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Hunger not humans motivating sharks

The shark attacks in the gulf may be unnerving, but they're not that unusual, experts say.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- By the time sheriff's deputies showed up, 300 people were crowded on the beach near the Panhandle's fancy Seaside resort, staring at an 8-foot bull shark dying on the sand.

"They were petting the shark and putting their hands on the shark," said Walton County sheriff's Capt. Greg Gandy, "and the shark wasn't dead yet.

"It was laying there, docile, and all of the sudden it would come up snapping."

The sight of that snapping shark -- broadcast to the world Thursday morning on NBC's Today -- is a Florida tourism booster's worst nightmare: Just as summer vacation kicks off, hysteria is spreading about Jaws roaming along Panhandle beaches.

It started last Friday, when two Alabama men were attacked during an early morning swim off Gulf Shores, Ala., some 20 miles west of the Florida line. Both were training for a triathlon.

Alabama high school coach Chuck Anderson, 44, lost his right arm above the elbow. The other man, a 55-year-old barber named Richard Whatley, was treated for bites on his right hip and right arm.

Reporting from Pensacola Beach for the Thursday morning broadcast, an NBC reporter warned viewers about "several recent unusual -- and unnerving -- shark moments along the gulf coast."

Unnerving, maybe, but not that unusual.

With a booming population and a long coastline, Florida has more shark attacks than anyplace in America (22 in 1998 and 25 in 1999, according to information from the University of Florida).

"Off this Pensacola, Fla., beach on Tuesday, a shark attacked two boaters aboard a 22-footer," the NBC reporter said.

Well, not exactly. A U.S. Coast Guard spokesman said a boater did call Tuesday to report that a shark bit into the swim platform on his boat. The boater said he saw the shark moving toward nearby swimmers, and moved his boat to block the big fish. That's when the shark bit his boat, he said.

"We don't know for sure," said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Harley Matlock in Pensacola.

The Coast Guard wasn't able to contact the boater and never saw the damaged boat. No report was filed. As for the shark going after the boat to get to get to the boaters, well -- that's mostly in the movies, said Karl Wickstrom, longtime publisher of Florida Sportsman magazine.

"They are not trying to sink the boat and eat the people," Wickstrom said. "They are just biting at anything that looks edible. Lots of times they'll bite a boat when they follow a fish up the line."

In the fish houses and beachside bars along the so-called "Redneck Riviera," the Panhandle beaches, everyone has a theory.

Some say Florida's 5-year-old net ban has sent bait fish populations soaring, drawing sharks close to shore. But since there were sharks before the net ban and sharks after the net ban, the theory doesn't hold much water. Others speculate that the drought is drying up rivers, sending fish to the gulf coast, where they attract hungry sharks. No one's studying that one yet.

Capt. Brad Williams, who patrols the Panhandle coast for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, insists there's no abnormal rash of sharks prowling the beaches.

"When we fly over in a helicopter, we always see sharks out there. They've always been there and they will always be there. Of course, we're getting more sightings reported. When a person gets attacked, everybody starts looking for sharks."

That happened in 1998, when a shark attacked and killed a 9-year-old boy off Vero Beach. It was one of 22 shark attacks reported that year, according to the International Shark Attack File at UF. But it was the only Florida shark fatality reported in a decade.

"Shark attack is probably the most feared natural danger to man, surpassing even hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes in the minds of most beach users and sailors," wrote researcher George Burgess. Burgess and other researchers have tried to help sharks' image by producing comparison tables that show people are more likely to die in a car wreck on the way to the beach than they are by a shark attack. In 1996, 138,894 people were injured on ladders, while only 18 were injured by sharks. Thousands of people are bitten by dogs and cats every year, but it's the shark bite that gets the attention, the researchers point out. Don't even get them started on lightning: They've compiled the numbers: In three decades, 1,155 people were struck by Florida lightning, but only 180 were attacked by Florida sharks.

Still, it's hard to relax when the shark researchers offer tips to keep swimmers safe. Among them: Try not to swim alone, at twilight, when sharks are most active. Avoid excess splashing. Avoid waters with known effluents or sewage. Don't swim with your pets. Don't wear jewelry. Don't go into the water if you're bleeding.

"And, of course," researchers warn, "do not harass a shark if you see one!"

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