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Why tempt fate?

A healthy dose of common sense and a cautious approach should keep people from becoming a number in the International Shark Attack File

Published August 12, 2006

Sharks - the name alone fosters fear and conjures images of vicious, flesh-ripping brutes. Make no mistake, sharks pack a lethal load of dental equipment, but the "vicious" thing is mostly sensationalism.

The fact is that the majority of these highly efficient predators are designed to feed by slicing and dicing their prey. But they're not the only fish with such aggressive table manners. Ever see what a ravenous pack of Spanish mackerel can do to a school of glass minnows?

The only difference is that the girl in the opening scene of "Jaws" wasn't attacked by a mackerel. Then again, even a mackerel probably would have advised against swimming out to a channel marker alone at night.

The International Shark Attack File, administered by the American Elasmobranch Society and the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, has compiled data on shark-human encounters since the 1500s. ISAF records show 39 unprovoked attacks on humans in 2005; 19 of those occurred in Florida waters.

Certainly, one shark attack is one too many. But, statistically speaking, you have far greater worries in life. According to ISAF data, between 1959 and 2004, Florida saw 428 lightning-strike fatalities. Sharks killed seven people during that period.

Of course, statistics go out the window when you're staring at a dark figure swimming way too close for comfort. In fairness, sharks live in the water - we're just visitors. And unless we avoid the sea entirely, some level of risk remains inevitable.

According to the ISAF, the number of shark-human interactions occurring in a given year is directly correlated to the amount of time humans spent in the sea. As the world population increases and more people play in the ocean, the statistical outlook is likely to hold even more grim encounters.

But that needn't become a foregone conclusion. Avoid trouble by adhering to these rules:

- Don't swim if blood is exiting your body in any fashion. Sharks have strong sniffers and they'll detect the aroma from great distances.

- Don't swim before dawn or after sunset. Sharks hunt most actively at night.

- Stay away from large schools of baitfish. Sharks often make mad dashes into the food source and anything in the way could suffer an inadvertent - but nonetheless painful - bite.

- Refrain from excess splashing, as this may draw a shark's attention.

- Remove shiny jewelry before entering the ocean, as reflected light resembles shimmering fish scales.

- If you spot a shark when you're in the water, calmly make your way back to shore. All predators prefer the safety and concealment of deep water, so move away from their comfort zone.

- If a shark approaches, do your best to control your anxiety and minimize frantic movements. Such agitation can stimulate or heighten a shark's aggression. Easier said than done, but remaining calm usually diffuses the situation and gives a curious shark time to recognize you as something alien to its diet.

Complementing these general rules, fishermen must accept a somewhat elevated risk level, as their sport often takes them deeper into the shark's realm. Whether that's intentional or incidental, the results are impartial.

Summer sees a lot of wading and the elements of live bait and struggling fish present strong attractions to any shark in the area. Prevent trouble by wading only where you can move easily. Frequently scan surrounding waters - especially when wading alone - and stay away from schools of baitfish.

Also avoid deep drop-offs where sharks often lurk, and if you hook a fish, immediately work your way back toward shore where you can safely handle your catch.

If you're keeping fish, hold them on a long stringer with a quick-release latch. If a shark lays claim to your trout, let the fish eat and move on - with all your fingers intact.

Even from a boat, sneak attacks of the toothy kind will raise your heart rate. Offshore anglers occasionally lose some or all of their grouper, tuna or kingfish when a hungry shark helps itself to an easy meal. That's not such a problem in larger boats, where higher gunnels usually keep anglers clear of the danger.

In a shallow water boat, fish-stealing sharks may come dangerously close to anglers reaching over the gunnels to retrieve their catch. The shark just wants the food, but you really don't want your fingers in the strike zone. Stay safe by looking around before grabbing a fish from the water.

For any fisherman, in any scenario, intentionally targeting sharks demands the highest level of caution. Plain and simple, irritating something with sharp teeth is like running through traffic - the probability of mishap increases. Bringing that irritated animal into the boat multiplies the risk.

When doing so, toss your shark into the ice box, cut the leader and walk away until he goes to sleep. For larger sharks, work your catch to the boat, tail-rope it, and wait until the fish stops thrashing before bringing it aboard.

Even with a dead shark, keep your fingers, and toes clear of the teeth. Shifting, sliding and reflex jaw action can cause painful accidents. In this, and all shark encounters, blending caution with common sense will keep you safe.

[Last modified August 12, 2006, 07:26:43]

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