Chew on this: Expert debunks shark attack myths

Chew on this: Expert debunks shark attack myths

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Aside from theme parks, citrus and court cases, Florida is internationally recognized as the world leader in shark attacks.

Out of 45 unprovoked shark attacks recorded in the last year in North American waters, which is where the majority of attacks have occurred on a global scale, 28 were recorded along Florida coasts, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History's International Shark Attack File report.

The 28 Florida bites in 2014, which is five more than the previous year, sets the total number of recorded non-fatal shark attacks in Florida at 717.

In general, long-term trends reflect that each passing decade has had more recorded shark attacks than the previous decade on a global scale.

But the trend is not necessarily a reflection of increased aggression among sharks, said shark expert George Burgess, the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at UF's Florida Museum of Natural History.

"There are more attacks, but it's related to the fact that we have more bodies in the water," he said. "It doesn't mean that your chance as an individual is greater. In fact, your chances as an individual are less today than the day before because there are more of us entering the water every day."

Florida's attack pattern follows a worldwide trend of increasing shark attacks because it corresponds very precisely to the region's population growth, Burgess said.

Not only is the region along Florida beaches increasing in resident population, but the tourism industry is rising as well.

Earlier this year, Visit Florida and Gov. Rick Scott announced a record-breaking total of 97.3 million visitors in the state for the year 2014. From 2013, the rise of 3.9 percent helps account for a similar increase in recorded shark attacks.

"A common misconception is that we're suddenly under siege and that sharks are more aggressive when in fact, that's not true at all," Burgess said. "We're almost at six months and we currently only have 14 bites this year, whereas last year we had 52 total. But no one gets too excited about making these mile markers."

Burgess said people often tend to get more excited when there is actually an attack, and he suggests the rise of smartphones has increased exposure and created a false perception.

"Because there are more of us out there, we see the wildlife more because we are looking for it," he said. "We also have cellphones, so we can take a picture of the beast, and it spreads very quickly."

Biomedical sciences graduate Matt Donnan, who has been avidly surfing for the past 10 years, has noticed similar patterns.

"I don't know the statistics, but I feel like there has been more attacks," he said. "But that also might be having more access to media to hear about such attacks."

Although he already knows about and has witnessed shark bites, Donnan said he would never let his fear of sharks keep him out of the water.

"I just don't think about it. I always know they are there, especially in Florida," he said. "There's probably numerous times where I have been surrounded by sharks without knowledge of the presence. Sometimes I see them, sometimes I don't. I just know they are always there."

This awareness and acknowledgment are precisely what Burgess recommends to ocean swimmers.

"We need to remember when we enter the sea, it's not the equivalent of entering the backyard pool," he said. "This is a wilderness experience. We are entering an environment that we're not adapted to."

But for Donnan, who has surfed waves from California to Puerto Rico, the most threatening situation arises when standing in waist-deep water.

"Whenever I'm sitting on my board, I know I'm not occupying as much space in the water, and there's plenty of room between me and the bottom for the sharks to do their own thing," he said. "When you're standing in waist deep, you occupy their hunting space."

New Smyrna Beach is just one of the favorite surf spots along the Volusia County coastline, which is where the majority of last year's Florida shark bites took place.

"The gnarliest day I've experienced was when two people got bit within 10 minutes at New Smyrna," he said. "But guess what? They just finished surfing a wave and were in waist-deep water, off of their boards."

In 2014, Volusia County recorded 10 incidents, and has overall recorded more than one-third of the entirety of Florida's shark-human interactions to date.

Yet despite the statistics, Burgess reassured that any individual's chances of being attacked by a shark have decreased due to the fact that the pool of humans has gotten larger.

"Every day, millions of people get almost naked and jump into a foreign world, and most of them come back without a scratch," he said. "So in reality, it's a pretty forgiving environment — but it's still the wilderness."

SHARK ATTACKS

May 20

An 18-year-old suffers several shark bites in the foot while surfing the Ponce de Leon inlet in New Smyrna Beach.

May 24

A 13-year-old Seminole County girl is attacked on the foot, off the coast of Cocoa Beach.

May 29

Two separate shark bites reported along Florida beaches. A 14-year-old girl is attacked in Cocoa Beach, and a 19-year-old suffers a bite in waist-deep water in New Smyrna and is treated on site.

June 11

Shark severely bites 11-year-old boy twice on the leg in waist-deep water off Cocoa Beach.

June 14

Two separate teens attacked on the same stretch of a North Carolina beach. A 13-year-old girl and 16-year-old boy both suffer life-threatening injuries.

June 17

A 10-year-old boy is bitten on his leg on Daytona Beach Shores and treated on-site.

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Daniela Marin is the Entertainment Coordinator for the Central Florida Future.

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