This post is going to be much longer than normal because we need to properly explain how we do things at Oak Island Water Rescue regarding social media and discuss our goals, intentions, logic, and reasoning. We see social media videos about sharks and other marine activity and we do not post about it routinely because it is often hours old by the time we see it. In this particular case we were sent a direct message with photos that we read immediately. Just as with any other public safety agency (law enforcement, fire, EMS, or 911 center), when we receive a direct notification of a concerning situation, we must act on that information to determine the risk to the public. To ignore the message and assume it is non-dangerous marine life, could be deemed as negligent if a shark bite or other injury were to occur. Aside from the negligence aspect, we have a duty to the guests and residents of Oak Island to prevent injuries through public awareness and respond to emergencies when notified of them.
As many of you know, yesterday we created a post about reports we received about large marine animal activity very close to the beach and stated we would be investigating these reports, which we did throughout the day.That post received much more attention and interest than we expected, including debate, speculation, and hundreds of comments from our followers. We also raised the purple flag at our station to warn beachgoers of an enhanced risk of dangerous animals. We stand behind both of these decisions and will explain that logic below.
Our goal and intentions are to provide the safest beach possible for vacationers and locals. Period, that is all. We do this by tracking rip and longshore currents, weather systems, monitoring beach conditions, developing custom tools to automate notifications of dangers, work with local associates from the National Weather Service and NOAA, communicate with other area beaches and first responders, assist and provide assistance to the US Coast Guard and Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol, and continually refine and improve our capabilities and equipment. Information from all of these sources, and more, are what we use to create our social media and website posts.
We do NOT create posts to attract undue attention, likes, shares, etc. Our goal is never to cause panic, fear, or doubt. We appreciate proper media attention, but we do not seek or desire it when unwarranted. We do not create posts with the intention of starting debate, fights, arguments, or negativity of any kind. Many likely well-intentioned but under-informed people commented and debated on the post yesterday. Some of this may have been healthy, much of it was not.
Like most emergency response organizations, we need to keep some things “close to the chest”. In other words, we often know more than we make publicly available. This is not done to be sneaky or deceitful. It is often done to protect patient privacy, prevent misunderstandings or panic, and in some cases protect pending legal action.
With regards to the situation yesterday, we had quite a bit more information than we could share. Starting in the morning and continuing throughout the day, we received several photographs and videos of the wildlife activity. After viewing these several times, we were still unable to determine exactly what was in the water. We received messages from people who claimed to have seen what was “clearly a large shark”, “clearly a whale”, “clearly dolphins”, “clearly manta rays”, “clearly stingrays”, etc. We have no doubt these folks were sincere and honest in believing what they saw was correct, but the only thing clear from these reports, and what we witnessed ourselves, was there was nothing clear about it at all.
From the pictures and videos we have now, we are inclined to believe what most people witnessed were manta rays. But we could not, yesterday or now, claim certainty. The wingtips of a manta ray look almost identical to a Great Hammerhead’s dorsal fin, especially when you only get a second or fraction of a second look at them. So what is the proper response? They are not, but if we pretend for a moment that the only two choices were manta ray or Great Hammerhead, should the public be informed of the possible danger?
We all know sharks are in the water everyday, the ocean is their home and we are visitors. Humans are not on their menu, and the risk of being bitten by a shark is incredibly small (it has been 6 years since we have had a serious shark bite on Oak Island), and their day to day presence is of little concern to most people. Sharks are smart, fascinating, and most encounters with them by humans are positive, interesting, and most often unnoticed. But they are potentially dangerous. The purple flag we chose to fly yesterday has a meaning, and it means the risk of encountering dangerous marine life is elevated. Yes, the risk is always present, but we don’t fly the purple flag everyday. In fact, we fly it only a couple times each year. While sharks and other dangerous marine life are always present in the ocean, they do not routinely conduct so much activity in the surf zone and area just behind the breakers where people commonly swim. When they are that close to shore it warrants an enhanced warning level, thus the purple flag. And it warrants letting people know on social media as well so they can make better choices for themselves and their family.
As a group tasked with helping to keep everyone on Oak Island safe, we will always err on the side of caution. We stated in the post that we were going to investigate the reports further, which we did. One of our members saw a large dorsal fin that did not resemble the fins or wings seen in the pictures, but was much further from shore, a common site, and of no concern. We flew a drone from the beach access at SE 43rd Street and shot video up and down the beach for several blocks. It captured stingrays swimming near the surface, which is also very common and seen in most drone videos we shoot everyday. Again, no concern.
Just after taking off, and before we actually expected to see anything, it did capture what appears to be dorsal fins. It could have been dolphins, stingray, manta ray, or sharks, but again, it was completely inconclusive. These may belong to the creatures we were investigating or may be completely unrelated. So, from a logic standpoint, let’s analyze what we can determine from the video.
The fins did not break the surface of the water, or only slightly, and the animal did not come up for air. Dolphins routinely swim up and down, grabbing a breath of fresh air when they surface. Whatever was in this video did not take a breath. This could mean the chance of it being a dolphin are less, but certainly not impossible. They can hold their breath for a very long time and just because their fin was near the surface does not mean they needed air.
There appears to be two animals. The drone was not yet moving forward, but the fins appeared about 10 feet apart, one deeper in the ocean than the other. Since the animal was moving parallel to the shore, it would have been a very odd movement laterally into deeper water. If there were indeed two animals, dolphins would have been the more obvious choice since they are known to hang out in groups and sharks are typically loners. But dolphins often swim by themselves and sharks are sometimes seen in schools or small groups, especially when related. There are no rules they must follow.
It seems unlikely to be a ray of any kind. Only one fin is seen at a time, and when rays flap their wings they most often do it synchronized, both wings up and down at the same time. But what if it was turning? If it was turning, only one wing may be visible, and that could also explain the apparent movement into deeper water.
See the predicament we are in? There are no absolutes here, only more questions than answers. This is why we err on the side of caution and chose to notify the public about a possible enhanced danger. Failure to do so would be irresponsible for an organization that takes great pride in protecting the people of Oak Island.
We have posted the short segment on YouTube and you can look for yourself.
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