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    Shark Frenzy

      Relax. Great whites aren't chewing up people off the Pasco-Pinellas coast. But you could certainly get that impression from all the national and international attention a school of sharks feeding near Anclote Key has gotten this week.

    By MATTHEW WAITE

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published August 16, 2001


    photo
    [Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
    Eric Hovland, left, senior biologist and shark expert at the Florida Aquarium, is interviewed by a Los Angeles television news anchor Wednesday during a trip to Anclote Key.
    Want to hook a journalist? Drop the word "sharks."

    The Pasco County Sheriff's Office just wanted to warn boaters and swimmers about what it thought was an unusually large group of sharks off Anclote Key on Tuesday.

    Within hours, all of Tampa Bay's major newspapers and TV stations were hooked. Then came the acronyms: NBC, CNN, the BBC. Inquiries came from as far away as Toronto and Spain.

    By Wednesday morning, two problems became apparent: First, it is not unusual for a group of sharks to feed on small fish off Anclote Key in the summer. Second, the sharks were pretty much gone, replaced by fishermen and reporters hunting for them.

    "Oh, Christ, we'll never learn," said Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws.

    The only thing out of the ordinary, said Dr. Michelle Heupel, a black-tip shark researcher at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, was that someone got videotape of this group of sharks.

    "They're being seen in normal numbers this year," she said. "This is business as usual for the sharks, and it should be business as usual for us."

    So why all the ruckus?

    One TV executive said that even 26 years after Steven Spielberg's 1975 film version of Jaws -- and with recent headlines about shark attacks in Pensacola and the Bahamas -- sharks will get people talking.

    "We go for visuals that can reel in an audience," said Steven Friedman, a producer of CBS's The Early Show. He said CBS tried to put the Anclote sharks into context by talking to experts.

    "I don't think the story would have gotten the attention that the story did if it weren't for those two incidents and that footage (of the sharks taken Tuesday)," he said. "When you see that, it's hard not to put that on. That's part of what we do." The frenzy started Tuesday morning.

    Kevin Doll and Jon Powers, public information officers with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, knew that putting out a "media alert" on sharks was bound to kick up a lot of attention.

    "(Public safety) came before some of the media frenzy and some of the fallout from some of the tourist agencies," Doll said.

    All they could do was to report the sharks, and that no one had been attacked, and that they were 3 miles offshore near a key accessible by boat.

    Does Doll think the media overreacted?

    "I hesitate to say overreacted," he said. "I think they acted like they normally do."

    Reaction to Doll's press release -- "sharks numbering in the hundreds" spotted offshore -- was quick.

    Not a half hour later, five TV helicopters hovered over a sandbar that extends a half mile due north of Anclote Key. In a small plane above them were a reporter and photographer from the St. Petersburg Times.

    By lunchtime, the images were on CNN. By dinner time, they were across the globe.

    Dramatic graphics pinpointed the "news" that there were sharks in the Gulf of Mexico.

    Not exactly big news but, by some accounts, it has been a slow summer for news.

    The Chandra Levy disappearance has been the only big story out there, said Mary Ann Weston, an associate dean at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. "And there's nothing else that can be wrung out of that story.

    "What's the poor, sensationalist media to do?" she wondered. "You're the only game in town right now."

    Sensationalist?

    Rush Limbaugh blamed the shark's presence so close to shore on the federal government. Because of restrictions on shark fishing, he said on his Wednesday radio show, the population has grown so much the creatures are looking for food.

    The media -- and the public -- always overreact to sharks, Benchley told the Times. They did it long before Jaws, and will long after his tale is forgotten, he said.

    "It goes back to the beginning of time," Benchley said. "It is a primal fear."

    Benchley, who has traveled the world studying sharks, explains the visceral reaction they evoke by quoting biologist E.L. Wilson.

    "We don't just fear our predators, we are transfixed by them," Benchley said. "In a deeply tribal way, we love our monsters."

    And that goes for all sharks, he said. Even ones that likely won't hurt you, like the black tips off Anclote. In reality, the chances of any shark hurting someone are astronomical.

    "Generally, it's a safe fear," Benchley said. Sharks are "not going to come get you in your house. You have to go into the ocean. It's not going to strike you in the middle of a field like lightning. It's not going to get you like cancer.

    "Sharks have been big box office forever," Benchley said. "They're an automatic."

    Terri Behling, the public relations manager at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, said callers to the center reported more and more sharks as the day wore on.

    Some offered theories on how they got there. One man insisted that the sharks knew something was wrong in the water and were headed for shore because of it.

    Said Behling: "It's fed itself, really."

    - Staff writer Matthew Waite can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is waite@sptimes.com.

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