A family enjoying the beach in Panama City, Florida this weekend witnessed a scene right out of a B horror movie: a shark feeding frenzy.
Blake and Tyra Whitlow posted video of the encounter to YouTube, writing that it was the “craziest thing we've ever seen!” The couple was visiting from Huntsville, Alabama, they told local media. At first their four children—who were playing on a raft in the water—were scared by all the splashing from 50 or 60 sharks.
And for good reason, says Frank J. Schwartz, a shark biologist with the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
“Sharks are not going to say ‘oh look, it's a man, I better get out of the way,’” he says. “They're going to keep after the fish.”
But after they made it to shore, “[My] oldest son said it was neat getting to see [the sharks] outside of an aquarium or movie," Tyra Whitlow told Al.com.
Schwartz says it’s too difficult to identify the species in the video, since the lighting isn’t great and it’s too hard to see identifying characteristics. George Burgess, who studies sharks at the Florida Museum of Natural History, says he thinks the sharks are black tips or spinners, based on their size and shape and the location. (Learn more about shark attacks.)
The sharks were chasing a school of mullet, says Burgess, which often make large runs in near-shore waters this time of year, even leaping into the air.
“The sharks keep circling the fish, driving them toward the middle,” Schwartz says about the common feeding behavior. “They can run them right up on the beach. They can do this for quite a while before they’re full.”
The sharks don’t communicate with each other to coordinate the attack, adds Burgess. “Each one is an independent operator, but the mullet run is easy pickens for them, it’s like Thanksgiving dinner.”
Sharks often herd such baitfish toward the beach or a hard structure, such as a seawall, to make them easier to catch. To escape, the fish try to break out of the circle and head for deep water.
In the video, a man on the beach is seen approaching a shark that has washed nearly up onto the sand. Whitlow said in the YouTube comments that she didn’t talk to the man but thinks he may have been trying to push it out to deeper water.
Sharks can occasionally get stranded on beaches, which can be lethal for them. (See how people rescued a stranded great white.)
But Schwartz advises getting out of the water if a feeding frenzy is in progress.
Note: This story was updated at 3:45 pm with comments from George Burgess, who was able to identify the fish being chased. Schwartz had previously suspected they might be bluefish, but Burgess was able to get a clearer look.