Kimberly Popp was wading knee-deep Tuesday afternoon at Coligny Beach when she felt something thump against her foot and clamp down.
The Mooresville, N.C., woman lifted her leg out of the water, bringing with it a shark as wide as her shoulders and taller than her 6-year-old son, she said. Without a second thought, Popp said, she punched the blue and white fish in the nose.
“I looked right at him,” Popp, 40, said. “I don’t know how I kept my composure other than that. I just knew I wanted to get my kids out of the water.”
The mother of six, who was swimming with her son and a 4-year-old daughter, said the 5-foot-long shark released her foot, leaving a deep gash near her ankle and deep slices across her sole.
She ran from the water, screaming to alert nearby beachgoers, several of whom later told her they saw the animal’s fin and tail.
While authorities have not confirmed the incident was a shark attack, Popp said she has no doubt. Once out of the water, a lifeguard wrapped her foot and the Town of Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division took her to Hilton Head Hospital, where she received 14 stitches to her foot.
Popp will be on crutches for two weeks.
George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, said it’s not uncommon for sharks to inhabit shallow waters off South Carolina’s coast at this time of year. Beach conditions that Popp’s husband, Jim, noticed earlier Tuesday — large pods of dolphins and squadrons of pelicans — also may have signaled there were sharks in the water, Burgess said.
The description of Kimberly Popp’s attacker and its persistence in hanging onto her foot suggest it might have been a bull shark, he said. They are not as common in this area as blacktip, spinner and blacknose sharks, but they tend to be more aggressive, Burgess said.
“Once they start an attack, they’re likely to continue attacking, and some sort of aversion tactic is required,” Burgess said. “Punching it in the nose is a good idea, as long as you’re accurate.”
While Kimberly Popp’s jab got the job done, she said she did cut a few fingers. But she considers herself fortunate — a doctor who examined her foot Thursday said it was healing well.
After the checkup, the Popp family left Hilton Head for Mooresville, though they will return to their Coligny Beach timeshare next year.
“(Our kids) were a little traumatized by it, I think, but hopefully the memory will be easily erased the next beach trip we take,” Kimberly Popp said.
Before leaving, the family made one last stop on the island.
“I told my wife, you may have better odds of winning the lottery,” Jim Popp, 49, said. “So we went to buy lottery tickets.”