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Sharks should rank low among worries

Published June 13, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - June 1 marked the start of the hurricane season. But for those who spend time in or on the water, summer also is the season of the shark.

Your chances of being struck and killed by lightning are far greater than being eaten by a shark, but thanks to the movie Jaws, the average person fears a great white shark far more than a thundercloud.

Fortunately for Floridians, great whites seldom venture into shallow, coastal waters.

In April 2003, however, an observer aboard a commercial long-line boat reported a 9-foot great white caught in 35 feet about 10 miles off Bayport. Several days later, the same long-liner caught a great white of similar size in 80 feet about 25 miles off Fort Myers.

Great whites are rare in tropical waters. The species is usually found in cooler climates, especially those with large sea lion populations such as California, South Africa and Australia.

At one point, great whites roamed Florida waters in search of monk seals. But the pinnipeds are long gone. Today, great whites are occasionally caught December through April as they seek pelagic spotted dolphins.

If the average Floridian (the odds go up for surfers) does encounter a shark, it is more likely to be a spinner or blacktip. The number of shark "attacks," and this word is in quotes because they are usually cases of mistaken identity, begin to rise in June and peak in September, which, coincidentally, is usually the time of greatest hurricane activity and, hence, waves to surf.

On Florida's west coast, the biggest threat to humans comes from bull sharks. Any scuba diver or spearfisherman who has been "buzzed" by one of these thick-bodied beasts will tell you it is an experience he will never forget.

The bull is the prime suspect in a series of attacks in Florida, Virginia and North Carolina in 2001 and Tampa Bay's last fatal encounter, which occurred in 2000 in Boca Ciega Bay.

According to the Florida Museum of Natural History's international shark attack file, the bull shark is responsible for 64 unprovoked attacks (20 fatal) since humans began keeping records in 1580.

The great white shark tops the list with 205 attacks (58 fatal), and the tiger shark ranks second with 82 (28 fatal). Most shark attacks in Florida, however, involve far less sinister species: spinner and blacktip sharks. In recent years, Florida has had about 30 shark attacks each summer. The hot spots are Brevard and Volusia counties, which also happen to have some of the best surf breaks in the state.

The best waves usually can be found near river mouths and inlets because of the sandbars that form as a result of tidal action. Lots of bait moves through these areas, and that is why sharks find them good hunting grounds.

If you throw a surfer into the mix (the palm of a hand or sole of a foot moving through murky water looks just like a baitfish) somebody is bound to get nipped. In most cases, the surfer gets 15 stitches, a scar that looks like a smiley face or frown and a great story to tell buddies at the bar.

To put it in perspective, you are about one-third as likely to die because of a shark than another large Florida carnivore, the alligator.

Tornadoes, another big summer problem, also are far more deadly than sharks. In 1998 (the last year the state had deaths attributed to tornadoes and sharks) 42 people died as a result of this severe weather phenomenon. One died in a shark attack, according to the international shark attack file.

How do sharks rank in comparison with other animals? The deaths per year in the United States during the 1990s: deer (vehicle collision) - 130; dogs - 18; snakes - 15; mountain lions - 0.6; sharks - 0.4.

So there you have it. Sharks are part of life but no reason not to enjoy the water.

[Last modified June 12, 2004, 23:37:23]


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