Florida Shark Attacks

Tiger Shark

Tiger Shark
copyright iStockphoto.com/Chris Dascher

Shark attacks. What person who enters the ocean hasn't thought about that? Since Florida adventures often involve water, and since sharks live in water, it makes sense for those of us involved in water activities to know a few things about sharks.

When we think of sharks, we often think of shark attack. These two words just seem to go together. Daytona Surfer Latest Shark-attack Victim, the headline might read. Maybe it's because sharks stir a primal fear in us humans. When we're in the water--their territory--they have power over us. They can eat us. Our deep-seated fear of sharks arouses intense curiosity and intrigue. The 1975 film, Jaws, about a man-eating great white shark which terrorizes a small New England village, struck a chord with audiences everywhere, and catapulted Stephen Spielberg to international superstardom.

But primal fears and Hollywood blockbusters aside, to what extent do those involved in water activities need concern themselves with the possibility of being attacked by a shark? How much danger is there really? For answers to such questions, I turned to the experts at the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), located right here in Gainesville, Florida. For swimmers, divers, and surfers the following info is good to know.

How many people are attacked each year in Florida?

ISAF has lots of stats on its web site related to Florida shark attacks. Florida has about 30 to 40 unprovoked attacks each year. Seems like a lot until you figure that millions of people enter Florida waters each year. Only 30 to 40 attacked out of millions? For me, that puts the issue in perspective. Conclusion: Shark attack is real; shark attack is rare. I recognize its reality, while taking comfort in its rarity.

Who gets attacked?

Surfers, mostly. Of those that enter the water--surfers, swimmers, divers--surfers sustain about 60 percent of the attacks. Swimmers account for 30 percent, and divers--snorkelers, SCUBA divers, and others--account for about 10 percent.

Among divers, snorkelers account for around 46 percent of unprovoked attacks by sharks; SCUBA divers for 30 percent; and other divers (hardhat, etc.) for the rest. Does this mean snorkeling is more dangerous than SCUBA diving? Well, you have to factor in that among that group called divers, there are more snorkelers than SCUBA divers. I mean, you don't have to get certified to go snorkeling. Other than that, with regard to shark attack, you just seem more exposed when you're snorkeling than when you use SCUBA gear. With a tank on, you can lurk along the bottom or back up to a reef, and be protected from behind and below. But snorkeling in the wild blue waters, well, I sometimes can't help but feel like a big bass plug twitching along the surface.

What kinds of shark attacks are there?

ISAF says there are three types of shark attacks: 1) hit-and-run attacks, 2) bump-and-bite attacks, and 3) sneak attacks.

Hit-and-run attacks, the most common, are really a case of mistaken identity. Of the 30 to 40 shark attacks in Florida each year, this type accounts for about 20 to 30 of them. Typically, it goes like this: A shark--likely a blacktip, a spinner, or a blacknose--is searching for food in the surf zone, doing shark things and minding his own business. Through the murky waters, he sees an object flash by. Looks tasty, so he takes a bite. What the shark doesn't know is that the object flashing by is a human hand or foot, attached to some swimmer or surfer much bigger than his normal prey. Since it tastes funny and the shark senses it's attached to something bigger than he wants to tangle with, he spits it out and continues on his way, maybe hoping to find something to eat to which he's more accustomed. In the meantime, the poor swimmer or surfer is badly injured and bleeding profusely. After a dramatic rescue, and some stitches in the emergency room, the news media reports another shark attack down at the beach. The public hears about it, and remembers the movie "Jaws."

Bump-and-bite attacks occur when a shark actually thinks of someone as food, or maybe as an intruder. The shark circles, then comes in to bump the victim, before finally attacking. Bump-and-bite attacks usually occur in deeper waters than do hit-and-run attacks, but can occur in shallow waters near shore as well. Repeat attacks are common. Resulting injuries tend to be more serious than those resulting from hit-and-run attacks. Also, there are more fatalities. Worldwide, the species involved is likely to be identified as a white shark, a bull shark, or a tiger shark. White sharks are uncommon in Florida waters.

Sneak attacks are those Jaws-style attacks, the thought of which can really give you the willies. They happen suddenly, and with with no warning. In this type of attack, the shark literally strikes from out of the blue. As with bump-and-bite attacks, the shark may come back to strike again. No mistaken identity here. Injuries tend to be more severe than those of other attacks, and fatalities more common. Here again, worldwide, these attacks are likely to involve a white shark, a bull shark, or a tiger shark.

What species of sharks attack people in Florida?

It's hard to provide definitive stats on which sharks attack people because those attacked often can't identify the attacker. Still, it's believed the most likely "culprits" in hit-and-run attacks here in Florida are the blacktip, spinner, and blacknose sharks. Worldwide, bump-and-bite attacks and sneak attacks are largely attributed to the white shark, tiger shark, and bull shark. The great hammerhead, shortfin mako, oceanic whitetip, and some reef sharks are also suspected in these types of attacks.

Bull Shark

Bull Shark
copyright iStockphoto.com/Erich Ritter

In Florida, the following attacking species appear in order of the number of attributed attacks: bull, blacktip, spinner, hammerhead, nurse, tiger, lemon, various carcharhinus species, sandbar, blue, and mako.

What's the most typical Florida shark attack?

According to ISAF stats, the profile of the "most typical" Florida shark attack involves a surfer in Volusia County waters, between July and October, with the attack occurring between 2 to 3 PM. Sounds like a "hit-and-run" to me. Surfers are attacked more than any other group probably because they tend to venture out alone far from shore during times of rough surf and murky water. The hour and maybe the season of attacks probably has a lot to do with when people are in the water. If most people were surfing at, say, 2 AM in February, there would likely be more attacks at that time.

What can you do to reduce your chances of being attacked by a shark? Let's see what George H. Burgess, ISAF's Director has to say.

What about divers, is there anything special they need to know? Once again, George Burgess says...

Shark attacks, as well as items relating to other sea creatures, are covered in Chapter Nine of my book Surviving the Wilds of Florida.

Okay, get your fins on. It's time we went snorkeling.

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