Tagging off Hilton Head could help unlock lemon shark mysteries

As much as we depend on the oceans of the low-country and in the world, we still know so little about them.  In the area and news recently is another team who has been studying the sounds of dolphins. Now a team is out studying the Lemon Shark.

More from the Island Packet below.

Tagging off Hilton Head could help unlock lemon shark mysteries

At the first hint of warm temperatures, they begin to head toward South Carolina.

They could be looking for a mate.

Or a tasty morsel of fresh seafood.

But they’re not tourists from up north.

They’re lemon sharks.

The apex predators flock to the waters off the Carolinas’ sea islands from April to late October, but scientists aren’t sure why.

Steven Kessel, a researcher from Cardiff University in Wales, traveled to Hilton Head Island from Miami last week to try to answer that and other questions about the species.

Working with captain Chip Michalove of Outcast Sport Fishing Charters on Hilton Head, Kessel and a research assistant fished the waters of Port Royal Sound for the sharks so they could attach acoustic transmitter tags to track their migrations.

The researchers and the charter boat’s customers cast heavy-duty fishing lines into the choppy waters between one and three miles from shore.

Kessel hoped to land at least two lemons to learn, among other things, where they mate, where they give birth, and why lemons from Florida are in the Carolinas during the summer.

“I know my sharks are coming here from Florida, but I don’t think they’re giving birth this far north,” Kessel said from the deck of the Outcast. “I think by the time they get to South Carolina, they’ve dropped their pups in either north Florida or Georgia. If we can figure all that out, then we will be able to document almost their entire biological life cycle.”

Tagging Lemon SharksGOING AFTER LEMONS

On Monday, anglers stood at the stern, watching as a line jerked on the surface.

It didn’t take long to get a strike.

They hauled to the surface a lemon that was nearly 8 feet long, 200 pounds.

Kessel, research assistant Ornella Weideli, a master’s program student from the Swiss University of Basel, and the crew muscled the shark to side of the boat. A water hose was inserted in its mouth to prevent respiratory problems.

Moving quickly, Kessel drew blood, took a small DNA sample from a fin and injected a tiny chip beneath the skin that can be read by a handheld electronic scanner, the same technology veterinarians use to identify household pets.

The scientist then made an incision a little longer than an inch and inserted a small acoustic transmitter tag, which sends signals to nearly 400 underwater listening monitors installed by a variety of research groups from Florida to the Carolinas.

The entire process took no more than 20 minutes but left the crew breathless, Michalove said.

“All my groups were happy to have the scientists on board,” he said. “You get the fisherman side and the scientists’ perspective. They’ve never seen someone pull an 8-foot shark aboard, slice it open and then sew it back up before, all while it’s awake and pretty wiry. I’ve seen some pretty wild stuff out there, but I was pretty impressed.”


The group fished in an area Michalove calls the “shark hole.”

That’s where Illinois dentist Stephen Lieson hauled in a monster, 380-pound, state-record lemon last summer on the Outcast, a catch that got Kessel’s attention.

He had a hunch it migrated from the Jupiter, Fla., area, where Kessel and other researchers have tagged nearly 50 lemons.

Not long after the record catch, Michalove snagged another large lemon. This one had a National Marine Fisheries Service tag, indicating it was from the group Kessel had been studying in Florida.

Michalove contacted the service, which wrote to Kessel.

It’s that sort of communication that aids research efforts, Kessel said.

“We rely on local knowledge — it’s the first step to any study,” he said. “So when Chip and others who fish here day in and day out catch lemon sharks, it matches up with my hypothesis of seasonal migration.”

Kessel and Michalove’s crews caught about 20 sharks of eight species, including hammerheads and blacktips, and took DNA samples from them. They inserted acoustic tags into three lemons, each one about 8 feet long.

Kessel says the lemons can help researchers understand the species’ life cycle, which in turn, could advance conservation efforts.

The work of Kessel, the Swiss Shark Foundation and colleague Dr. Samuel Gruber — professor emeritus at the University of Miami, who has been studying lemons for more than 40 years — helped the sharks win protected status in Florida last year, Kessel said.

Now, Kessel hopes the Port Royal Sound study will provide insight into the species’ life history to help better protect them along the entire south Atlantic coast.

Kessel believes the migrating lemons probably give birth in northern Florida or Georgia in rivers or close to shore where they are protected from other sharks.

“Obviously sharks don’t respect state boundaries,” he said. “The most pressing question is where, exactly, are they giving birth? If we can answer that, we may be able to better protect their nursing habitats.”

But if you’re a lemon in Florida, why come north?

