Predators in the Shallows

by Ron Childs

In 1916, four swimmers were killed by a great white shark off the beaches in New Jersey.   This became the basis for the movie Jaws. This movie has fueled a fear and a fascination with sharks that has been unprecedented in modern history. So what are the facts about shark attacks? Is it safe to swim, snorkel, wade and dive at the beach?

To begin, 102 shark attacks have been reported along the Gulf Coast since 1865 according to the Global Shark Attack File. That averages out to less than one attack per year according to the Shark Research Institute. There are usually around five deaths a year globally from shark attacks and less than one death a year from shark attacks in the U.S. To put that in perspective, 37 people in the U.S. are killed each year by lightning along the Gulf Coast, and 3,306 people drown in the U.S. each year. 

However, 2015 was a record-breaking year for shark attacks both globally and in the U.S.  There were 98 shark attacks worldwide with more than half occurring in the U.S. Six attacks were fatal. With 59 attacks, the U.S. now leads the world. In the U.S., Florida leads the way with 30 and North Carolina and South Carolina follow with eight each. The countries of Australia and South Africa follow the U.S. with 18 and eight respectively. 

Many scientists are quick to point out that the increased number of attacks is primarily due to more people swimming more often in more places. Other experts point to the many new changes in laws that are much more protective of sharks, and the changes in netting procedures that are designed to protect sharks. Many sharks are now considered protected and cannot be kept or killed at any time. Shark populations have increased as a result.

In the Florida Panhandle, many anglers, divers and charter boat operators are reporting increased sightings of sharks and seeing some that are usually not seen. Take the great white shark, for example. In 2015, there were four confirmed sightings of great white sharks in the Panhandle. Capt. Scott Fitzgerald was eight miles out of Panama City when a great white shark bit his trolling motor and began to shake the boat. A diver off of Apalachicola used his GoPro to film a great white shark coming up to him while ascending up the anchor line. Great white sharks get your attention especially when they are 20 feet long and weigh 5,000 pounds. In July, WKRG in Gulf Shores filmed more than 100 large sharks swimming together within a 100 yards of the beach. Hundreds of swimmers were very close.

Even with more than 400 different species of sharks, there are some definite patterns that emerge about shark attacks. Most attacks occur from 2-3 p.m. in the afternoon. Sharks tend to feed when the sun starts to set. September is the most active month for attacks. Surfers account for 50 percent of all attacks.  Swimmers are at 38 percent, while snorkelers and divers are at 8 percent.

Most attacks occur within 100 feet of shoreline, and men are attacked four times more often than women. 

The most dangerous place in the world for a shark attack is New Smyrna Beach on the east coast of Florida. Newspapers report that if you swim in the ocean in that area, you are usually within 10 feet of a shark. 

There are some common sense precautions one can take to help avoid attacks. Never swim at dusk when sharks start to feed. Don’t wade out and fish with dead bait or wounded fish on your body. Blood attracts sharks. Don’t swim or dive in an area where a boat is chumming with bloody, cut up fishing bait. Avoid swimming in areas where baitfish are jumping out of the water; something is chasing them. Never wear bright, loud colors while swimming. Don’t swim or dive alone; have a buddy close by. Listen to the locals. If they tell you an area has a shark problem, they are usually right. If an attack occurs in an area, don’t swim there for at least seven days. 

And for scuba divers, the most common shark attack when diving occurs when someone pets, touches, bothers or pulls the tail of a gentle, sleepy nurse shark. They will often do a quick U-turn with the head and bite you. And if you spearfish, remember that sharks that are usually just curious can become very aggressive and dangerous when blood gets in the water from a speared fish. It is always smart to look around when going down on a dive. Look for sharks before you pull that trigger.

Don’t shoot with big sharks swimming around you. That is risky. A good rule of thumb is when you kill one good fish, come back up to the boat and get out of the water. The longer you stay down, the greater the chance of an encounter after you shoot a fish and blood covers the bottom. 

Why is that? Because a great white shark can smell a drop of blood from a mile away, some say five miles away, while the average shark can smell a drop of blood from up to 3,000 yards away.

All shark experts don’t agree with these distances. Bull sharks are notorious for showing up within a few minutes of a fish kill under water, and they can be pugnacious and dangerous to say the least.   

Bottom line: be safe, be careful, and use good common sense. 

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