Group swimming safest; nips at surfers rarely fatal
In the early evening, surfers take to the waters off the coast of Central Florida in places like Daytona and New Smyrna Beach. The skies are beautiful; the waves are good.
But the waters can be treacherous. They are full of plankton and other small fish that are among the favorite food of young sharks. The sandy bottom churns up, and visibility is poor. Sometimes, the experts say, sharks lunge for what they think is a small fish and it turns out to be a foot or a hand dangling off a surfboard.
“It’s almost always a case of mistaken identity,” said Neil Hammerschlag, a shark expert at the University of Miami. “They are looking for a silvery flash of light, a fish. Sometimes the sun catches the sole of a foot, the palm of a hand. They are the right size.”
In Florida, and the rest of the United States, shark attacks rarely lead to much more than a few stitches in an emergency room. But some attacks are horrendous, and those are the ones people remember. The Hollywood movie “Jaws,” with shots of a toothy shark nearly as big as a fishing boat, terrified a generation of Americans. Hammerschlag and other researchers often swim with sharks, and they say the danger of sharks is greatly overblown. Even off South Africa and Australia, where great white sharks sometimes kill surfers and swimmers, the experts say the attacks are not deliberate.
“They’re looking for food, and they make mistakes,” Hammerschlag said.
Florida, it turns out, is the shark-bite capital of the world. In the past 50 years, 600 shark attacks have been reported off Florida, far more than anywhere else, according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla. The attacks off Florida as well as those off California and Hawaii make the United States the country with the most shark attacks: 930 in 50 years.
According to Shark Attack File experts, in all other places around the world, 858 shark attacks have been reported in the same 50-year period. South Africa and Australia trail the United States in the number of attacks, but many more people are killed there.
In the United States, smaller sharks most often are the ones doing the attacking, experts say. The Shark Attack File, which is the world’s most complete record of shark attacks, was created in 1958 by the U.S. Navy as part of a project to develop a shark repellant to protect sailors.
There are often 20 to 30 attacks in Florida’s waters in a year. In one year, 1973, none was reported, according to the Shark Attack File. The record was 37 attacks in 2000. Many of the attacks take place along the central coast, where a combination of surfers, small fish, murky waters and sharks is more prevalent than anywhere else in the world, experts say.
According to the Shark Attack File, only about three percent of the attacks off Florida have been fatal, compared with 31 percent in the coastal waters of Australia. “It’s because they have great white sharks,” said Hammerschlag, “and those are larger and can do a lot of damage.”
Most of the Florida attacks are what George Burgess, director of the Shark Attack File, calls “hit and runs,” a quick snap of the jaws before the shark darts away. The most common victims are surfers. Maneuvering in murky water, and making noise as they paddle out to sea, stretched out on fiberglass boards and splashing with their hands and feet, they resemble injured fish, Burgess said.
Surfers also are more likely to be in the water at dawn and dusk, a time when sharks generally hunt for food,” Hammerschlag said. In one shark attack off New Smyrna Beach, Daniel True, 19, was surfing in about four feet of water when a shark ripped a gash in his right foot. He drove himself to the emergency room, had his foot stitched up and went home. On his Facebook page, he simply wrote that he’d had a fine day except for the fact that a shark “tried to eat my foot this morning.”
In Miami, Mark Quartiano makes a living taking people out on his charter boat to hunt for sharks with a rod and reel. Having been in the business for more than 30 years, he, too, says when sharks attack it is often because they have confused a person with the food they regularly consume.
Burgess, the Shark Attack File director, said bathing suits with colors and patterns resembling those of fish sometimes attract sharks. It is often hard to know when sharks are in the water, so Burgess recommends swimming in groups, which is always safer than swimming alone.
Experts say sharks are usually not happy when they sink their teeth into people. They almost always spit out bits and pieces. Humans, Hammerschlag said, “don’t taste like fish; people are not really their food.”