Does Tybee Island, GA Have Sharks? (Types, Photos & Attacks Explained)

Beloved as Savannah’s front-yard beachfront, Tybee Island — the easternmost extremity of Georgia’s terra firma — offers postcard-perfect sand and surf.

Visitors flock here for the dolphin-watching cruises and deep-sea fishing, the handsome and historic Tybee Island Light Station, annual happenings such as the Beach Bum Parade and the Tybee Pirate Fest.

But there’s no question that beachgoing is front and center when it comes to this barrier isle’s chief attractions.

But does Tybee Island have sharks, and should you be worried about shark attacks?

Photo by Ryan McKee/Flickr

Tybee Island is known for a significant and diverse shark population, a reflection of the productive and complex marine and estuarine habitats here at the mouth of the Savannah River. However, shark attacks here (and throughout Georgia) are quite rare.

While it’s true that Tybee Island accounts for a number of Georgia’s relatively scanty share of shark attacks, such events are very rare.

Indeed, the danger sharks pose has been significantly overblown (not least ever since a certain Steven Spielberg flick from the mid-‘70s).

The vast majority of shark species pose little to no risk to humans, and those that do are, generally speaking, more likely to bite out of defense (as when harassed by a diver) or mistaken identity (confusing people for more typical prey) than predatory intent.

And on the flipside, sharks — among the ocean’s most important top-level predators, critical for maintaining balanced ecosystems — face an increasingly bleak conservation picture, the populations of many species so depleted by overfishing and other anthropogenic impacts that they’re deemed at risk of extinction.

Keep that lopsided picture — the fact that sharks, all things considered, have much more to fear from people than the other way around — as we spotlight some of the species of sharks found in local Tybee and Georgia waters, and spell out a few basic measures that can reduce the risk you’ll have an unpleasant encounter with one.


Tybee Island Sharks (Types, How Common, Behavior & More)

Georgia hosts close to 20 species of sharks along its seaboard, and virtually any of them might be encountered in the general radius of Tybee Island.

That said, only a relatively few are commonly seen in coastal settings.

The most varied roster of sharks shows up during the summer months, as a number of species migrate southward or offshore in winter.

(Some sharks, though, such as the spiny dogfish and the great white, are more common in the wintertime.)

What follows isn’t a completely comprehensive list, but rather a profile of some of the more common sharks in Tybee Island’s local waters.

Blacktip Shark

Albert kok, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This sleek, perky requiem shark is just about the most common medium-sized shark encountered in Tybee Island’s nearshore waters, at least from spring through fall.

An essential predator in the local marine ecosystems, blacktips — which reach 8 feet or so — cruise into shallow breakers, bays, and harbors after baitfish, often in close proximity to swimmers, and commonly trail fishing boats for scraps; they pup in Southeastern estuaries.

In pursuing schools of small fish right off beaches, blacktips often dart along in remarkably close proximity to swimmers, and they occasionally mistake human hands and feet for prey, though they’re otherwise unaggressive.

Atlantic Sharpnose Shark

D Ross Robertson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This little shark, which maxes out in the three- to four-foot range and is often fished for food (and as sharkbait), ranks among the most common warm-season predators in the coastal waters around Tybee Island and elsewhere along the Atlantic coast, all the way north to the Bay of Fundy.

Named for their proportionately large and pointy schnozz, sharpnose sharks also boast distinctive white spots along the sides of their slender bodies.

They often hunt menhaden, silversides, and other small fish as well as crustaceans, mollusks, and worms in nearshore surf and estuaries, and do their best to steer clear of the numerous larger shark species that’ll snack on them.

Blacknose Shark

D Ross Robertson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Another common shark on the Southeast’s continental shelf — and pretty abundant in Tybee Island’s coastal waters — the blacknose shark grows to about 4.5 feet.

The species’ name derives from the sooty splotch marking the tip of its snout, which fades some as the shark ages.

Blacknose sharks hunt fish, octopus, and other small prey, and — while not considered dangerous to people — they have been known to perform a defensive display, with hunched back and lowered tail, when feeling threatened by divers.

Bonnethead

D Ross Robertson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Arguably the cutest of Tybee Island’s common sharks, bonnetheads are diminutive members of the hammerhead clan, rarely exceeding four feet.

They have a narrower, more rounded head, shaped rather like a shovel, as compared to larger hammerheads.

Bonnetheads feed heavily on crabs and other crustaceans, though, interestingly, they’ve also been documented consuming seagrasses — a rare case of herbivory among sharks.