“I’d say it’s likely a physiological factor that they’re coming here. They’re cold blooded so they follow the warm water north and then are pushed south into Florida in the fall,” Kessel said. “Maybe they’re following the bait source or it could be a factor of reproduction. There’s still a lot of unanswered questions, which is why we’re continuing to research.”

Did you know?

Lemon sharks mature slowly, said Bryan Frazier, a biologist who heads the S.C. Department of Natural Resources shark tagging program.

DNR scientists have spotted lemons as long as 12 feet. The species is mostly docile and has never been implicated in a shark-bite incident on the East Coast, Frazier said.

His research supports scientist Steve Kessel’s findings that lemon sharks make summer travels from Florida to South Carolina.

A few summers ago, the DNR biologist caught and tagged a 9-foot lemon in Winyah Bay near Georgetown. Later that year, a researcher from the Bimini Biological Field Station in the Bahamas caught the same shark and tagged it with an acoustic monitor.

The next summer, it was back in Winyah Bay, Frazier said.

“They’re pretty much a summer visitor, except that they’re coming from the south seeking relief from the Florida heat,” he said.
Read more: http://www.islandpacket.com/2011/08/20/1764022/tagging-off-hilton-head-may-help.html#ixzz1VgTQuczU

Kayakers rescued Tuesday in Port Royal Sound off Hilton Head Island

The following is to comment about the story in the Island Packet, we are a outfitter, but not involved in anyway with the story and the only thing we know of what happened is in the story of the Island Packet. We would like to use this story towards a learning experience and give you some knowledge of what to do when renting and or heading out in an unfamiliar area. This way if you rent anywhere or plan on a water outing in an area you are not familiar with, you can think of questions you may have before going off on your own when help maybe a ways away…

Kayaking and other water activities are enjoyable especially during the warm months. Paddling through the low country estuaries and seeing the nature which grows up and lives around this eco-system is breathtaking in its environment. Unlike boating, paddling can get you closer to the wildlife and make you feel more in part one with it since you are quiet and not making lots of noise scaring the wildlife and low in the water giving you the feeling you are part of the local environment. But as exciting and as beautiful as it is, as with most activities, inexperience and sometimes even experienced people can have possible scary situations.


When renting a kayak, canoe or other types of water craft, it is hard for a rental company to know what and where you may go with the craft. We can give suggestions of areas to go and how to use the crafts before you leave with the crafts. As they said in school though, ” A stupid question is one not asked.” If you are unsure about anything or have a question about something before heading out, ask the outfitter. Once you leave with the rental craft you are on your own since you are not being guided, with someone who may know the water and how to react / recover from an accident.  Since you are on your own, know your limitations. Do not do try to attempt something which may sound or be riskier then your experience since truly you are the one who knows your experience level.

I have heard stories about outfitters in locations 30 plus years ago having you take a test before you could leave. You would have to be able to roll and recover your boat in the water (getting wet) in front of the rental business before you could rent it and go off on your own. Now that is a great idea in giving a test for a renter before they head out on their own because they will show what they can actually do from what is perceived they can do. But to be honest, how many people would actually want to take the test and get wet in order to rent now days? As risks can be found in most enjoyable outdoor activities or activities in general, remember to be smart,  keep safety in mind and if you are unsure of something ask someone who is more experienced in that activity. Since ultimately, you are responsible for yourself when you are on your own since no one is around to help right away and until help arrives.

When kayaking, canoeing or other water crafts in the area a few pointers.

  • Check tides (know the times) and weather for that day of your activity / adventure.
  • Create a float plan. This is in writing or tell someone when you plan to leave, where you plan to go and when you plan to return. This is important encase something happens, this gives a start point for searching. For a paddler who may not have a lot of paddling strength, you might use the tides in your favor since they will act as currents and you can use them to help carry you both ways if timed right toward your destination.
  • If unsure of water conditions in an area, or how to do something, ask someone who knows the area or more experienced in doing something.
  • Things which you should carry with you some in a dry bag strapped down and possibly quick release leashed to craft or to you (most crafts float even flipped and this will keep emergency gear from being lost and if in dry bag, gear should float)
    • A phone in a small separate dry bag or something like Otter-box which you could clip to your life jacket, this way even if you do roll you will not loose it.
    • Some water and snacks
    • Glow stick(s) especially late in day outings (encase you have an emergency which last into night, this is water proof, will give you a little light and possible visible signal for others to find you).
    • Small first-aid kit
    • Whistle on life jacket and maybe some other signalling device when help gets close to you.
    • A hand pump which can be used to remove water from a cockpit or canoe.
    • In this area, shoes other then flip-flops which will offer a little more in feet protection especially around the marsh, creeks or some inland shores which have extremely sharp oyster shells.
    • Small compass and map or the area.
    • Small knife, usually attached to the PFD. You may need to cut yourself free from fishing line or something which you could get wrapped in out in the water.
    • PFD, Personal Flotation Device (Life Jacket)

When kayaking, canoeing or other activities, be responsible since you have rely on yourself or your party until help arrives and ask questions if you are ever unsure about anything before heading out. You can also check with local outfitters about classes you can take or sign up for in order to help you gain experience in activities.


