With its small-town character and welcoming expanse of ocean, Folly Beach is a popular destination for sun-lovers and surfers alike.
Unfortunately, it also attracts its fair share of sharks, but the chances of being bitten by one remain slim.
Although South Carolina ranks third in the country for the most shark attacks in the past ten years, the odds of getting attacked are around 1 in 738 million.
There are around 40 different species of shark found in the warm waters off the coast of Folly Island.
Like the notorious great white, some of these will be familiar to you, while you may never have even heard of others, such as the blacknose and finetooth sharks.
What Kind of Sharks are at Folly Beach?
The most common species of Folly Beach sharks include:
Named for its ability to leap from the water and perform spectacular airborne displays, the spinner shark is one of the most commonly seen in the Folly Beach area.
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With its small teeth and unwillingness to take on larger animals, bites from spinner sharks are infrequent and often superficial.
There are lots of fun videos of spinner sharks performing as they migrate along the Florida coastline, of which this is one of my favorites.
Sand Tiger Shark
With a mouthful of snaggled teeth, the sand tiger shark looks intimidating but is quite docile.
Also known as the ragged-tooth shark, they’re undoubtedly big enough to inflict some severe injury but too peaceable to bother.
Sand tiger sharks gulp in mouthfuls of air to improve their buoyancy. This enables them to hang motionless in the water as they hunt for small fish and crustaceans.
As a result, they are regularly found in shallow water close to shore but are rarely seen as they stay close to the ocean floor.
These sharks are one of the few to hunt during the day, but as they tend to avoid beaches, they pose little threat to swimmers.
Like the great whites, they tend to leave the area when the water temperatures rise above 60°F, heading north to cooler climes.
It’s one of the most abundant large shark species found in the Atlantic Ocean but, like the sandbar, tends to stay close to the ocean floor, where it feeds on small fish, mollusks and crustaceans.
Large and aggressive, the bull shark is one of the world’s most dangerous. It is frequently used to test the efficacy of shark repellants and deterrents, like the Sharkbanz.
Created by Nathan Garrison, who saw his friend bitten by a shark while surfing off the Folly Beach pier, Sharkbanz is designed to “stop a 2,500-pound shark in its tracks.”
Since being bitten by a shark off Folly Beach in 2017, Holly Pope Dyar says she’ll always wear a shark repellent band but admits “that shark feeling” will never disappear.
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If you see a fin in the surf, it’s a blacktip. Growing to between four and five feet long, these sharks are, according to local South Carolina fisherman Chip Michalove, “the peskiest and most abundant.”
They move into the area when other species leave, enjoying the warmer waters of the summer months.
Based on the size of most bites. Michalove believes that the blacktip is probably responsible “for most of South Carolina’s shark attacks.”
Blacktips frequent bays, beaches, coral reefs, and river mouths, bringing them into close proximity with humans.
Estuaries, coral reefs, and the shallow waters off beaches and river mouths.
People have encountered some huge tiger sharks while fishing off Folly Beach pier.
In 2015, one lucky fisherman pulled in a 13-foot tiger shark that weighed 800 pounds.
The shark was found near a popular surfing spot, the shark was just a few inches shorter than the largest tiger shark ever caught in South Carolina.
Ferocious and opportunistic hunters, tiger sharks have been responsible for over 100 attacks on humans, but, Michalove says, there’s little chance of one attacking near South Carolina.
Moreover, the number of large tiger sharks has declined dramatically in recent years, a trend that many blame on the Edisto Watersports and Tackle Shark Tournament.
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Although large, the lemon shark isn’t particularly aggressive and avoids conflict. Its yellowish coloration is perfectly camouflaged on sandy seabeds where it hunts.
Unlike the opportunistic tiger shark, the lemon is a fussy eater that rarely experiments with anything beyond its standard fair of fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods.
Lemon sharks can detect electrical signals and use those to stalk their prey.
Then, when they attack, they grip their prey in vicelike jaws and rip it to pieces by thrashing its head from side to side.
Great White Shark
The most feared of all the sharks, the great white shark, has an unfair reputation for being a blood-thirsty and ruthless killer.
Although responsible for more attacks than any other shark species, the great white doesn’t specifically target humans but sometimes attacks due to mistaken identity.
Ocearch tracks several great whites along the coast of South Carolina, and their teeth are regularly found on Folly Beach.
Fortunately, encounters between white sharks and humans remain relatively rare. This is primarily because the great whites stick to deeper waters further from shore.
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Several different hammerhead sharks are found in South Carolina, including the iconic scalloped hammerhead, the diminutive bonnethead, and the comparatively new species, the Carolina hammerhead.
Discovered in 2013, the Carolina hammerhead is nearly indistinguishable from its closest relative, the scalloped hammerhead.
Unfortunately, scientists fear the species won’t last much longer because there are so few Carolina hammerheads around.
Despite their fearsome appearance, hammerhead sharks are surprisingly friendly and rarely attack.
