This is the time of year we love to hate or fear sharks.
Just look at the TV shows during “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel.
Or, watch the cable or local news.
If you live somewhere in Middle America you probably are convinced that you will be gobbled up by a shark if you go within 100 miles of the shoreline.
On one side there are all those scientists, marine biologists and even surfers saying we need sharks to maintain a healthy ecosystem in the ocean.
On the other side is the news media airing footage of shark-bite victims being taken away in ambulances while reporters breathlessly give blow-by-blow descriptions of the gory details of the attacks — great TV.
My personal favorite is footage of a man fishing in a kayak who hooks a shark. The man keeps his grip on the pole, the shark pulls the line, the man is pulled out of the kayak and frantically swims to the safety of another boat.
What is the truth? Are we at war with sharks?
A recent CNN release screams out: “Sharks have attacked 11 people off the coast of North and South Carolina this year,” quoting the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. “That’s higher than the average of six attacks a year off the coasts of those two states.” (http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/02/us/north-carolina-shark-attack/)
What’s behind the increase?
“It’s a perfect storm of environmental and biological variables as well as human activity,” said George H. Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History. But, he cautions about overstating the threat of shark attacks on humans. (http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/02/us/north-carolina-shark-attack/)
“A number of factors could be contributing to the apparent rash of attacks, such as warmer water and drought conditions. Drought conditions reduce the amount of freshwater making it to the sea, which creates an environment along the shore where higher salt levels attract more fish and sharks,” Burgess said.
“Warmer waters have sharks in North Carolina ahead of schedule, which is a recipe for more attacks.”
Burgess also says that people are going to the beach in higher numbers because the economy is better and school is out for the summer.
“Unprovoked attacks — when sharks strike without being trapped in fishing gear, purposely attracted with food or otherwise disturbed — have slowly grown over the years. But that’s only because more people are in the water than ever before,” Burgess said.
OK, a bit about sharks.
Sharks have been swimming in the oceans for about 450 million years, way before dinosaurs showed up 230 million years ago, modern humans 60,000 years ago, and recorded civilization 5,000 years ago.
Over the eons sharks have developed remarkable capabilities to locate and catch prey.
Sharks have receptors sensitive to electric fields that are every bit as developed and important to the shark as sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. All shark species use electroreception ability to locate prey. Sharks also use their electrosensors to help navigate across the oceans electromagnetic fields
A shark’s skeleton is made entirely of cartilage (like human noses and ears). Cartilage is lighter and more flexible than bone and helps the shark maintain neutral buoyancy and flexible swimming ability. The shark’s jaws and backbone contain calcium salts to add strength.
Florida’s shark population is diverse and includes species that range in size from only a few feet to more than 40 feet in length. Species of shark found in Florida’s water include: blacktip spinner, sandbar, black-nose, lemon, sharp-nose, scalloped, hammerhead, bonnet-head, bull, tiger and the nurse shark.
As noted in the news media, there have also been visits by great white and even a spotted whale shark.
Despite what media and movies might lead us to believe, however, sharks are not purposeful maneaters out to get us. Shark attacks are relatively few and far between with very few species involved.
According to the International “Shark Attack File,” you are about 45,000 times more likely to be killed in a car accident than by a shark attack.
Divers appear to be less at risk from sharks attacks than snorkelers, swimmers or surfers. It seems that if you look like, or might be confused for, shark food you have a greater chance of being bitten.
Burgess suggested ways to coexist with sharks.
“For starters, avoid swimming at dawn and dusk, when sharks tend to feed. Stick together in groups and stay out of the water during and after storms. Aside from dangerous surf and rip currents, decreased water visibility can confuse sharks, prompting mistaken-identity bites.
“Do not swim near seals, where fishing is occurring, or near other things that sharks find tasty. Sharks can sniff out blood, so don't swim with open wounds. And, leave your bling on the beach — sharks are curious about bright, shiny objects, so don't lure them with baubles.”
He noted that in some localities, such as Orange County, California, authorities have started to test drones. “Officials should keep swimmers far apart from pier and beach fishermen,” he said.
This is good advice. A few weeks ago I was diving near a charter fishing boat on Snapper Reef. I saw a nurse shark, a usually very docile creature, swimming rapidly in circles looking for the source of the food. It ignored me but was certainly very excited.
Reports of shark attacks suggest better survival outcomes when the person being attacked fights back and if there is immediate first aid available. Having a plan in place also helps.
As I wrote in a previous column, I was mistakenly bumped into by a 13-foot hammerhead shark. I discouraged it by pushing it on the nose with a large camera. It swam away deciding I wasn’t a good lunch after all.
As a diver who spends many days in the waters off the Keys, I was interested to learn that most shark attacks occur in Northeast Florida with only one reported in the Keys since records began in 1882. http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/statistics/gattack/mapfl.htm
But, even in the Keys, which are not known for shark attacks, you should be aware of local conditions and hazards including the presence of large dangerous sharks (white, tiger and bull sharks, which all have teeth designed to shear rather than hold) before entering the water. See: http://www.alertdiver.com/Myths_and_Truths_About_Sharks,
Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 28 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier four years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers.
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