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Shark attacks: more hype than bite


Ken Blackwell, a Venetian Isles resident with two daughters who used to love to swim in the canal behind his house, made the mistake of showing his girls a photograph of a bull shark that was caught nearby in the waters of Tampa Bay.
"They got pretty scared," Blackwell recalled recently. "They asked me if it was still safe to swim. What was I supposed to say?'
Yes and no.
"Bull sharks come into the bay every year this time to bear their young," said Dr. Bob Hueter, a shark expert at Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory. "You need to be cautious, but bull sharks don't target people."
But the sight of a large bull shark swimming in 2 feet of water can be quite unnerving, even for the veteran waterman.
"It has become something of a public relations problem for Florida," said Rudy Socha of Zoo and Aquarium Visitor, an industry organization. "A lot of younger kids don't even want to go in the water. You have to do something to address their fears."
Myth versus reality

The University of Florida's Dr. George Burgess, the man who maintains the International Shark Attack File, usually starts getting phone calls from reporters come mid May.

"I remember that bull shark," he said of the beast caught off the neighborhood seawall. "It was a big one."

May marks the beginning of the shark "attack" season in Florida. The word "attack" is in quotation marks because Burgess will be the first to explain that most shark-human encounters are cases of mistaken identity.

"There is an inherent risk any time you enter a wilderness environment," he said. "If you enter the sea, you stand the chance of stepping on a stingray, getting stung by a jelly fish or getting a rash from sea lice. You also might have an encounter with a shark."

But how great is the risk? Pretty low …

The most likely month for a shark attack is September, which is also the height of hurricane season, a time when a lot of surfers are in the water.

The culprits

The shark implicated in most attacks is the bull. Spinners and blacktips, the bane of East Coast surfers, are tied for second place.

Hot spots

Volusia County on Florida's East Coast has had the most shark attacks: 210. Brevard County ranks a distant second with 90, followed by Palm Beach with 57. When it comes to fatal attacks, Pinellas and Duval are tied at the top of the list with two apiece.

Source: International Shark Attack File, 1882-2007.

Reduce your risk

The relative risk of shark attack is small, but surfers and swimmers can reduce their risk by following some basic safety rules.

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

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

3) Keep away from fishers and fish-cleaning tables.

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

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

The odds

Drowning and other beach-related fatalities: 1 in 2-million

Drowning fatalities: 1 in 3.5-million

Shark attacks: 1 in 11.5-million

2007: 31 fatal dog attacks in U.S.; 1 fatal shark attack

1995-2006: 764 fatal boating accidents in Florida; 4 fatal shark attacks.

1990-2006: 16 fatal sandhole collapses nationally; 12 fatal shark attacks.

2000-2007: 441 fatal hunting accidents; 8 fatal shark attacks.

More on risk

Death risk during one's lifetime:

Heart disease: 1 in 5

Cancer: 1 in 7

Car accident: 1 in 84

Drowning: 1 in 1,134

Bike accident: 1 in 4,919

Lightning: 1 in 79,746

Shark attack: 1 in 3,748,067


More people have been killed by tornadoes in Florida (124) since 1985 than have been killed by sharks (5).

Gators vs. sharks

When you are comparing dangerous animals, alligators beat sharks, hands down. Florida had 18 fatal gator attacks from 1948 to 2005, compared to nine fatal shark attacks during the same time period.

Where's the danger: saws or jaws?

Comparison of injuries (from 1996):





Chain saw


Buckets and pails




Shark attacks: more hype than bite 05/22/08 [Last modified: Sunday, May 25, 2008 12:26pm]
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