Helicopter tour pilots watch for sharks, turtles in surf

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The Coligny Beach area as seen in April from Isaiah Burch's helicopter, with the Tiki Hut to the left and Pope Avenue straight up the center of the image. LYNNE COPE HUMMELL

News of large sharks, even Great Whites, being found, caught and released off Hilton Head Island shores last year had many residents and vacationers concerned about a "Jaws" reenactment. Some refused to get back in the water.

This year, beachgoers can feel a little safer, now that Isaiah Burch and his pilots are watching closely from the sky.

Burch, owner and primary pilot of Hilton Head Helicopter Tours, spends much of his day flying over the island, especially along the beaches, giving narrated tours of the area. While he explains to his passengers what they are seeing - landmarks, roadways, nature - he also keeps a lookout for fins in the ocean.

"If we spot a shark close to shore or in the surf, we have the ability, via Bluetooth, to directly call Shore Beach Service lifeguards, prompting them to be on the lookout or temporarily close the beach," Burch said.

Shore Beach Service is contracted by the Town of Hilton Head Island to provide all lifeguard, beach patrol and related services on local beaches.

Of course, lifeguards might also see the shark fins, but their view is limited by their proximity to the surface. From the air, the view is broad.

Also, "sharks swim in a sort of zig-zag," Burch said. "And we can see that much better from the air." He noted that many people, especially visitors, see a fin in the water and think it's a shark, but it most often is a dolphin. "Dolphins swim a mostly straight line," he said.

Burch said he and his pilots have seen all kinds of sharks in local waters - great whites, hammerheads, blacktip, bull, sand and tiger - particularly in Port Royal Sound. Though great whites generally leave our area in late spring, they return in the fall when the water temperature is cooler.

"The breeds I see most often along our beaches are the blacktip and hammerheads," he said. "I am primarily watching the surf along the beaches or just outside the surf. Sharks tend to hang out there waiting for small fish to be pushed out to deeper water by swimmers."

So far this season, sharks haven't been an issue.

Burch's shark patrol is not a paid service. "I'm in the air anyway," he said. "This is just a public service we are providing to our island."

It isn't just sharks that Burch and his pilots are trying to spot.

"A major priority for us is reporting injured marine life," he said. "Primarily this will be in the form an injured loggerhead or leatherback sea turtle," which are often injured by boat propellers.

Burch said in these cases, "We directly call the South Carolina DNR and report the location and description of the animal that is hurt."

Same goes for boats and boaters in distress. "Besides shark spotting, this is probably the thing we see most while flying around the island," he said. "With all the sand bars and quick tide changes in the area, we see several capsized boats each year. Last year, we were able to notify the Coast Guard and actually lead them to a shrimp boat that was taking on water. Most calls regard small catamarans or small personal boats."

Burch also volunteers his time and unique perspective as a supplemental set of eyes for disaster relief, storm damage assessment and searches for missing persons and pets.

"Immediately following any hurricane, we have the authority to launch from the airport and start disaster relief missions," he said. "We have the authorization from the FAA to fly even when the airport is closed."

After Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Burch said the company played a pivotal role in the efficiency regarding island clean-up. "By getting a view from the air, disaster response teams were able to come up with an immediate plan for clean up," he said. "Also, we were able to map out logistics regarding areas to dump tree debris and such."

They also offered free damage assessment to homeowners who live out of state and just wanted to know if their house was under water or had other significant damage. Burch was able to alert a number of homeowners as to whether they needed to come to the island to take care of damages.

Helicopter tours are available during daylight hours. But even when there aren't paying customers scheduled to take a birds' eye trip over the island, Burch and his pilots will keep an eye on things anyway.

"The Bluetooth capability from the helicopter gives us many more options," he said, "all while staying airborne."

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