The big, bad bully of the sea
Sharp teeth, warm water and a man they call 'Lefty.’
By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published June 25, 2006
SUMMERDALE, Ala. — Chuck Anderson used to be right-handed. Now he calls himself “Lefty.’’ Bull sharks get hungry.
He still swims. He has learned how to pull goggles over his head with one hand. When he wears a rubber fin on his stump, he feels as strong in the water as the old triathlon champion he used to be.
When he swims in the Gulf of Mexico he feels as vulnerable as a crippled mullet.
“Clear water, no problem,’’ he says. “Dirty water, or when I can’t see what’s around me, I’m an unhappy guy.’’
As he trains for a triathlon later this summer, he hesitates every time he ducks his head under the water.
Alligators may have a better press agent these days, but the bull shark is the gulf region’s most fearsome animal. Robust creatures, they sometimes exceed 9 feet and 500 pounds. With their massive heads, wide jaws and voracious appetites, they easily live up to their name.
“They have one of the highest levels of testosterone in the animal kingdom,’’ says Dr. Robert Hueter , director of shark studies for Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota County.
When a bather is killed or maimed in the South, especially in the gulf, the bull shark is inevitably the prime suspect. They feed on large prey close to shore during summer — just when folks are going to the beach.
Bull sharks have no particular taste for the human metatarsal. But when you add millions of swimmers to a subtropical ocean and stir in hundreds of feeding sharks, sooner or later somebody gets unlucky.
Even so, sharks bothered only 18 bathers in Florida last year. We are more likely to get hurt driving to the beach, exasperated marine biologists remind us.
“Say the word 'shark’ and the first image most people conjure up is a Jaws-inspired white shark devouring unsuspecting bathers,’’ says George Burgess , director of the International Shark Attack File on the University of Florida campus.
For the record, nobody has ever been mauled by a great white shark in Florida. Whites are a cold-water animal that rarely venture close to shore in southern oceans.
We have the bull shark.
Which, as Chuck Anderson can tell you, is plenty of shark.
A swimmer anywhere in the world has a one in 11.5-million chance of becoming a victim, according to the International Shark Attack File.
Nobody in a century had been attacked by a shark at an Alabama seashore until Chuck Anderson went for his triathlon training swim in 2000.
The most likely place in the world to have an unhappy encounter with a shark is Volusia County on Florida’s east coast.
Swimmers who visit the beaches of Daytona Beach or New Smyrna don’t automatically land on the menu, even though thousands of bathers cavort in turbulent water loaded with baitfish and sharks with poor vision.
During summer, schools of small blacktip and spinner sharks — usually 4 feet long or less — chase sardines and mullet through the surf. About a dozen times a year they mistake a hand or foot for a meal. The victim ends up at an emergency room with stitches and a story to tell.
In the last century, 182 swimmers have been nipped by sharks in Volusia County. Yet there has never been a fatality.
Shark experts differentiate between what happens on Florida’s east coast and on the gulf coast.
“On the east coast, we have what I call 'shark bites,’ ’’ says Mote Marine’s Bob Hueter. “In the gulf, we have fewer incidents, but they are often what I call 'attacks.’ The animals are bigger and do more damage.’’
A 400-pound bull shark killed 69-year-old Thadeus Kubinski after he dove off the dock behind his Boca Ciega Bay home in southern Pinellas County in 2000.
In 2001 — “The Summer of the Shark,’’ according to Time magazine — a bull shark removed the arm of 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast while he played in the gulf near Pensacola. Doctors reattached the arm, though the boy suffered brain damage from loss of blood.
If bull sharks were looking to gobble humans, nobody would be safe in the water. But they would rather use their powerful jaws and serrated teeth to devour sting rays and sea turtles. They are especially fond of tarpon, the popular game fish known for strength, endurance and jumping ability.
In the summer, schools of the silver beauties swim along the gulf beaches. Over at the Redington Long Pier, in coastal Pinellas, anglers hook tarpon and watch in dismay as bull sharks bite the fish in half. A bull shark occasionally chases a hooked 7-foot tarpon into the surf.
“Everybody on the pier yells 'Shark!’ ’’ explains angler Ken Bednarski . “All the swimmers run out of the water.’’
At Boca Grande, in Charlotte County, bull sharks make life interesting for tarpon and tarpon fishers during summer. “Bull sharks have developed pack hunting techniques,’’ says fishing guide Dave Markett .
