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Shark attacks in gulf are rare

Experts say people need not alter beach habits but should understand they are in the sharks' domain.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 31, 2000


Traffic, lightning and bee stings are more likely to harm humans than a gape-jawed monster from the deep.

"Yet whenever we go into the water we've entered the wilderness," said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. "Sharks are wilderness animals."

The chilling reality of those words hit home Tuesday when an apparent shark attack took the life of a 69-year-old St. Pete Beach man.

Sharks, including several species implicated in attacks on people, thrive in the Gulf of Mexico. They swim along our beaches and enter our bays. Yet swimmers rarely are bothered. People seldom are on the menu.

"An attack on a swimmer in the gulf is a rare phenomenon indeed," Burgess said.

This year, some 19 documented attacks have occurred along Florida's Atlantic Coast. Most involved small sharks mistaking the feet of surfers for mullet.

"We call them hit and runs," Burgess said. "They're cases of mistaken identity. They bite and figure out they've bitten the wrong thing."

There have been only three confirmed attacks on Florida's Gulf Coast this year.

"They tend to be more serious. They're still cases of mistaken identity; sharks aren't looking to make a meal out of a human. But often they're larger animals, which means the attack is going to be more severe."

West-central Florida's last fatality happened in September 1981. In Manatee County, Mark Meeker bet a friend he could swim from Anna Maria Island across the mouth of Tampa Bay to Passage Key, less than a mile away. He was found dead the next day. He had taken off his bathing suit and used it as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.

In June 1991, Rick LePrevost was swimming behind his sailboat in Tampa Bay about a mile from the St. Petersburg waterfront. He was bitten on the legs and stomach but recovered.

In both cases, the suspect was a species known as the bull shark. Growing to 10 feet long and 500 pounds, bull sharks are considered among the most dangerous animals on the planet, implicated in hundreds of attacks in oceans and even rivers over decades throughout the tropics. They're common in the gulf and are often seen in Tampa Bay during summer.

Scientists are still trying to learn more about Wednesday's apparent attack in Boca Ciega Bay.

"I haven't seen the autopsy report," said Bob Hueter, Mote Marine Lab's shark research director, "but it sounds like the damage that would be done by a large bull shark."

Other possibilities are the great hammerhead, a species that grows to 20 feet and frequents the gulf, often along beaches where it feeds on sting rays and tarpon. But they lack the aggression of bull sharks.

Tiger sharks, which can exceed 17 feet, are dangerous predators. But they are less common than the other species. Florida's last fatal attack, on 9-year-old James Willie Tellasmon near Melbourne Beach in November 1998, was blamed on a tiger.

But any attack is unusual.

"There's no reason to think this is going to happen again," Hueter said about Wednesday's incident in Boca Ciega Bay. "People shouldn't alter their beach habits. This is not the movie Jaws."

But scientists also think swimmers need to understand who is boss of the seas. It's not the fragile two-legged species known as Homo sapiens.

"It's their habitat," shark attack expert George Burgess said. "We're the visitors."

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