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08/19/2020 - Nicole Stowers - South Carolina

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08/19/2020 - Nicole Stowers - South Carolina

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Vacationer bit by shark in Myrtle Beach as officials warn activity is on the rise

By Nick Masuda nmasuda@postandcourier.com
Aug 25, 2020 Updated 5 hrs ago

Nicole Stowers shark bite

Nicole Stowers’ arm after being bit by a shark in Myrtle Beach on Aug. 19, 2020.

Nicole Stowers stood there, waist deep in the ocean with her room at the Myrtle Beach Resort just off in the distance.

At only 5-foot-3, wading into the surf has been commonplace on her multiple vacation trips to the Grand Strand from her native Pittsburgh — never fearing a thing, more focused on keeping her two children in line and within arm’s length.

That changed Aug. 19.

As Stowers stared off while putting up her damp hair, she suddenly felt an excruciating pain near her bicep.

“It was like an ax fell on my arm,” said Stowers.

At first, she thought it might have been a part of a boat that was riding the current toward the sand.

Then she realized the grey streak she saw from the corner of her eye wasn’t a spare boat part — it was a shark.

“It happened so fast,” Stowers said. “All I could think about was the pain.”

Stowers estimated the shark was about 3-4 feet in length, with its full body leaving the ocean to deliver the bite on her arm, just feet away from her 14- and 9-year-old children.

The shark quickly released Stowers’ arm, leaving one clear puncture and lacerations that would surface over the next couple of hours.

It was the Grand Strand’s first reported shark attack of the year amid what local officials are calling “increasingly active waters.”

Daniel Abel, a local shark expert and Coastal Carolina University professor of marine science, believes due to the shark’s quick release of Stowers’ arm, it was likely a blacktip shark — a species commonly found along the shores of the Grand Strand.

Blacktips live in warm water and weather — with Myrtle Beach providing plenty of both nearly year around. They inch toward the shore as they look to feed on small, schooling fish.

“They are swift-swimming sharks that make rapid decisions about what to bite and what not to bite,” said Abel, who also said that the area sees plenty of lemon and bull sharks.

“The good news is — hardly good news for someone suffering from a bite — but the good news is they have taste receptors right inside their mouth and when they bite on something, they recognize almost instantaneously that it’s not something on their menu. It’s like biting into rotten fruit or fish.

“There is some damage that can be caused, and it can be quite serious. But for the most part, it’s a bite of mistaken identity. It’s like, ‘Oops, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do it,’ and they move on.”
Daniel Abel sandbar shark

Coastal Carolina professor Daniel Abel with undergraduate Rachel Hildebrand and graduate student Andrew Sitlinger after the research crew hauled in a sandbar shark.

While Stowers’ husband, Brad, wrapped a towel around her bleeding arm, a pair of Lack’s Beach Service lifeguards responded to Stowers’ injury around 2:15 p.m. on Aug. 19, calling for emergency back-up.

According to Lack’s, an ambulance arrived eight minutes later — a quick turnaround due to it being the middle of the week.

“It felt like forever,” Stowers said.

According to Lack’s Operations Manager, Weslyn Lack-Chickering, the company hires an off-duty medic to roam the beach on weekends because the trip from Highway 17 to the beach can be slow due to traffic.

“While events like this are rare, we make sure we are covered when we know help might be a bit slower getting there,” Lack-Chickering said. “Thankfully, it was very quick this time around.”

Stowers admitted to feeling like she was a spectacle, with beachgoers snapping photos as she tried to remain calm amid the pain — as well as assure her two children that she was fine.

“I felt like people wanted the picture more than help,” Stowers said.

Sporting a severely swollen arm, with emergency crew stating that the could see one of her muscles through the laceration, Stowers was taken to South Strand Hospital, where an X-ray showed no bone damage.

“We see an average of three to four shark bites a year,” said Dr. Jarratt Lark, director of environmental medicine and an emergency physician for Grand Strand Health, the parent company for South Strand Hospital.

“Typically they are cases of mistaken identity — the shark mistakes the flash of the lighter skin of the palm of a hand or the sole of a foot for its prey, typically a bait fish like a mullet or menhaden.”
Activity on the rise

Lack-Chickering admitted that hearing about the incident wasn’t shocking, as both she and her lifeguards have seen more shark activity in the area this summer than they have over the past three summers, if not longer.

She also indicated there have been many more stingrays and jellyfish in the area, providing another pair of obstacles for beachgoers wanting to dip their toes in the water.

To make matters a bit worse, the stingrays have been target of the sharks in shallow water, leaving some of the rays bloodied and others dead.

“They’ve been all over the place, flashing in the surf,” Lack-Chickering said. “We clear the beach right away when we see the sharks. Thankfully people are truly scared of sharks, so when we tell them why, they go, ‘OK, bye!’”

Abel points to the murky water that lines the Grand Strand as a key contributor to keeping sharks in the area, as well as continued climate change — an always controversial topic, although Abel doesn’t think so when it comes to shark migration.

“The change in climate is affecting ocean temperatures is definitely bringing more sharks here for longer periods of time. Period. Sharks use water temperature as cues for their migration,” Abel said. “We don’t have a big year-around population of sharks, they migrate here when the temperature is warm. It’s staying warmer here for a longer period of time, so the blacktip sharks that are migrating back and forth from Florida to here take advantage of the warmer water here to stay longer.”
Blacktip shark

A blacktip shark. Daniel Abel/Provided
Are fishermen making the waters more dangerous?

Just 24 hours before Stowers was attacked, her husband had approached the Lack’s lifeguards about fishermen casting their lines into the ocean alongside those trying to enjoy a dip in the Atlantic Ocean.

“It’s dangerous to be putting bait out there right next to people trying to enjoy themselves,” Stowers said.

Lack-Chickering didn’t disagree and says that the rules also side with the beachgoers, as lifeguards commonly have to ask fishermen to move to more isolated portions of the beach or near area piers. It also upholds Section 5-5 of the Myrtle Beach Code of Ordinances, which focuses on recreational fishing from shore or pier.

“The swimmers outrank the fishers,” Lack-Chickering said. “And they aren’t allowed to catch sharks anyways — although I don’t know how you stop them if you are putting bait out there that they want to nibble on.”

Abel said adding any level of opportunity for a shark’s “exquisite” sense of smell to be triggered can create danger for humans, although he cautioned bait is not the sharks preferred form of “lunch.”

“When there is a lot of the bait fish in the water, we have a hard time catching them with the bait we use. They prefer the live stuff,” Abel said. “It’s prudent not to swim where someone is fishing, or near a pier. But if a blacktip shark that was going after shiny little fish sees a person’s foot and accidentally bites it, that’s just bad luck and it’s going to happen from time to time.”

‘Low-likelihood events’

South Carolina is among the top 5 states in the U.S. when it comes to shark attacks — but it registered only one bite in 2019, and this is the first along the Grand Strand in 2020.

Between 2000-2019, there were 74 shark bites reported in the Palmetto State. The U.S. averages just under 45 shark bites per year, according to the Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, while Abel says that there are near 100 cases reported worldwide, with less than 10 percent being fatal.

In South Carolina, there hasn’t been a fatal attack since 1852.

While the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” and National Geographic’s Shark Fest — which Abel was featured on in 2020 — have put a newfound focus on shark’s interaction with humankind, Abel also warns that shark attacks around the world, much less the Grand Strand, are “uncommon.”

“There is no shark commonly found here for which humans are a menu item.”

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