Like the more dramatic-looking but less potent hammerheads, bull sharks lurk under boats and wait for an angler to engage a tarpon. A free-swimming tarpon usually can evade a bull shark, but a hooked one nearing exhaustion is easy pickings. Sometimes several bull sharks tear apart a 150-pound tarpon at boat side.
Scientists are studying the phenomenon. In most of the world, shark populations are declining because of overfishing and habitat destruction. “But in Florida, fishermen say they have never seen so many bull sharks,’’ says Mote’s Hueter. “We’re trying to find out if that’s true, and if it’s true, why.’’
“Serpents, bears, hyenas, tigers rapidly vanish as civilization advances, but the most populous and civilized city cannot scare a shark far from its wharves,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in Cape Cod.
Last year a toxic Red Tide killed millions of fish in west-central Florida. The dead and dying stacked up against seawalls.
For bull sharks it was better than a fast food restaurant. In St. Petersburg, early-morning strollers saw them feasting along docks and seawalls.
Bull sharks are common in the bay. They even like canals that feed into the bay. In fact, they are the only known shark species that can live for long spells in fresh water. They swim 2,500 miles up the Amazon River. They attack bathers in Central America’s Lake Nicaragua. A dead one was found in Florida’s Lake Okeechobee last summer. Residents of the Land of Lincoln have spotted bull sharks in the Mississippi — 1,800 miles from the gulf.
In the ocean, an immature shark is food for countless predators. In fresh water, a young bull shark that evades a sluggish alligator is probably going to reach adulthood.
A Mote Marine Lab scientist, Michelle Heupel studies bull sharks in the Caloosahatchee River, which feeds into Lake Okeechobee. She nets them 18 miles from the gulf, fits them with radio transmitters and studies their movement .
“They’re very sturdy sharks,’’ she says. “They’re built like linebackers. They’re very aggressive, yet when I net one, it always seems calm. It’s like it knows it’s the king of the hill.’’
* * *
Chuck Anderson was born in 1955 and grew up in Alabama. He was a water boy, one of those Southern kids who couldn’t get enough of swimming, skiing and fishing in Mobile Bay. His dad — everybody called him “Lefty” even though he had both of his arms — was a football coach.Chuck played quarterback in high school. He threw a tight spiral, never suffered from a lack of confidence and thought he might have a career after high school.
It didn’t happen. He got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, taught social studies in high school and ended up a football coach like his dad. Folks in South Alabama still call Chuck “Coach” even though he has directed the athletic department for Baldwin County’s school system for five years.
He spends his days traveling from school to school in his Ford pickup, his cell phone at the ready. Sometimes a caller from a school asks him to jot down a phone number.
“Too dangerous,’’ he says in a fried mullet accent, explaining that his only hand is gripping the phone and he’s steering with his knees. His bike, running shoes and swimming equipment often lie in the truck bed. He weighed 275 pounds until he started exercising 13 years ago. Now he’s a solid 225.
He has competed in triathlons all over the South, including Florida, mostly in the Panhandle but also in Pinellas and Sarasota counties.
He lives 15 minutes from the gulf, where he has done most of his 87 triathlons and hundreds of training swims. Nothing bad ever happened to him — except once.
He uses a prosthetic only when riding his bicycle. He slips the stump into a fiberglass sleeve on the handlebars. He pedals 35 to 70 miles a week, runs another 20 and tries to swim a mile or two. The water in a pool is always clear.
He has never been self-conscious about the missing arm. In South Alabama, and in the Florida Panhandle, he’s known for his sense of humor and good cheer. Strangers shake his left hand. In photos, Anderson beams and waves the stump at the camera.
The Timex Triathlon watch on Chuck Anderson’s right wrist beeped at 5:15 a.m. It was June 9, 2000, and he had a date at Gulf Shores with triathlon buddies. He wanted to stay in bed but finally thought “the heck with it” and got up. If he wimped out, he’d never hear the end of it.
He liked those training swims in the gulf. They were challenging. They were macho. In the gulf, there is no black line on the bottom to follow. In big waves, you swallow water. In turbid water, you fight your fear of drowning, of swimming into a raft of jellyfish, of the unspeakable appetites of big fish.
