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Florida Shark Attacks Spotlight Real, But Rare, Danger

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 28, 2005
 
Two shark attacks in three days off the Florida Panhandle have left one
teen dead and a second seriously injured. The tragedies spotlight the
real, though rare, danger of shark attacks.

Yesterday a shark nearly severed the leg of 16-year-old Craig A. Hutto of Lebanon, Tennessee, as he and two companions fished in chest-deep water 60 feet (18 meters) off Cape San Blas.

Hutto was airlifted to a hospital in Panama City, where doctors amputated his severely damaged leg. Hutto remains in critical but stable condition and is expected to recover.

"There's a good chance that the fact that they were fishing played a role," said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File in Gainesville, Florida. "It's speculative at this point, but they might have had a bucket of bait in the water or even caught fish on them."

Yesterday's attack followed the death on Saturday of Jamie Marie Daigle. The 14-year-old from Gonzales, Louisiana, was fatally bitten by a shark as she boogie-boarded with a friend near Miramar Beach.

Daigle "was [reportedly] well offshore in a sandbar area where sharks are known to prowl," said Burgess, who believes a bull shark was the likely culprit. "Baitfish were sighted in the area as well. So two contributing factors were isolation and baitfish activity."

Scientists collect such clues to further their understanding of why sharks occasionally attack.

"We're not trying to point fingers at people or suggest that they did something wrong," Burgess said. "These are just important contributing factors, because shark attacks happen for a reason."

The two shark attacks occurred some 80 miles (130 kilometers) apart.

Attacks Rare But Rising

Shark attack numbers have risen over recent decades. The reason is not more aggressive animals but booming human populations and increased coastal recreation.

"It's sad, but it's natural that the more people … get into the water, the more chances there are for these things to happen," said Ramón Bonfil, a shark researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Bonfil, whose recent work includes the hand capture and tagging of great white sharks, said people should arm themselves with information before taking to the water.

"I'd never say that the sea is absolutely safe. I'd say assume the responsibility and the knowledge that there is a potential danger of encountering a shark," he cautioned.

"If we go to the Serengeti and walk in the bush, we should know that we might encounter a lion. But for some reason people assume that the sea is safe and that we have the right to play safely," he said. "We tend to forget that it's the natural habitat of sharks and other predators."

Still, statistics suggest that fear of shark attack shouldn't deter beachgoers.

The United States averages only about one shark-attack fatality every two years. By comparison, lightning kills more than 41 people each year, on average, in the coastal U.S. alone.

Each year there are 50 to 70 confirmed shark attacks and 5 to 15 shark-attack fatalities around the world, according to the International Shark Attack File, which is maintained by the American Elasmobranch Society and the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Though Florida has been a relative hotbed of shark activity, with an average of 21 annual attacks since 1990, the death on Saturday of Jamie Marie Daigle was only the fourth fatality in the state in the past 15 years.

"Statistically it's like the lottery … . I'm cautious but conscious that my chances of being that one-in-millions-guy are very low," Bonfil, the Wildlife Conservation Society shark researcher, said.

Shark experts say media coverage of shark attacks is unfailingly heavy-handed and tends to spike fear of sharks in a predictable summer pattern.

The summer of 2001, for example, saw an explosion of shark-attack media hype and was even heralded on the cover of Time magazine as the "Summer of the Shark." Yet 2001 was statistically average: The year saw 76 shark attacks and 5 fatalities worldwide, compared to 85 attacks and 12 fatalities in 2000.

"It's frustrating to try and understand why so much attention is focused on sharks [rather than other dangerous animals]," Bonfil said. "When these [attacks] happen so close to each other, that's when the paranoia starts."

"We've had two serious attacks back-to-back," Burgess added. "It's a tragedy, and we can't short-change the implications of that. But the reality is that this is still a very rare event. Our chances of being attacked are very slim, and those of being killed are slimmer yet."

Sharks, themselves, don't enjoy such favorable odds.

Although they kill fewer than 20 people a year, sharks suffer greatly at human hands. According to the American Elasmobranch Society, between 20 and 100 million sharks die each year due to fishing activity.

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