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On eve of Shark Week, we talk bites and bull sharks with Florida's shark expert

A 2-year-old female bull shark makes its debut at the Aquarium of the Pacific's Shark Lagoon exhibit Sept. 7, 2006, in Long Beach, Calif. [AP Photo/Press Telegram | Kevin Chang]
Published Jul. 3, 2015

The sun is beating, the sand is warm, the waves, glistening, are lapping at your feet, beckoning you to wade on in.

But all you hear is the theme song to Jaws.

Every splash has you jumpy. Cloud shadows become great whites, waiting to make you a meal.

This paranoia is understandable, says shark expert George Burgess. But not particularly rational.

When shark attacks like the ones along the North Carolina coast dominate the news, he said, vacationers and regular beach-goers can be put on high alert.

But in reality, said Burgess, director of the Florida program for shark research at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, shark attacks are still relatively rare on most U.S. beaches, especially in the Tampa Bay area.

"We've seen so much hype about shark attacks and we've seen so much misrepresentation in TV and movies that we've allowed that to penetrate our brains and provoke our fear," Burgess said.

Thanks, Shark Week (which, ICYMI, starts Sunday).

So far this year, there have been 42 shark attacks worldwide resulting in six fatalities. Twenty-three of those occurred in the U.S. One person died in Hawaii.

Eleven attacks have occurred at Florida beaches and only one of them happened on the state's west coast, 200 miles south of Tampa Bay in Collier County.

Burgess said Florida's east coast is more prone to shark attacks because of the heavy surf and saltier waters. Our side of the state hosts more freshwater rivers that spill into the Gulf of Mexico, diluting shark habitats.

But one shark, one the most dangerous, prefers the more turbid Gulf waters: the bull shark.

Like the white shark and tiger shark, the bull shark is one of the largest that swims along the shoreline and has teeth designed for shearing.

"When those things bite, they mean business," he said.

Though attacks on Florida's west coast are far less common, accounting for only 10 percent of the overall annual attacks, they are usually very serious.

Burgess said most shark attacks happen when the most people are in the water: in the summer, at popular beaches between the hours of 10 a.m. and sunset. His research with the International Shark Attack File has even found that attacks drop off during lunch time, when people are taking a break from the beach.

As beaches gain popularity for tourists, they become more likely targets for attacks. That's why, Burgess said, we see so many attacks at surfing beaches like New Smyrna on the Atlantic side and in Volusia and Brevard counties. Each county has had four attacks this year.

Burgess said that could be one of the factors leading to the increase in attacks in North Carolina.

"It's sort of a backhanded compliment to the chamber of commerce," he said.

Education is the key, he said. Burgess offered some tips to keep yourself shark safe this summer:

Leave jewelry on the sand. Toe rings and friendship bracelets make nice seaside accessories, but if they shimmer or shine they may make you look more like fresh meat. And it's tough to look stylish when you're dead. Like fish scales, your jewelry could reflect light beneath the water and draw a shark in.

Don't be the lone antelope. You've seen it on Animal Planet. It's always the antelope wandering over by the watering hole that gets nabbed by the lion. Stick with your friends and you'll be less of a target.

Avoid the "no" zones. Sharks love surf zones, inlets, areas between sandbars and channel edges. If you like your limbs, steer clear.

That shadow might not be a shark, but it could be a school of fish. Look out for diving birds or jumping mullets. Fish are shark snacks and you don't want to be close when they get the munchies.

Watch the sunrise and sunset from the shore. Sharks are most active during these times, which are surely more enjoyable sans bites.

Contact Katie Mettler at kmettler@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler on Twitter.

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