He parked at the Pink Pony pub, a landmark on the beach. He was early. So were two other athletes. They decided to do a short swim while waiting for the rest of the gang to arrive.
Richard Watley swam out first. Soon he was swimming along the beach 200 yards out. Anderson and Karen Forfar swam together about 150 yards offshore. Anderson was a strong swimmer, but Forfar was better. She forged ahead.
Anderson glanced at his Timex: 6:38 a.m. He and Karen would swim for another 7 minutes before joining the main party of triathletes on the beach. Then they’d swim their regular 1.25 miles.
It was a windy morning. Bruise-colored clouds scudded across the sky. In the high waves Anderson tried not to swallow the gulf.
Something very large and very heavy smashed into his thigh.
It hit so hard he was nearly blasted out of the water.
He yelled with all his might at whatever was below him to “STOP! STOP! STOP! NO, NO, NO!’’ as if it were a bad dog. Then he shouted for Karen to get out of the water.
His first impulse was to swim toward shore like an Olympian. Then he thought better of it. If something was approaching, he wanted to see it coming.
He floated on his back, pointed his head toward shore and kicked and paddled. Nothing. He ducked under the water for a fast look. Through his goggles he saw a dark shape emerging from the gloom.
He stuck out his right arm to fend it off.
He felt contact, but no pain despite the blood in the water. He stared at his hand in disbelief. Only the thumb remained.
Beseeching God in one breath and shrieking profanities in the next, he somehow advanced toward shore. He took another peek in the water. Too late. The shark rushed up and bit him on the stomach before vanishing into the murk.
Shore seemed a long way off.
The beast came up 20 yards away. It swam straight for him, dorsal slicing the water like something out of Jaws.
The former quarterback tried a stiff arm. His arm ended up inside the shark’s maw. The shark dragged him 15 feet to the bottom, shaking him the whole way. He wondered if he’d see his kids again.
The shark surfaced with him in its jaws.
Then a miracle.
The shark — he could see it was about 8 feet long — sped toward the beach. Anderson felt like he was water skiing.
His heels dragged bottom.
Suddenly man and beast stopped. Anderson lay on his back on a sandbar with the 300-pound bogeyman crushing his right side. He was afraid the shark was going to bite off his face. At least it would have to release his arm first.
The shark wouldn’t let go. As it began wiggling free of the sandbar, Anderson staggered to his feet and tried to reclaim the limb. He jerked on the arm three times, adrenaline masking the pain, but the shark hung on.
He hauled on his arm with all his might, using his back like a landscaper trying to uproot a dead hibiscus. A surgeon later described what happened as “degloving.’’ The skin and muscle below the elbow were raked off the bone by the teeth.
Anderson heard a loud pop. The shark had just bitten off his hand.
Anderson tumbled backward as he came free. He somehow got up and lumbered through the shallows to the beach. He glanced at the bare bone and decided he wouldn’t look again.
Karen Forfar, his swimming buddy, took a long look and screamed.
“My God! Chuck, your arm is gone!’’
“Next time I do a triathlon,’’ Anderson gasped, “I’ll be in the physically challenged division.’’
He told her he was going to bleed to death if he didn’t get a tourniquet.
The 62-year-old woman began peeling off her one-piece bathing suit, but a construction worker came by and offered his shirt instead.
Out in the gulf, Richard Watley , the last triathlete in the water, was on his way in, oblivious. As he approached the sandbar, the bull shark bit him on the knee and buttocks. Bleeding, Watley jogged out of the water and reclined on a bench near his buddy.
The ambulance arrived.
Watley’s injuries weren’t serious. Examining Anderson, paramedics radioed for a helicopter. “He’s lost a lot of blood,’’ a paramedic said. Anderson heard everything. He never fainted.
It was too overcast and windy for a helicopter to land. The patient arrived at South Baldwin Hospital in the ambulance.
In the operating room, Dr. John Rodriguez-Feo completed the amputation, staunched the bleeding and reattached muscle.
Happy to be alive, Anderson enjoyed serenading nurses with Jimmy Buffett:
Can’t you feel ’em circlin’ honey?
Can’t you feel ’em swimmin’ around?
You got fins to the left, fins to the right,
and you’re the only bait in town.
“I don’t blame the shark,’’ he told friends. “It was just being a shark. In fact, I feel sorry for it. That shark is going to have to wake up every morning at 5:15 when my Timex starts beeping.’’
