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    Large sharks are closer than you think

    Species such as the bull shark, which has a worldwide reputation as an aggressive predator, are common in Tampa Bay during the summer.

    [Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
    A shark swims between Egmont Key and Anna Maria Island on Thursday. The photograph was taken from a helicopter circling about 30 feet above the water.

    By TERRY TOMALIN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 1, 2000


    ST. PETERSBURG -- Tampa Bay is a major pupping ground for several species of sharks, and summer is the time when breeding activity is at its peak.

    Add to the mix an abundance of food sources such as tarpon, snook and redfish, and Wednesday's shark attack in Boca Ciega Bay may not seem so surprising.

    Bull sharks, the species suspected in the attack, are common during the warmer months.

    "Estuaries such as Tampa Bay are frequented by a variety of sharks, including the bull," said Brent Winner, a biologist with the Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg. "There seems to be a general misconception that all the large sharks are offshore. But that is not true."

    Tarpon, a favorite food for the aggressive, thick-bodied bull shark, like the sheltered waters of Tampa Bay.

    "Bull sharks will eat about everything . . . from catfish to other sharks," Winner said. "They are aggressive and even a small one, 6 feet long or so, can still be very bulky and, as a result, very dangerous."

    photo
    [Times photo: Scott Keeler]
    Moments after John and Joanne Garzino left the water after their daily swim Thursday morning, a fisherman shows off a small shark he caught while surf fishing on Redington Shores.
    Most anglers, scuba divers and spear fisherman say that pound for pound, the bull shark is the most dangerous animal in tropical waters.

    Earlier this summer, a bull shark attacked two men training for a triathlon near Pensacola. One swimmer lost an arm, but both escaped with their lives.

    Others were not so fortunate. In 1988, a bull shark killed a man off Bay County. And in 1982, another man was killed in Tampa Bay as he swam between Anna Maria Island and Egmont Key.

    The bull shark's reputation as an international villain is well-deserved. These animals can survive in freshwater and have been documented more than 2,000 miles up the Amazon, and in the Mississippi above St. Louis.

    Bull sharks have also 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.

    However, perhaps the most famous incident involving a bull shark occurred in New Jersey during the summer of 1916. Three men and one boy died in span of 12 days. Three attacks occurred in a small freshwater creek near the town of Matawan, more than 10 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.

    Florida could be considered a frequent site of shark attacks since the state averages about 15 to 25 "attacks" a year. Most attacks involve East Coast surfers.

    There is little a swimmer can do to fend off an attack except use common sense.

    Avoid swimming in estuaries, such as Tampa Bay, during peak bull shark season. Don't swim at night. Avoid murky water.

    You stand a better chance of being hit by a tornado or a bolt of lightning or dying from a bee sting than being killed by a shark.

    Winner, a marine biologist, dismissed the idea that there are more sharks in the water today than in previous years.

    "If anything there are less," he said. "Most sharks are still overfished."

    How to avoid attack by shark

    The International Shark Attack File in Gainesville says the risk of a shark attack is very small. However, the group suggests the following preventive measures:

    Always stay in groups because sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual.

    Refrain from excess splashing and do not allow pets in the water because of their erratic movements.

    Exercise caution when occupying the area between sandbars or near steep drop-offs, favorite hangouts for sharks.

    Use extra caution when waters are murky and avoid uneven tanning and bright colored clothing. Sharks see contrast particularly well.

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