’t ever want them to stop doing that.
There are so many silly statistics out there. You’re more likely to be injured by your toilet seat than a shark. You can live your life in fear of some things, but sharks should not be one of them.
Chris Dixon is the author of Ghost Wave: The Discovery of Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth. Big waves and big sharks scare the heck out of him.