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Swimming through dark fear

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 2000


Fear profits a man nothing.

-- Viking proverb

* * *

BOCA CIEGA BAY -- The fishermen on the pier looked at us like we were crazy.

"Don't worry," I told my friend. "We'll just swim out, turn around and come back."

Twenty-four hours earlier, a 69-year-old St. Pete Beach man swimming in the same body of water died after he was attacked by a 400-pound, 9-foot bull shark.

There is nothing an open-water swimmer fears more than a beast of this magnitude. Swimming long hours along the beach, you try not to think about sharks. But they are always there, lingering just out of sight, real or imagined.

Succumb to the fear, however, and you might as well lay down your goggles. When a surfer wipes out on a big wave, the only thing to do is climb back on the board and paddle out. The same goes for sharks.

Even on a good day, the water here is less than ideal for swimmers. Warm and murky, it seems just the place for a bull shark to prowl.

The bay has its share of secret tarpon holes, snook hot spots and schools of mullet moving through, so there is plenty here on which to feed. In the heat of summer, a bull shark would find it just like home.

"But you can't think about it," my friend Jon Willis said as he waded into the turbid water. "It is just like getting thrown from a horse. You got to get back in the saddle right away or you'll never ride again."

Easier said than done.

I was thinking about it, just like I had hundreds of times before. When I worked as a lifeguard on Clearwater Beach, the crew would swim around Pier 60 as part of the daily training regimen. Nobody thought much about sharks in the winter, spring and fall. But come summer, you'd hear tales of big ones caught not too far offshore.

"The chance of another attack is slim," I told my friend, trying to convince myself as well.

"Careful," my friend. "Don't worry about sharks. Look out for those oysters."

Too late. I sliced my toe on a shell. But we were committed. We couldn't go back. So I dropped my head and started stroking. I swam about 20 yards then stopped.

"Why are we swimming in the bay when the gulf is just a couple of miles away?" I asked.

"Because you said we had to," Wills replied. "This was your dumb idea."

So we turned and headed back to shore.

"Let's go out and swim along the beach," I told my friend. "If you humor me, I'll buy you a beer."

Walking across the hard-packed beach sand, we watched a squall line rolling our way. We talked about the widow and poor man's friends and children. It is bad enough to lose a loved one, even worse to lose one to a something as senseless as a shark.

By the time we hit the water, the sky had turned gray. The storm had kicked up a light, 2-foot chop, but we headed out anyway, hoping a quick jaunt around the buoys would shake the sharks from our heads.

We took about 10 strokes then stopped. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. We both felt it long before we saw it. "Look at that idiot on the Waverunner," I said. "He is running all-out inside the buoys."

"He could have hit us for sure," Willis said.

I waved to the man and signaled him to take his watercraft out of the safe bathing area. Once a lifeguard always a lifeguard, I thought to myself.

That put the thought of sharks right out of my head. I started thinking about the ocean's true dangers: my fellow man.

Fishing license regulations

Saltwater fishing licenses are sold at county tax collectors' offices and many bait and tackle shops. The cost differs for residents and non-residents. The law states that anyone who takes, attempts to take or possesses marine fish for non-commercial purposes must have a saltwater fishing license.

YOU DO NOT NEED A LICENSE IF YOU ARE: A Florida resident fishing from land or a structure fixed to land -- a pier, bridge, dock, floating dock, jetty or similar structure.

A Florida resident 65 or older.

A Florida resident who is a member of the U.S. military stationed outside Florida and here on leave for 30 days or less (you must submit your orders as proof).

A Florida resident fishing for mullet in freshwater with a valid Florida freshwater fishing license.

A Florida resident fishing for saltwater fish in fresh water from land or from a structure fixed to the land.

Fishing from a boat with a valid recreational vessel saltwater fishing license.

Younger than 16.

A non-resident fishing from a pier that has a valid pier saltwater fishing license.

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