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Shark attacks? Be wary but not worried

World-renowned shark expert George Burgess, keeper of the International Shark Attack File, is used to getting silly questions about the ocean's most fearsome predator. "Are sharks out to get you?" is among the most common, he said. "The short answer is 'No.' " The 64-year-old University of Florida professor is co-author of a new book, Sharks: The Animal Answer Guide, which contains a trove of great information for sharkophiles. "There are more than 400 species of shark but only a select few have been implicated in attacks," he said. "But another way you can look at it is this: Any shark that can get to be 6 feet or longer can be considered dangerous." Burgess said he receives many inquiries about great white sharks. "They are identified in many shark attacks because they occur in areas where they are the only species," he said. "But if you are looking for the most common 'grabber' in Florida, that would be the blacktip shark.''

The species most often implicated in attacks are the bull and blacktip sharks (each with 20 percent) and the spinner (with 16 percent). If you were to pick a "Shark Attack Central" for Florida, it would be Volusia County on the east coast, for one reason: It has the best surf breaks. Spots such as New Smyrna and Ponce Inlets are revered by the state's wave riders.

"People also want to know if there are more sharks now than there were before," he said. "The fact of the matter is there are a lot more people going in the water and that means there is more of a chance for an encounter, more of a chance to see a shark.

"And when there is an attack, it gets more media attention. Blame the Internet."

Here in Florida, most shark "attacks" occur during summer. But most experts, Burgess included, say the majority of shark-human encounters are cases of mistaken identity.

The most likely month for a shark attack is September, which is the height of hurricane season, a time when a lot of surfers are in the water. In an average year, there are roughly 20 shark attacks in Florida.

While blacktips and spinners are implicated in most surfing-related attacks, the heavyweight champion of the shark world, the great white, has attacked and killed surfers on numerous occasions. While great white sharks are rare in warm waters — the species is most common in colder climates, especially those with large sea lion populations such as California, South Africa and Australia — they show up in the Gulf of Mexico during the cooler months.

Burgess said much of the public hysteria about sharks can be traced to the 1975 movie Jaws, which was loosely based on a series of attacks along the New Jersey Shore in 1916 that left four people dead. Much has been written about what has come to be known as the "Twelve Days of Terror," but biologists still disagree on what species was responsible.

A 9-foot great white was netted in the waters off South Amboy, N.J., two weeks after the attacks. Authorities cut open the shark's stomach and discovered 15 pounds of human flesh. But several of the attacks occurred up a river, an area where great whites do not go. But brackish water is the favorite haunt of the bull shark, the prime suspect in many Florida attacks, including Tampa Bay's last fatality, which occurred in 2000 in Boca Ciega Bay.

In some areas of the world, people put up nets along the beaches hoping to protect swimmers and surfers against sharks.

"But all they do is act like big gill nets and kill sharks indiscriminately," Burgess said. "The thinking is that if they kill as many sharks as possible, people will be safe. The problem is the nets end up killing sea turtles and dolphins and a variety of other animals. as well as sharks."

On a lighter note, Burgess said that another common myth associated with sharks concerns the animals fins, which are prized in Asian markets as an aphrodisiac. "I can tell you that there is no truth to it," he said. "I speak from experience … I tried it and it did nothing for me."

Shark safety

You have a better chance of being struck by lightning than attacked by a shark. Those odds go up if you spearfish or surf. The average Floridian can reduce the risk of shark attack by following a few simple rules:

• Don't swim at dawn or twilight, when sharks are most active.

• Avoid murky, muddy water, where the chance of mistaken identity is greater.

• Keep away from fishermen and fish-cleaning tables.

• Avoid the areas between sandbars and near steep dropoffs. Sharks also feed around river mouths and inlets.

• Stay in a group. A shark is most likely to attack a solitary swimmer.

George Burgess, International Shark Attack File

Shark attacks? Be wary but not worried 07/10/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 10, 2014 11:45pm]
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