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New depths for shark danger

Bull sharks are one of the most widely distributed sharks in the world. These animals are unique because they can survive in fresh and saltwater.

By TERRY TOMALIN
Published May 11, 2007


Corbin Kitzinger shows off the 8-foot bull shark his friend Gene Maxwell caught in 3 feet of water 100 yards off the seawall in Shore Acres recently. The big bull was swimming with a half-dozen other sharks.
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[Special to the Times]
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[AP photo]
A bull shark can be seen from shore at Miramar Beach in June 2005, one day after the species attacked a 14-year-old girl.

Gene Maxwell was recently fishing for cobia in 3 feet of water about 100 yards off the seawall in Shore Acres when he saw several fins sticking out of the water. "I had never seen so many big sharks in such shallow water," said the 21-year-old St. Petersburg resident. "I just couldn't believe it." Maxwell, a commercial fisherman, called a few friends and they went back out and snagged an 8-foot bull shark, above, with treble hook.

Fearsome reputation

In July 2001, the cover of Time magazine coined the phrase "Summer of the Shark" after 8-year-old Jesse Arbogast was attacked by a bull shark off Pensacola. That summer, which was not unusual in regard to the number of shark "attacks" nationwide, ended with two deaths. The species was also suspected in the Tampa Bay area's last fatal encounter, which had occurred one year earlier in Boca Ciega Bay. And that wasn't the first time bull sharks were front page news. In 1998, a 9-year-old boy was killed on Florida's east coast, and 10 years earlier, a man died after being hit in waters off Bay County. The bull was also suspected in the 1982 death of a man who had tried to swim between Anna Maria Island and Egmont Key.

Twelve days of terror

In the summer of 1916, four people were killed by sharks in less than two weeks in a popular tourist area of the New Jersey shore. Peter Benchley, author of the 1974 bestseller Jaws, said these attacks were the inspiration for his book. Thirteen days after the first attack, a 9-foot great white shark was netted in the waters off South Amboy, N.J. Authorities cut open the shark's stomach and discovered 15 pounds of human flesh. At the time, authorities believed they had found the killer. But looking back, most experts believe that since two of the attacks occurred 15 miles up a freshwater creek, another species may share some of the blame.

No safe place

Bull sharks are one of the most widely distributed sharks in the world. These animals are unique because they can survive in fresh and saltwater. Bull sharks have been documented more than 2,000 miles up the Amazon and in the Mississippi above St. Louis. These beasts also have been a terror in the Ganges River of India, where they frequently attack pilgrims participating in religious ceremonies. In Central America's Lake Nicaragua, the bull shark is feared by fishermen who have lost both their catch and their friends to this fearsome predator. Since white sharks are not known to travel up rivers, and bull sharks are, most experts who have studied the "Twelve Days of Terror" think a bull shark may have been responsible for at least two of the 1916 deaths in New Jersey.

Sluggers on steroids

Pound for pound, bull sharks are the most aggressive animal on earth. The species, which can grow to 11 feet and weigh up to 500 pounds, has more testosterone than any other living creature, including tigers and lions. Veritable eating machines, these thick-bodied brutes will eat just about anything from catfish to other sharks. A favorite prey of bull sharks is tarpon. In some places, such as Boca Grande Pass, anglers are hard-pressed to land the popular sportfish in one piece, thanks to aggressive bull sharks, which have learned to associate fishermen with an easy meal.

By the numbers

Officially, the great white shark still tops the record books with the most attacks worldwide (232), followed by the tiger shark (86) and the bull (69). But most shark experts believe the actual number of bull shark fatalities may be much higher because many attacks occur in Third World countries and go unreported. In Florida, most shark attacks involve far less sinister species: spinner and blacktip sharks. Most "attacks" result in relatively minor injuries, and to put it in perspective, you are about three times more likely to be killed by another predator, the alligator, than a shark.

A fisherman's regrets

After landing the shark, Maxwell realized it was a female carrying a litter of pups. "If it makes it any better, we tried to put the babies back in the water," he said. Killing sharks for "sport" is a controversial subject among recreational anglers. Most "kill" tournaments, be it for shark or other non-edible species such as tarpon, have died out as sportsmen have become more conservation-minded. Worldwide, sharks are in trouble, thanks to a negative public image and large-scale commercial fishing.

Lower the odds

Although your chances of being killed by a bull shark are less than your chances of being struck by lightning, you can take some steps to protect yourself. Here are a few tips, courtesy of the International Shark Attack File (www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/Sharks/ISAF/ISAF.htm):

- Avoid swimming near the mouths of rivers or bays, areas favored by bull sharks.

- Do not swim near schools of baitfish. Bull sharks may be nearby.

- When spearfishing, be ready to drop your catch. Bull sharks are attracted by speared fish.

- Avoid swimming at night or early in the morning, when sharks are most active.

Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8808.

[Last modified May 11, 2007, 01:38:17]


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