Sharks of Coastal South Carolina. Why is Winyah Bay such a popular spot for these ocean predators?

Many who live in Myrtle Beach have heard of Winyah Bay. It is where the Waccamaw, Pee Dee, Black and the Sampit River all drain into South Carolina.

But did you know it also makes for a great place to raise kids? Shark “kids” that is.

“Winyah Bay is a primary and secondary nursery. A primary nursery is where an animal will go and give birth, and a secondary nursery will be where that baby then grows up,” said Caroline Collatos, a graduate student in the marine science department at Coastal Carolina University.

Collatos believes that Winyah Bay is a secondary nursery for three different species of sharks.

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Baby Blacktip shark caught in   Winyah Bay. Shark was tagged and released.                                Photo: Sharon Tutrone

“The evidence we collected is showing us that this bay provides an area for these juveniles to grow up and hopefully become sexually reproductive and add to the population,” said Collatos.

Sharks move due to the change of season. Some sharks are more tolerant to colder or warmer temperatures which decide when they leave an area.

“Winyah Bay has both cold water and warm water species. In the winter we have two different species that use the bay. They are spiny dogfish and smooth dogfish sharks,” said Collatos. “In the summer, we have four species that use the bay frequently; the most dominant species is the Juvenile Sandbar shark.”

Collatos says a lot of juvenile sharks that grow up in Winyah Bay eventually move out to coastal areas. But they have also seen older sharks make their way into the bay as well.

“We also have a lot of older adult sharks that come into Winyah Bay to feed on smaller sharks or other prey,” said Collatos.

Sharks are not the only mammal that heads to Winyah Bay to mate. Recently the CCU Shark research team caught a female stingray that had two males trying to mate with her as the team brought her in on the fishing line.

So why are the waters of Winyah Bay so attractive to sharks? It is a question Coastal Carolina marine biologists are hoping to answer through their tag and release program.

Dr. Dan Abel, a marine biologist with CCU, started the research program more than 15 years ago. He takes a group of undergraduate and graduate marine biology students out to Winyah Bay to study Juvenile Sandbar Sharks.

“One of our aims is to simply look at the demographics of shark populations,” said Abel. “What factors influence the presence and absence and the diversity of sharks in ecosystems.”

The process of tracking sharks is tedious and precise. Abel and his students bait 25 hooks on a line that is 150 meters long. The line has floats and anchors at both ends. Once the lines are in the water, they soak for 30-45 minutes. The students then hand pull the line in, hoping they have a shark on one of the hooks.

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Long lines are baited with Mackerel. Photo: Sharon Tutrone

 

“Acoustic telemeters are little pingers,” said Abel. “We make a two-inch incision in the abdomen and put a double A battery-sized instrument inside, sew it back up, and it will ping every 60 to 90 seconds. For us to get information on where the shark is, it has to go by an acoustic receiver. Fortunately, there’s a ray of receivers up and down the coast and worldwide.”

Acoustic tagging allows CCU students to track the movements of return visitors to Winyah Bay.

Besides the tagging trips to Winyah Bay, Dr. Abel takes his students every May to the Shark Lab in Bimini, which is located in the Bahamas. Abel says the students get an up close and personal look at the sharks and the stingrays. Abel says everything they learn in Bimini prepares them for their Winyah Bay tagging trips.

To learn more about the Coastal Carolina shark research team’s findings, click here.

 

With two shark bites near Myrtle Beach, is it safe to go in the ocean? 

It’s a sign summer is here. The smell of salt in the air, children playing on the beach, and shark bites dominating local news headlines.

So far, there have been two shark bites off the coast of Myrtle Beach. The first was last month near Pawleys Island. Investigators say a man was bitten on the foot during a morning swim.

A few weeks later a 36-year-old woman was swimming off the coast of Folly Beach, which is just south of Myrtle Beach when she was bitten on her left foot.

Both victims have recovered.