Their small size puts bonnetheads on the menu of a number of other sharks, including tiger sharks; American alligators, which tolerate brackish water reasonably well and often hunt in estuaries, lagoons, and bays, are also known to munch on bonnetheads.

These little hammerheads, tied to warmer water, frequently forage in Georgia’s estuaries and bays during the summer, heading for lower latitudes in the winter.

Bull Shark

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Unquestionably among the most notorious sharks in the world, the bull shark is fairly common in Georgia waters, and has certainly been documented in the vicinity of Tybee Island.

The bull represents a major scale up in the physical department from those species we’ve covered thus far: It can reach 13 feet in length and weigh more than 700 pounds.

This shark’s overall impression is one of all-around robustness: Bull sharks are impressively stocky, blunt-nosed, and wide-jawed.

Combine this heftiness with a pugnacious disposition, and you’ve got one formidable fish indeed.

Bull sharks feed on a wide variety of fishes, including tarpon, mullet, bluefish, menhaden, rays, and smaller sharks, and will also tackle sea turtles, dolphins, and seabirds.

Typically cruising shallow coastal waters, bull sharks are well known for their tolerance of freshwater: They often patrol tidal rivers, and occasionally swim dozens or even hundreds of miles upstream.

They’re also widely regarded as one of the most dangerous sharks; some experts reckon they’re likely responsible for more attacks on humans than any other species, many perhaps going unrecorded in tropical and subtropical settings.

Tiger Shark

Albert kok, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bull sharks are big; tiger sharks are even bigger.

Indeed, tigers are the largest of the so-called requiem sharks, the expansive family of sharks (Carcharhinidae) that includes all the above species save for the bonnethead.

This temperate and tropical shark can grow to at least 18 feet and can weigh more than a ton; some evidence suggests it’s capable of running north of 20 feet.

It earns its name from the stripes patterning its back and tail, which are most pronounced in younger sharks.

Along with those markings, the tiger shark’s most distinguishing feature is its massive, broad set of jaws, studded with distinctively asymmetrical, heavily serrated teeth.

It puts those rather epic chompers to good use, eating a famously undiscriminating diet that can encompass everything from crabs and spiny lobsters to dolphins and sea turtles.

Tiger sharks also enthusiastically scavenge whale carcasses, and have even been known to attack live baleen whales on occasion: particularly whale calves or ailing or otherwise hampered adults.

While generally unaggressive around people, tiger sharks are, along with the bull shark and the great white, considered among the most potentially dangerous of all sharks given their size, power, and frequent use of shallow, coastal waters.

Less commonly seen in the vicinity of Tybee Island than their smaller relatives such as blacktips, tiger sharks are nonetheless present in local waters during the summer.

Other Sharks

Numerous other sharks could conceivably be encountered off the Tybee Island coast.

These run the gamut from the small smooth and spiny dogfishes up to great white sharks and the huge filter-feeders known as basking sharks.

A number of good-sized white sharks—surely the most famous of all sharks, and known to exceed 20 feet in rare cases—have been tracked in Georgia’s coastal waters, which are apparently part of a great-white wintering range off the U.S. Southeast.

White sharks have been spotted congregating in Georgia offshore to scavenge whale carcasses, a significant food source for this huge predator.

Needless to say, though, running into a great white off a Tybee beach would be a rare event indeed.

A number of other requiem sharks, including such good-sized fish as sandbar, spinner, and dusky sharks, are found at least part of the year off the Georgia coast.

While many of these related requiem species can be hard to distinguish for a layperson, the lemon shark — with two similarly sized dorsal fins and a somewhat more flattened profile — is easier to recognize; it often cruises sandy flats in coastal shallows.

Sand tiger sharks, striking-looking predators with wickedly long and sharp teeth, also prowl Tybee Island’s vicinity; despite their savage appearance, they’re pretty inoffensive.

A number of bigger relatives of the common bonnethead are occasionally seen in local waters: smooth, scalloped, and great hammerheads, the latter the largest of its family with a maximum size in the vicinity of 20 feet.

Another inhabitant of regional waters, the placid nurse shark, with its characteristic barbels and long caudal (tail) fin, is often seen by divers resting amid rocky reefs.


Shark Attack History at Tybee Island

The relative danger to humans posed by sharks is put into perspective when you consider that the International Shark Attack File logs a mere 15 confirmed unprovoked shark attacks in Georgia for the period of 1837 to the present.

The odds of getting attacked by a shark on a Tybee Island visit are exceedingly low; as is often said, you’ve got a better chance of being injured or killed driving to the beach.

