A decade ago, Chip Michalove was lucky to catch and release five hammerhead sharks in a season. It was more common then to reel in tiger sharks off Hilton Head Island.
By 2020, something had shifted in the waters. The local charter captain was astonished to record that he’d caught and released 11 hammerheads. In 2021, that number climbed to 14.
This September, as the shark species heads south for warmer waters, Michalove can mark down this season in history. For a second time.
In July, he tagged a hammerhead estimated to be 13 1/2 feet and over 1,000 pounds, which crushed the previous state record of a nearly 600-pound catch set 33 years ago. But even more recently, looking at self-reported data, Michalove is transfixed by a new number: He caught and released 31 hammerhead sharks this year.
“They’re the hardest fighting fish. Pound for pound, there’s nothing like them,” Michalove, who owns Outcast Sport Fishing, said. “These guys, they’ll lengthen your arms by a foot after fighting for a while.”
And that’s become an increasingly more obvious scuffle as the predators the charter captain’s reeled in have tipped the scale this season. On average, the hammerheads weighed 400-600 pounds, with a handful clocking in around 700-800 pounds, he said.
Michalove chalks it up to the available food source — tarpon, stingrays and black tip sharks — being higher than normal. It’s clear to him that the hammerheads have been devouring stingrays, because of the wound marks he’s spotted on some of the sharks’ lower jaws.
A true hunter, the fish’s hammer head acts as a special sensor that can pick up the electrical signals that living creatures’ bodies give off, according to National Geographic. The wide and flat structure, with eyes on either side, allows for rapid scanning and the ability to pin stingrays to the ocean floor.
For Michalove, the chance to marvel at the predator is a welcome day out on the water. First come the scalloped hammerheads in May and June. Then, the big fish, the great hammerheads, mosey in around mid-to-late July.
With an uptick of sightings of the shark species, Michalove is able to identify which of the predators are hanging in the deep waters and those that prefer more shallow depths. The deep-water swimmers are far lighter, and the hammerheads that get more sunlight are nearly black.
But the increase of hammerheads seen near Hilton Head Island is more than the chase, or the marvel. It indicates a healthy fishery in the area, Michalove explained. And the repeat caught and released hammerheads means the sharks aren’t being traumatized to the point that they’re leaving the island.
While the charter captain’s new record may not be happy news for the shark-fearing, Michalove says it’s not cause for alarm.
“I’ve always said if the boat sank, I’d be more nervous of a bottlenose dolphin biting me than I would be a hammerhead,” he said.
The sharks are skittish to unnatural presentations, at times strategically swimming up to the bait to check it out and then taking a few laps around the boat to check out its surroundings. If they don’t like it, they dart. It’s a far different tactic than tiger or bull sharks that take the bait and demolish it.
“(Hammerheads) are just so sensitive and so nervous about people,” Michalove said. “When one swims up to the boat, it’s like I’m bass fishing back in Kentucky. If you make too much noise or bounce around a little too much, they disappear.”
The good news? It means hammerheads are not typically interested in humans. The charter captain said he couldn’t recall a single attack on Hilton Head Island that was initiated by a hammerhead.
As the stragglers haul it down to the Bahamas, the Florida Keys or the Gulf of Mexico where the waters are balmier, Michalove is already talking about next season. Whether it brings more or fewer hammerheads, it may bring South Florida researchers looking for answers.