In addition to these common species of sharks, Folly Beach is also visited by more unusual sharks, including the Atlantic sharpnose, the blacknose, and the finetooth.
None of these present a threat to humans.
Where are the Sharks of Folly Beach Located?
Gaining in-depth knowledge about sharks and their usual behavior patterns can help eliminate fear and keep you safe in the water.
Bull sharks are one of the most dangerous shark species in the world. What makes them so dangerous is partly their aggressive natures and their preferred habitat.
Although, this unusual shark species moves easily between marine and freshwater systems, it is often found in river mouths and estuaries.
This brings it into frequent contact with swimmers, increasing the chances of an attack.
The sandbar shark is, not surprisingly, often seen between sand bars where it hunts for small fish.
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This species has a high “tolerance for water temperature fluctuation” so it can be seen off the coast of South Carolina all year round.
Although it’s big enough to inflict an injury, the sandbar shark isn’t considered particularly dangerous due to its preference for small prey.
On the other hand, the tiger shark will eat almost anything and is far more likely to attack humans than sandbar sharks.
Of course, most of these attacks are a case of mistaken identity rather than the sharks seeing humans as a food source, but even an investigatory bite could prove fatal.
Tiger sharks frequently patrol the outer banks off Folly Beach and are particularly prolific from May to September when the lure of loggerhead turtles draws them in.
Great white sharks also visit the area but tend to stay further from shore than the bull or tiger sharks.
Tracking them this morning on the Ocearch app, I found a couple of female great whites a mile or so off the coast of Charleston.
Great whites prefer cooler temperatures and usually leave the Folly Beach area during the summer when the waters start warming up.
Folly Beach and Shark Attacks
A handful of people are bitten by sharks in the Carolinas each year.
These attacks are almost always unintentional, occurring when those sharks mistake a human for baitfish.
Although there has been a marked increase in sightings over the past year, the chances of being bitten by a shark are still small.
According to the former director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, “researchers are not noticing anything unusual in terms of interactions between humans and sharks.”
However, with a growing human population, “the density of humans in the waters is higher than ever,” increasing your chances of an accidental attack.
No one’s more aware of those risks than 12-year-old Liam Modzelewski.
This young surfer was enjoying the waves at Folly Beach in 2020 when he suddenly felt something bite down on his foot.
Fellow surfers quickly stopped the bleeding and called an ambulance.
Liam never saw the shark that bit him but is convinced it was a bull shark due to the nature of the bite.
It’s just “How a bull shark bites,” he explained. “The top jaw is just used to hold onto it, and the bottom sinks in and rips out.”
Despite needing surgery, Liam was incredibly lucky. “There was no bone, tendon, ligament, or major nerve damage,” said his mom, Tenna Modzelewski.
Before the attack on Liam, the last recorded incident in Folly Beach occurred in 2017 when a woman was bitten on the foot, sustaining minor injuries.
Over the years, there have been a couple of periods where a spate of attacks spelled trouble for surfers and swimmers alike.
Bull and tiger sharks probably account for most of the attacks in Folly Beach, although a story that hit the news in 1933 exposed a very different threat.
15-year-old Drayton Hastie was sitting on the beach in about three feet of water when something “clamped down” on his right leg and started pulling him into the water with “the power of a horse.”
Hastie managed to fight the shark off by kicking it repeatedly with his uninjured leg. Although he survived the attack, “it required more than 30 stitches to close the numerous wounds.”
Soon after the attack, two eight-foot lemon sharks were found a few hundred yards from where Hastie had been sitting.
Although large, lemon sharks are usually docile and pose little threat to humans. Hastie must simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Is it Safe to Swim at Folly Beach?
Even experts agree that it’s silly to let the fear of sharks keep you from enjoying the delights of Folly Beach.
Swimming in the middle of the day is much safer than at dawn or dusk when many sharks move into the surf zone to feed.
Swimming after a storm when the water is cloudy and turbulent is also a potential recipe for disaster.
The poor visibly increases the chances of a shark mistaking you for a prey species.
You should also avoid swimming if you have a recent cut, as blood will invite all the sharks in the area to take a closer look.
Minimizing the amount of splashing you do and reducing the number of sudden movements you make can also reduce your chances of getting hurt.
If you swim during the middle of the day when the water’s clear, you’ll have very little to worry about.
If, on the other hand, you launch yourself into the water when sharks are “rolling along in the surf,” your chances of getting bitten are pretty high.
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There may be sharks at Folly Beach, but that’s no reason to avoid swimming there altogether.
Many of the more dangerous sharks leave the area during summer when the water temperatures rise to uncomfortable levels.
So there will still be sharks around, but the chances of being bitten by one are extremely slim.
Every year, a handful of people get bitten by sharks in South Carolina, suggesting that some caution is required.
Awareness of the presence of sharks and where you’re most likely to encounter them can reduce the chances of sustaining a shark bite.
You should also avoid swimming at dawn and dusk when many shark species become more active and move closer to shore.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.