Halloween Greetings from the Shark-Swarming Carolina Pier Where I Learned to Fish – and Surf.
by Chris Dixon
When I saw the above Facebook video, I literally stopped in my tracks and my jaw hung open. This scrum of mullet-hungry bull sharks (at least they look like bulls, or maybe sand sharks) was filmed at the pier in Surfside Beach, South Carolina.
Once sleepy Surfside Beach as I remember it as a kid. Our house was just out of the frame, a half block to the north. The amusement park and arcade, one of my favorite places on earth has since been replaced with a damned hotel. Click to blow it up.
This is my childhood pier. I spent every young summer of my life a block north at my grandparents’ old beach house, and eventually lived in the house for quite some time. I learned to fish on this pier with my dad and granddad. I not only learned to surf in the shadow of its pilings, but when I was a stupid teenager, my friends and surfed beneath its lights at night. For the hell of it, we also occasionally paddled around the pier at midnight, on warm summer evenings on our shortboards. The pier is 830 feet long. To get past the nighttime heavy tackle fishermen, who were fishing 130 pound test longlines with live bait, you had to paddle out way farther into the inky darkness than that. When my mom reads that sentence, she’s going to freak.
The World Record Tiger Shark – a 1780 pounder – was Caught by Walter Maxwell off the Nearby Cherry Grove Pier in 1964.
It’s long been no secret that the South Carolina coast is quite sharky. Hell, the World Record Tiger Shark was caught in 1964 ago on the nearby Cherry Grove Pier. Back when I was a bug-eyed kid and it was legal, I watched leathery, drawling versions of Quint reel in and gaff some some huge, bloody hammerheads on this pier.
More recently, I’ve written about the Ocearch tracking of Great Whites along the Carolina coast, and the viral video of “a bigass” bull shark stealing a redfish off a hook in a nearby tidal creek – just the sort of creek I live on. But in all my years looking down into Surfside’s murky green waters, I never saw a collection of sharks anything like what Matt and Dana Rice captured on their camera.
Was my old pier a new shark hotspot? Were these in fact bulls, or something a little less threatening? The video fascinated, and sort of horrified me. So in the interest of science and a good Halloween fish story, I rang up Arnold Postell. He’s the senior biologist and dive safety officer at the South Carolina Aquarium here in Charleston. Like me, he’s also an avid fisherman and surfer who plies our murky waters constantly.
First off, Postell said, it seems evident that the sharks are not bulls, but are instead healthy sized and well-fed sandbar sharks (Carcharhinus plumbeus), which have the very large, airplanelike side fins, narrower faces, rounded noses and an unmottled, gray coloring. You can tell this pack is nearly full sized to their five or six foot length by comparing them to the copious cannonball jellyfish – which are about the size of a ripe cantaloupe. “They’re beautiful looking animals,” Postell says.
Sandbars are known to hunt in packs, prefer nearshore waters and would certainly be drawn to fishing piers – particularly Postell says, if folks are reeling in lots of other fish, which they have been during our fall mullet run season, and particularly if folks on the pier are chumming. “And that’s what they’re doing in the video – actively chumming,” he says. “Really, that scene in the video – it’s staged and ready. They’re throwing nine, twelve-inch-long pieces of fish. I guarantee you that’s not the first time the sharks have been to that pier. They’re habituated.”
Sharks like these have been at this pier Postell says. Since I was a kid – and well before. What’s changed is all the realtime video that’s now out there. “Sometimes it’s better to be deaf, dumb and blind,” he says. “You just have a more heightened sense because you’re seeing these sharks in real time. The bite statistics haven’t changed. Should people stop surfing or swimming there? No.”Still, sandbars can become a danger, he says, if they’ve become habituated to people for food, and suddenly that food source disappears. “That’s why they’ve stopped hand-feeding operations in Florida,” says Postell. “The sharks get habituated to people and come to associate them with food.” But that’s not likely at Surfside’s fish-heavy pier anytime soon.
“That video’s gonna scare half the people in Myrtle Beach,” he added. “But they’re out there, and that shows a healthy ecosystem.”
Happy Halloween! — CD