• U.S.

In Shallow Waters Danger Runs Deep

4 minute read
Paul Cuadros/New Smyrna Beach, Fla.

Splashing in the surf on a sunny afternoon last month, Danielle Shidemantle was 20 yds. from the shore of New Smyrna Beach when she felt piercing pains in her left thigh. She saw blood in the water–her blood. Then she saw the point of a dorsal fin circling back toward her. Not sure what to do–freeze or try to kick it away–she made a frantic run for the beach, screaming, “Shark, shark, shark!”

“Say the word barracuda, and people say, ‘What?’ Say the word shark, and you’ve got panic on the Fourth of July.” So spoke the fictional mayor of Amity Island in the hit movie Jaws. Just in time for the summer blockbuster’s 25th anniversary, an increase in shark attacks along the nation’s southern beaches is bringing back the movie’s memorable teaser: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…” So far this year in Florida, 21 people have been bitten–on track to surpass the 25 attacks in 1999. Recent victims include a surfer in Melbourne, Fla., who last week nearly lost his foot.

In Volusia County, where Danielle, a 19-year-old college student, survived last month’s attack with 12 stitches in her thigh, sharks have attacked eight swimmers and surfers. A Kentucky teenager was bitten on the leg and hand on the same day Danielle was. The two met in the emergency room. “I was thinking, Man, this is normal?” says Danielle.

Like other beach resorts, the ones in Volusia County have seen a sharp rise in visitors–to 8.1 million last year, up from 7.2 million in 1989–who come to walk the white beaches, bask in the sun and surf the foamy waves. The more people in the water, the more chance for attacks. “When we enter the ocean, we’re not owed a right to be 100% safe,” says George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, which collects data on shark attacks. “This is truly a wilderness experience. It’s not like going into our backyard pool.”

No kidding. Volusia is home to several species of reef sharks, including black tips and spinners, that are born in the spring and learn to hunt by summer. The sharks move close to shore, chasing baitfish as the water temperature warms up. “They get into the surf line and get disoriented, and they start biting whatever moves,” says Joe Wooden, deputy chief of Volusia County’s beach patrol.

Worldwide, sharks have bitten 38 people this year, including 30 in the U.S. Ten years ago, the number of U.S. attacks was just 19. Despite the increase, shark experts say sharks should be more worried about people. Overfishing is depleting the shark population approximately 40 million a year. “The real story is not shark bites man,” says Burgess. “It’s man bites shark.”

A shark attack is rarely fatal, but it can be terrifying. Training for a triathlon on Gulf Shores Beach, Ala., Chuck Anderson watched in horror as a shark took off his fingertips, then kept coming back. “The fourth time, my right arm went into his mouth, and we went down to the bottom,” he says. Anderson fought for his life, with the shark biting up and down on his arm until he heard the bone snap and break off in the shark’s mouth. Anderson made it to shore and survived. He doesn’t blame the shark for taking his arm: “He was out there swimming for food, and I just happened to be a smorgasbord to him.”

Even though her leg is healing, Danielle says, the 4-ft. shark that bit her still stalks the murky depths of her sleep. On the coast, a shark washed ashore recently, but a necropsy didn’t find any human bones inside. As the line from a similar scene in Jaws goes, “There’s still one helluva shark out there, Martin.”

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