Chuck focused on learning how to live without his arm. His wife, Betsy, helped him button his pants. She tied his shoes. At least nobody expected him to wear a tie to work.
He relied on his teeth to do a lot of the work.
“If I lose my teeth I’m in trouble,’’ he told Betsy.
He told Betsy he wasn’t going to quit triathlons. She wasn’t surprised. After all, he had gone for a 3-mile walk his first day out of the hospital.
Physical therapist Jennifer Davis agreed that having a goal might help her patient. “The clients who are afraid to climb back onto the horse never seem to fully recover,’’ she says. “It’s the passionate people who do well. Chuck had this passion about doing another triathlon.’’
At first, Davis encouraged him to move what remained of his arm. When he could do it without grimacing, she attached weights to the stump. Muscle appeared.
At first he couldn’t swim a lap in the pool without exhaustion. Soon he could swim 60. Davis modified a swim paddle to fit the stump. Now he swam fast, like Tarzan.
He wouldn’t embarrass himself in front of the other athletes.
On April 21, 2001, 10 months after his injury, he showed up at the Mullet-Man Triathlon in Florabama, held at the border of the two states. His friends were overjoyed to see him. The national media was in attendance. He tried to put aside his fear when the starter’s gun sounded.
He ran 4 miles in 28 minutes and pedaled 16 miles in 48. He covered a quarter mile in the gulf in less than six minutes.
He finished first in the over 200-pound division of the triathlon.
Hundreds of people shook his left hand, slapped his back, saluted his courage.
He hated every second of a swim that had once brought him pleasure.
He and Betsy divorced in 2002.
“What happened to me was much harder on my family than on me,’’ Anderson says now.
Betsy, who had never smoked, died of lung cancer in 2004.
Anderson’s son, Sam, confronted the bogeyman by hanging posters of bull sharks in his room. Laura, his daughter, eventually had the courage to dip her toes into the gulf.
“My theory is that something like this could never happen twice to people from the same family,’’ she told friends.
Anderson kept competing in triathlons.
In 2004, while swimming in a race in Mobile Bay, he felt like something awful was about to happen.
Something large and ominously heavy crashed into his head. He stopped dead in the water and screamed for help.
It wasn’t a bull shark.
It was a log.
He finished the race, but hated the panic and the fact a lifeguard had helped calm him down. He decided he was sick of triathlons.
“I’ve done enough of them,’’ he told his pals.
He changed his mind in 2005. He’d confront his fears. He trained hard for the Sandestin Triathlon, held in the Florida Panhandle every August.
A month before the race, Jaimie Daigle , 14, was paddling a boogie board in the gulf near Destin when a bull shark grabbed her. She bled to death.
Two days later, Craig Hutto, 16, was wade fishing for spotted sea trout in the gulf near Apalachicola . A bull shark mutilated his leg, which had to be amputated at the hospital.
Anderson decided not to do the triathlon.
The Sandestin race is coming up again. A few months ago he began training.
He runs, rides and does his swimming in a pool. The triathlon swim will cover a half mile in the gulf. Not very far, but too far for comfort. He used to swim 1.25 miles in the gulf three times a week without a second thought.
Now all he has are second thoughts.
“This might be my last triathlon,’’ he says. “I mean, I really don’t have anything to prove anymore, do I?’’
Over at Gulf Shores, pelicans try to answer that question the only way they can, by bobbing in the rough gulf beyond the breakers. Bathers crowd the shallows behind the Pink Pony on E Beach Boulevard. Jimmy Buffett is on the jukebox, and it sounds like Fins at first, but it turns out to be that sturdy beach-bar anthem, Margaritaville.
The blood-stained bench where Chuck Anderson lay down his mutilated body six summers ago is gone. For years the bench was a macabre tourist attraction.Hurricane Ivan washed it away in 2004.
Now there is no sign of what happened to him on this Gulf of Mexico beach, no sign of a bull shark that got hungry.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
For information about shark studies at Mote Marine Laboratory, go to www.mote.org.
To learn more about dangers posed by sharks, visit the International Shark Attack File Web site at www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/Sharks and click on “International Shark Attack File.”
To see a video of bull sharks attacking a hooked tarpon, go to www.gianttarpon.com/sharkbroad.htm.