ST. PETERSBURG - James Tiffee was back paddling into shore, gazing up at the sunset, when he felt himself being lifted out of the water by a shark. It bit into his lower back and grazed most of the left side of his body.
"I felt the impact on my back and was lifted ever so slightly into the air - I realized pretty quickly it had to be a shark," said Tiffee, who lives in a house about 200 yards from where he was attacked Friday in Big Bayou. "I didn't see it, I just saw bite prints and I was immediately concerned with getting in to shore."
Tiffee, 47, a Navy SEAL and self-proclaimed "boat bum" is constantly in the water, but he knew he was taking a risk by swimming at dusk.
"I was swimming at feeding time and was splashing my legs around," said Tiffee. "I couldn't have done anything (worse) but to have slit my wrists in the water."
Tiffee had swum out about 8:30 p.m. to visit David and Jane Santos' sailing yacht anchored in the bayou. He wanted to invite the couple to spend Friday night with him in downtown St. Petersburg.
He was halfway back to shore when his friends heard him screaming and raced onto their dinghy to help, they said. After they helped the bleeding Tiffee into the boat, they raced to shore, "crash-docked" the boat, grabbed Tiffee's keys and drove his truck to the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines. Tiffee insisted on being taken there, the Santoses said.
Jane Santos held a compress on Tiffee's bleeding back, while her husband drove.
Tiffee was in the intensive care unit Sunday night.
The shark bit a roughly 1 square foot out of Tiffee's back and left other bite marks on his buttocks, his left hand and the left side of his face, Tiffee said.
The Santoses said the shark was about 4 feet long.
"It's a good thing we were able to get him out of water fast because he couldn't have swum to shore and if he had stayed in the water ... when sharks sense blood they shift into eating mode," said David Santos, 57.
Tiffee had four hours of surgery on his back wound, which required skin grafts. The other wounds were less serious.
"I'm amazed at how well I feel," he said, speaking by phone Sunday from his hospital bed. "My family in Texas is calling it a serious scratch."
Tiffee said doctors told him he will probably be in the hospital for another week of recovery.
The Santoses returned to Tampa Bay about a month ago from an 11-year sail around the world and became friends with Tiffee because he had spent 12 years living on his boat.
"After all of our adventures around the world, we just wanted to settle into a mundane way of life," said David Santos. "This was a heck of a way to start."
Tampa Bay's last fatal shark attack occurred in September of 2000 in Boca Ciega Bay, when Thadeus Kubinski jumped into the bay for a swim, where what was thought to be a bull shark was feeding.
George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, said that shark attacks as extensive as Tiffee's are rare, especially on the west coast of Florida.
"By an order of 10 to 1, most shark attacks are on the east coast," said Burgess, who works at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. "And most attacks on the coast of Florida are not deserving of the word "attack' because the injuries are similar to a dog bite most of the time."
But that doesn't mean swimmers shouldn't look out for sharks. Burgess said that the hours between dusk and dawn are the worst time to be in the water because sharks are active and feeding. Also, sharks are attracted when humans flail around. The splashing can draw a shark's attention.
Tiffee said he wouldn't stop swimming because of Friday's experience.
"I'll be back out there," he said. "I don't know when, but they live in the sea of course. ... So enjoy the water, but be a little selective about when to go out."TIPS FOR AVOIDING SHARK ATTACKS
While the risk of a shark attack is pretty slim, there are a few precautions that can minimize the potential. George H. Burgess, keeper of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History offers some precautions.
* Stay in groups, and close to shore. Sharks are more likely to attack individuals, especially those far from the shoreline.
* Avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight hours when sharks are most active.
* Do not enter the water if bleeding from an open wound or if menstruating - a shark's sense of smell is acute.
* Wearing shiny jewelry is discouraged because the reflected light resembles the sheen of fish scales.
* Avoid waters with known effluents or sewage and those being used by sport or commercial fisherman, especially if there are signs of bait fish or feeding activity. Diving seabirds are good indicators of such action.
* Sightings of porpoises do not indicate the absence of sharks - both often eat the same food.
* Take extra caution when waters are murky and avoid uneven tanning and bright colored clothing because sharks see contrast particularly well.
* Refrain from splashing and do not allow pets in the water because of their erratic movements.
* Use caution in areas between sandbars or near steep dropoffs, which are favorite hangouts for sharks.
Source: International Shark Attack File, at the University of Florida's Florida Museum of Natural History