Story of kayakers rescue from Island Packet below…

Kayakers rescued Tuesday in Port Royal Sound off Hilton Head Island

Sunburned and dehydrated, the two desperate students clung to a partially submerged kayak for more than two hours Tuesday in what they feared were shark infested waters in Port Royal Sound, praying a boat would appear and save them.

The two, Justin Bell, 26, and Sarah Knutowski, 23, both students at a Virginia pharmacy school, were visiting the Bell family vacation home on Hilton Head Island. They set off from a Port Royal Plantation beach with friend Daniel Brown, 24, a University of Kentucky student, just after 8 a.m.

Bell and Knutowski were in a tandem kayak. Brown was in a single-person kayak. The day was hot, the air clear and the water seemingly endless.

They headed for Bay Point Island, about three miles off shore, for a picnic. Along the way, they met Chip Michalove, owner of Outcast Sport Fishing Charters, who asked if they were OK.

Although they said they were, Michalove was a little concerned.

“I’ve never seen kayakers that far off shore before,” he said.

The trio said goodbye and resumed their journey.

They reached the uninhabited island about noon, ate lunch, explored a bit and decided to head back to shore.

That’s when things began to go wrong.

“As we’re going back (and) were about 1,000 feet from (Bay Point) island, I see them flip over,” Brown said of his friends. “They kept trying to get in the kayak and it kept flipping over.”

Knutowski said the three realized the boat was taking on water, but didn’t know why.

“We’re hitting bigger surf and trying to drain the kayak,” she said.

The three did a quick inspection and found a rubber stopper missing at the rear of the kayak.

There was more bad news.

The boaters’ sunscreen, sunglasses, shirts and cooler, which held their supply of drinking water, were lost when the boat flipped.

They had left their cell phones at home.

They were wearing life vests, however.

Knutowski sat in the sinking tandem as she and Brown tried to paddle and tow Bell through the water.

The effort “got them nowhere,” she said.

“That’s when we started to get worried,” Brown said.

About 1:30 p.m., the trio decided to send Brown for help. He set off toward Hilton Head, but by 2:30, he was tiring quickly.

The current was strong, flipping his kayak twice.

He had no drinking water or a shirt.

He was stung on the knee by a jellyfish.

And the sun off the water felt like heated metal.

That’s when he spotted the charter boat and the captain he’d meet earlier.

Captain Michalove was headed out on an afternoon charter when he spotted Brown, who told him his friends were in trouble. After sending Brown on to shore, Michalove headed out to find Knutowski and Bell.

The captain was worried. He had previously caught two state record sharks in the area — a lemon and a black tip. The day before, he’d landed a large tiger shark there, he said.

It’s a spot Michalove calls the “shark hole.”

He found the couple about a mile away near the mouth of the sound.

Knutowski was sitting on the partially submerged kayak while Bell was treading water next to it.

When they saw him, they began “waving uncontrollably,” Michalove said.

Moments later, Bell felt something “big and scaly” nudge his foot.

“He’s got this look on his face — this really scared look — and he just jumps into the kayak,” Knutowski said. “I’m asking him, ‘What was it? What happened? Was it a shark?’ but he wouldn’t say anything.”

When Michalove reached the pair, both were panicked and crying, he said.

But they were also relieved.

“When we saw Chip, we just said ‘Thank God,'” Knutowski said later. “It was so, so scary. The tide was so high and we were baking in the sun. We just hoped someone would come and get us.”

Michalove loaded the couple aboard and tied a rope to the kayak.

“Another few minutes and that kayak was gone,” he said. “There’s no doubt.”

Once safely out of the water, Bell told Michalove he was convinced a shark had bumped him.

Michalove dropped the couple on Bay Point, where they were picked up by the kayak rental company. Brown made it to Hilton Head on his own.

The captain said he later got a call from Brown and Bell to let him know they were safe and to say thanks.

“You saved my life,” Bell told him.