Unprovoked nurse shark bites rare, not letting go — not so much

A 23-year-old woman was bitten by a nurse shark Sunday in the waters off Boca Raton. The shark would not let go.
A 23-year-old woman was bitten by a nurse shark Sunday in the waters off Boca Raton. The shark would not let go.

The nurse shark that chomped on a woman’s arm and wouldn’t let go did what a nurse shark normally would do when it’s feeding time, experts said.

“It feeds on crabs and stuff — it’s more of a crushing entity than taking a piece of what they’re biting,” said Jim Abernethy, a Palm Beach shark expert and diver. “It’s not used to letting go. It’s used to crushing and swallowing.”

The 23-year-old woman was swimming not too far from shore in Boca Raton Sunday afternoon when the 2-foot shark latched on. The shark, which was dead when Boca Raton Fire Rescue Service crews arrived, would not loosen its grip on her forearm.

So she and the shark were rushed to the hospital.

While officials did not confirm the woman’s identity Monday, NBC 6 identified her as Shaylen Borkowski. The station said she had been released from the hospital.

The woman’s friend, Alex Smoake, told the Palm Beach Post that the woman and her friends wanted to go snorkeling for the first time since she moved to South Florida a few months ago.

“There was a bunch of little kids around the reef poking around looking under the rocks,” Smoake told the newspaper. “One of the sharks got frightened and swum out. When it turned directions, my female friend was in the way and it latched onto her arm.”

Abernethy estimates that a nurse shark will bite someone in Florida one to three times a year.

There have been 51 confirmed provoked bites by nurse sharks worldwide and five unprovoked bites, said George Burgess, curator of the International Shark Attack File, a database on shark attacks at the Florida Museum of Natural History. This incident has yet to be included.

Burgess said it would not surprise him if the woman or someone nearby had provoked the attack.

“Unprovoked attacks by nurse sharks are very rare,” he said. “They react to having their tail pulled or someone stepping on them.”

Officials did not confirm whether the woman was antagonizing the shark, but beachgoers told the Sun Sentinel that the group she was with was antagonizing the shark and even pulling its tail.

There was nothing rare about the shark not letting go, according to the International Shark Attack File. There have been multiple instances of people walking into hospitals with the sharks holding on, even in death — including one where the body of the shark had been shot off.

“The best thing to do would be to gently pry the jaws apart,” Burgess said. “Though, I gotta say, that’s not gonna be very nice for the victim.”

He said he would probably use a tranquilizer to get the shark to loosen its jaws if needed.

Because nurse sharks suck as they chew, a bite from the shark would leave a crater-shaped wound that would probably scar. It’s a lesson, Burgess said, to leave all sharks alone.

“Take your pictures, enjoy the fact you’re close to a shark,” he said. “But don’t feel obliged to tug on its tail or take it out of the water.”

Captain Chris Muller got into the water to shoot video of this shark as it swam by his docked charter vessel, the HappyCat, in April.

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