It’s true, however, that Tybee Island figures prominently in the Peach State’s modest history of shark attacks.

Only two of the 15 confirmed unprovoked attacks by sharks on humans in the state were fatal, but both occurred off Tybee.

That said, the first of these isn’t the most definitive of accounts:

Sharks were proposed as the cause for 12-year-old Edward Coffee’s disappearance while swimming off Tybee Island’s shores in August 1912, but that was never confirmed.

In July 1974, a “school of small sharks” killed a 17-year-old boy swimming in the Back River near Tybee Island. Authorities suspected that the activity of shrimpers may have drawn sharks close to the beachfront ahead of the fatality.

Other confirmed unprovoked shark attacks off Tybee Island include minor bites, both received by teenagers, in 1959 and 1995.

In 2014, a 12-year-old surfer was bitten at Tybee. In July 2021, meanwhile, a surfing instructor received his own sharkbite in the waves off Tybee Island’s 18th Street. Experts surmised the culprit was likely either a blacktip or a juvenile bull shark.

It’s also worth mentioning the minor injuries a man swimming in the Wilmington River not far from Tybee Island received from a shark in 2019.

Those kinds of nips and nibbles are much more typical of shark attacks off the Georgia coast than the couple of fatalities Tybee’s waters saw decades ago.

The vast bulk of shark attacks here on Tybee Island are likely to be those aforementioned cases of mistaken identity: a blacktip shark (or other smallish requiem shark) confusing the waving hand or kicking foot of a swimmer for baitfish.


Avoiding Shark Attacks at Tybee Island (Tips & Things to Know)

Keeping in mind the greatly overstated danger sharks pose, it’s still definitely essential to respect these powerful predators and take common-sense steps to reduce your already-low risk of attack.

Here are some shark-safety tips to bone up on before your next visit to Tybee Island.

  • Don’t Swim Alone: This, we hope it goes without saying, is a precaution not only to do with sharks but garden-variety ocean safety in general. In the rare event you do run into trouble with Tybee Island sharks, your chances of quick rescue and medical treatment are much higher if you’re swimming with others.
  • Swim During Daylight Hours: Many species of shark are more active at night and at dawn and dusk (the crepuscular hours), so those are good times to stay out of the water.
  • Don’t Wear Jewelry in the Water: To what extent it’s not clear, but many experts believe the flash of jewelry underwater might be mistaken for a glimmering fish by a hunting shark and thus increase your odds of being bitten.
  • Avoid Swimming if You Have an Open Wound: This is another one of those hopefully no-brainer items, but don’t swim if you’re bleeding. Sharks’ craze for blood is readily exaggerated by Hollywood and the like, but it’s certainly true that they can keenly sense the substance in the water.
  • Look for Signs of Potential Shark Activity: Keep an eye out for potential signs that sharks may be actively hunting where you’re considering getting into the water. Blacktip and spinner sharks often leap from the water when feeding on baitfish, so that’s blatant evidence. But even if you don’t see sharks, you should err on the side of caution and assume they may be in the vicinity if you see seabirds diving, dolphins congregating, or fishing boats close by. (On the subject of dolphins: It’s most definitely a myth that their presence deters sharks. Sharks and dolphins often feed on the same baitfish near to one another, and furthermore dolphins are occasionally preyed upon by tiger, bull, and white sharks.) You should also definitely think twice before swimming near where anglers are chumming.
  • Be Extra-Cautious Around Dropoffs: Sharks often cruise drop-offs and deepwater cuts, so be vigilant if swimming, surfing, or snorkeling near such features.
  • Be Careful With Man’s Best Friend: Swimming with your pup (or simply letting it go out into the water) is a little risky. Depending on the breed, your dog may be in the preferred prey-size range of a shark, and thus may more at risk than you from these toothy fish. Also, dogs tend to be pretty darn “splashy,” and such forceful and erratic water movements can draw in sharks.

Wrapping Up

Chances are extremely high that your beach-hopping visit to Tybee Island will involve no shark encounters whatsoever.

It’s also to be hoped that a glimpse of one of these magnificent creatures — a dainty bonnethead snaking along below a dock, the dorsal and tail fin of a blacktip shark on patrol through the surf — could be a genuine highlight of your time here.

Just follow some basic safety best practices and then sit back and relax. Enjoy the beautiful scenery of Tybee, and hopefully you’ll gain a greater appreciation for the amazing marine life this island has to offer.

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Hope this helps!

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