A Big Pine Key shark enthusiast is lucky to have his left arm after being bitten by a blue shark April 13 in ocean waters near mile marker 20.
Mark Rackley, a shark videographer for more than 25 years, said he knew he got too close to the shark but couldn't help himself. Rackley said he agitated the shark by following it out 300 yards into the ocean.
"I've never seen a blue shark in the Keys before," said Rackley, who estimates the shark was between 8 and 9 feet long. "I maneuvered to be in front of her to take photos. When I was over her, she swung her head around immediately and clamped onto my shoulder and bicep. It happened before I could blink."
Rackley let go of his camera and grabbed the shark, which immediately let him go. But even while being bit, Rackley said, "I thought to myself, 'What a beautiful shark.' "
Rackley, 48, was rushed to Lower Keys Medical Center on Stock Island following the bite. He received 58 stitches, each three quarters of an inch apart so any infectious germs could drain from the wound. Rackley said other than scars on his left bicep and shoulder, his recovery has been smooth and infection-free.
Rackley described the bite as initially painful but numbing after a few seconds. It caused him to be lightheaded and he passed out in the emergency room.
Rackley is unsure if the blue shark was male or female but referred to it as a she.
Blue sharks are rarely found in the Keys. According to National Geographic, blue sharks are a migratory deep-water shark traveling as far north as New York and as far south as Brazil.
Shark bites and attacks are uncommon. Deaths are even more uncommon.
George Burgess, curator of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, said Florida had 28 confirmed cases of shark bites -- most in the world -- last year. The group confirmed 72 worldwide attacks in 2014.
Burgess said there are more shark attacks in Florida than other places due to a growing state population and, in turn, more people using the water.
"The reality is we're putting more people in the water and we've got a very long coastline," Burgess said. "When you get lots people going into the water, you're going to get more shark interactions."
Burgess added most bites come from sharks that are 6 feet or shorter and are in conditions of limited visibility.
"We call them hit-and-run incidents. Sharks usually let go because it bit off more than it can literally chew after finding another five feet attached to a hand or foot," Burgess said.
The International Shark Attack File confirmed three shark-related deaths last year, two in Australia and one in South Africa.
Rackley, who has filmed sharks for Discovery Channel and National Geographic, said his bite won't stop him from interacting with sharks in the future.
"I kind of made this happen. This didn't have anything to do with shark behavior," Rackley said. "I've had numerous close calls and I've seen that type of strike before."
Rackley said the scariest encounter he had involved a shark getting its mouth around his whole arm. Luckily, the shark let go and Rackley sustained injuries only to his wrist.
For others who encounter sharks, Rackley recommends observing from a distance.
"If it gets too close, get out of the water," he said. "They're beautiful animals that are supposed to be there in the ocean."
Go to KeysNet.com to read more.