Miami-Dade County

Florida tops nation in shark attacks

A hammerhead shark swims off Hobie beach near the Rickenbacker Causeway in February 2012.
A hammerhead shark swims off Hobie beach near the Rickenbacker Causeway in February 2012. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water... Oh wait, it actually is safe.

On Tuesday, the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File announced its 2014 tally showing the Sunshine State once again claimed the dubious distinction of more shark attacks than any other state. Florida recorded 28, slightly more than half the national total of 52. Hawaii ranked second with seven.

Nearly all those attacks, however, were what researchers deem hit-and-runs with minor injuries.

“They’re the equivalent of dog bites,” said file curator George Burgess.

The U.S. had no fatal attacks and, worldwide, only three deaths were blamed on sharks, down from a decade-long annual average of about six. Still, the number of attacks around the world is trending up, with a slight increase from 72 to 75. And the number will likely climb as humans continue to flock to beaches and into shark territory, Burgess said.

Miami-Dade and Monroe counties had no attacks in 2014. Broward recorded two.

So why does Florida continue to claim the shark-bite prize year after year? Blame Volusia County, Burgess said.

The county includes a well-known surfing spot near New Smyrna Beach, just south of an inlet considered a fertile hunting ground for sharks. Because the surf inhibits visibility, sharks — mostly blacktips and spinners — react to splashes like those made by surfers paddling to catch a wave, and bite blindly.

“There’s no Jaws theme music in the background. It’s a hit-and-run accident,” Burgess said.

Big sharks that make fatal attacks, like tigers and bulls with teeth designed to sheer, have been largely overfished in Florida, Burgess said. Last year, the three fatal attacks — two in Australia and one in South Africa — were the work of bullsharks or great whites.

While great whites are rare in Florida, in colder months they have been known to head south, trailing migrating right whales and preying on old, young or infirm whales. In January, a tagged great white named Katherine, one of 47 great whites being tracked around the world by the group OCEARCH, turned up in the waters off St. Augustine. But great whites typically travel no further south than Cape Canaveral, Burgess said.

And avoiding attacks is as simple as knowing risks, like surfing near sea lions or swimming in schools of bait, Burgess said.

“You can cross A1A with your eyes closed and make it across sometimes,” he said. “Or you can open your eyes and dart between the cars.”