Dr. Dan Abel, a marine biologist at Coastal Carolina University, says most of the time sharks have no interest in humans. But he says, there are some things you can do to prevent a trip to the hospital.

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Sign informing swimmers of beach warning flags at 48th Ave.               North in Myrtle Beach.             Photo: Sharon Tutrone

“Don’t swim at dawn or dusk. That is when many sharks feed,” said Abel. “Avoid swimming near piers where people are fishing and if you see a school of fish, get out of the water.”

What about that fin above the water line, does that mean a shark is coming after you?

“No, that does not mean they are coming after you. Most of the time people see a wave or a dolphin,” said Caroline Collatos, a graduate student in the marine science department. “Sharks rarely do this, and when they do, they’re coming to the surface to eat a piece of fish scrap, or they may be chasing prey that swam up to the surface.”

There is a small chance that a shark will bite you, but if you do go in the ocean here are some tips to make that risk even lower.

  1. Swim in a group. Sharks usually bite someone swimming alone.
  2. Don’t swim too far from shore. Doing so places you away from help.
  3. If you are bleeding, don’t enter the water. Sharks can smell blood, and trace it back to its source.
  4. Keep shiny jewelry at home. The reflection of the light looks like shining fish scales.
  5. Don’t swim in waters containing sewage. Sewage attracts bait fish, which attract sharks.

For more beach safety tips click here.

Research unravels the mystery of sharks and what brings them to Myrtle Beach

(The lines are baited with Mackerel, as Coastal Carolina University students set out on a shark tagging trip on Winyah Bay. Photo: Sharon Tutrone)

Shark research off the Myrtle Beach coast reveals valuable information on the movements of these ocean predators and why they like the Carolinas.

“We have seen up to 10 different kinds of sharks in Winyah Bay,” said Dr. Dan Abel, a marine biologist at Coastal Carolina University.

Abel, who started the research program more than 15 years ago, takes a group of undergraduate and graduate marine biology students out to Winyah Bay to study Juvenile Sandbar Sharks.

“One of our aims is to simply look at the demographics of shark populations,” said Abel. “How stable are they? What factors influence the presence and absence and the diversity of sharks in ecosystems.”

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Coastal Carolina Marine Biology students bait the hooks on a recent shark tagging trip to Winyah Bay. Photo: Sharon Tutrone

The process of tracking sharks is tedious and precise. Abel and his students bait 25 hooks on a line that is 150 meters long. The line has floats and anchors at both ends. Once the lines are in the water, they soak for 30-45 minutes. The students then hand pull the line in, hoping they have a shark on one of the hooks.

“We typically catch as many as zero to 10 sharks per long line,” said Abel. “When we do catch a shark, depending on its size we usually identify and measure it in the water, then we tag and release it.”

This type of tag-and-release research can tell a lot about different shark biology.

“We learn possible migration movements, growth rate estimates, habitats they utilize, and possible population estimates,” said Caroline Collatos, a graduate student in the marine science department.

Depending on what the group’s goals are, Abel said, they put a tag in the shark’s dorsal fin or place acoustic telemeters in the abdomen of the shark.

“Acoustic telemeters are little pingers,” said Abel. “We make a two-inch incision in the abdomen and put a double A battery-sized instrument inside, sew it back up, and it will ping every 60 to 90 seconds. In order for us to get information on where the shark is, it has to go by an acoustic receiver. Fortunately, there’s a ray of receivers up and down the coast and worldwide.”

Acoustic tagging allows CCU students to track the movements of return visitors to Winyah Bay.

“Acoustic tagging has shown Juvenile Sandbar Sharks return to the bay for up to a month at a time. We think they use the bay as a seasonal habitat to feed, grow, and escape predation from larger sharks,” said Collatos.

Collatos says Winyah Bay is a habitat for mostly Juvenile Sandbar Sharks.

Atlantic Sharpnose sharks, Finetooth sharks, and Blacktip sharks also visit the area.

To learn more about the Coastal Carolina shark research team’s findings, click here.