Of course it’s safe to go back in the water … for now 

click to enlarge bull-shark.jpg

WHEN THE great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote "my soul is full of longing for the secret of the sea, and the heart of the great ocean sends a thrilling pulse through me," I'm pretty sure he wasn't talking about the murky waters of coastal Georgia.

Don’t get me wrong; I love our beaches and the robust tides and the dolphins dancing after the shrimp boats at sunset.

But when I’m bobbing in the waves and a secret of the sea brushes up against my legs, I don’t experience so much of a “thrilling pulse” as I do a spasmodic dose of adrenaline that sends me back onto the sand shrieking like a Ritalin-addled seagull.

Even when I’m standing safely on my paddleboard or on a boat, I have a healthy fear of Mother Ocean and its creatures, born out of deep respect and the understanding that from its depths, or perhaps the next sandbar, something large, gilled and hungry thinks I might make a delicious snack.

I know, just another victim of a 70s childhood that employed the JAWS trilogy instead of a babysitter. But guess what? I’ve never even watched JAWS! Just the trailer had me bathing in the bathroom sink for a year! And Shark Week on the Discovery Channel? The whole reason we don’t have cable.

Still, as the grown-up wife of a fisherman and a sometimes-denizen of Tybee Island, I’ve learned to enjoy splashing in the water a few minutes at a time, frequently anesthetized by a few beers.

This summer, however, I’ve found myself panicking—er, packing an extra six-pack: Last week marked the seventh shark attack off the coast of North Carolina this year, and there have been three more disturbingly closer off just a couple of sand dollar skips over the border from us in South Carolina.

But even as the Outer Banks becomes a boogie board buffet, the statistics encourage everyone to remain calm. In spite of the alarming uptick in shark-to-human tastings up north, none of Tybee’s numerous black tips, tiger sharks or the formidable great white Mary Lee have made any menu pairings yet. The experts remind us that there have been no more fatalities than usual in 2015—one, in Hawaii—and we’re all still 20 times as likely to be killed by a cow than a shark. (Of course, anyone floating on a raft in the middle of a cow pasture probably deserves it.)

In fact, the marine animals we ought to dread most around here are not eight-to-12 foot bloodthirsty predators with multiple rows of serrated teeth, but something much smaller. Microscopic, actually.

Tiny enterococci bacteria gave Tybee beachgoers trillions of icky reasons to stay out of the water recently: On June 24, the Coastal Health District issued an advisory that the insidious organisms had exceeded the recommended levels set by the EPA, indicating the presence of human and animal fecal matter.

Fortunately, this round of miniscule menaces dissipated quickly, and the advisory was lifted the next day. But while we were stranded on shore with our plastic shovels and melting ice, I weighed what felt like one of those sadistic Fear Factor conundrums: Would you rather swim with sharks or poop?

Enterococci won’t take off a limb (that’s the flesh-eating Vibrio vulnificus, another saltwater pathogen found more often off the Gulf Coast) but the bacteria can cause severe gastrointestinal illness, the kind of debilitating diarrhea that might make you wish you could trade in a toe to make it stop.

They’re as ubiquitous as the sharp-toothed threats hanging out in the surf zone, and like the sharks, there’s not much anyone can do to avoid them except stay out of the water.

“All warm-blooded animals have enterococci in their intestinal tracts,” gently reminds Elizabeth Cheney, Beach Water Monitoring Coordinator for the Dept. of Natural Resources. “Elevated levels can be caused by marine wildlife, or it could be as simple as someone didn’t pick up after their dog or left a dirty diaper on the beach.”

Cheney explained that Georgia DNR tests the water at five different points around Tybee every week, all year long, under the BEACH Act passed in 2000, along with hundreds more points on the coast. Fecal coliform advisories happen rarely (the last one was July 2014) and mostly occur on the Savannah River end of the island.

The recent spike occurred in the section called the Strand between 11th Street and the pier, and none of the surrounding areas showed more than the usual amount of poopy particles, which rules out leaky sewage pipes as a cause. Federal standards dictate that the public must be informed of anything above 104 enterococci per 100ml of ocean; the June 24 sample registered at 108, “well within statistical variations.” Raw sewage would have sent the count into the billions.

“In this last instance, the samplings from the mid-point of the beach and on the south end had very low levels. The Strand wasn’t much above the threshold, but it triggered the advisory,” says Cheney, adding that an advisory merely means the presence of bacteria; it doesn’t shut the beach down or give explanations.

The BEACH Act only provides funding to DNR to scoop the scat tests, not analyze the source. That’s the job of the state Environmental Protection Division (I talked excrement with no less than four government agencies for this column and didn't snicker once, which is more than I can say for the people with whom I share my dinner table.)

The EPD confirmed that the numbers weren’t high enough to be caused by flushing toilets, and neither were they high enough to warrant an investigation. Temporary peaks like the one a few weeks ago are usually written off to heavy rains or someone’s Caddyshack moment.

“A sample of 300 is when we start looking at surrounding facilities to make sure there weren’t any upsets, like line breaks or station overflows,” clarifies Alice Vick, program manager for the EPD’s Coastal District office.

Tybee mayor Jason Buelterman also personally checked with the island's sewage treatment plant and found nothing amiss.

“In all likelihood, it is caused by birds,” says Buelterman, an avid surfer who has faced ocean beasts big and small. “There is nothing we can really do other than educate the public about the issue.”

Even a series of low-number advisories can set off alarms, and Vick says her department uses “an abundance of caution” when it comes to fecal coliform critters.

“If we see a consistent problem, we’re going to investigate,” she promises. “We want clean water. We swim out there too!”

For now, all sources indicate that it’s perfectly safe to go back in the water.

But if the microbes come back or any fins pop up, I’m gonna need a bigger cooler.


About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.


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