Florida shark bites remain rare
While the Discovery Channel sets television audiences abuzz each summer with its annual Shark Week, emerging access to drone video is helping scientists and beachgoers better understand how these predators share the surf zone in real life.
Drones — accessible and affordable — "are absolutely fantastic," said Stephen Kajiura, a shark specialist and professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. "They give you this top-down view that has been a boon to research."
The United States averages around 44 unprovoked shark bites a year, according to records kept by the International Shark Attack File at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida.
Florida reported 496 bites between 2000-2019, a 20-year average of 24.8 bites per year. Only four coastal states haven’t reported a shark bite over the past 20 years: Alaska, Connecticut, Maryland and New Hampshire.
Florida reported 21 bites last year.
While shark encounters provide dramatic content for Shark Week, which kicked off Sunday, they remain exceedingly rare considering how many people enter the water, said Chris Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach.
"You’ve got waders, boogie boarders, surfboarders, paddle boarders and swimmers, and they’re all using different parts of the shore," said Lowe. The Shark Lab is using drones for a two-year research project looking at those people and the behavior of white sharks in the surf zone.
Given the increasing number of white sharks, thanks to federal conservation measures, Lowe said the Lab wanted to know how many people are in the water with the sharks and how they interact.
So far, the drone footage shows the sharks simply ignore people, he said. "Every once in a while they change their path, they get a little startled and take off. They also do that with each other."
Drones offer more scientific proof of what’s happening in the water than the fish stories researchers typically hear from surfers and fishermen, said Kajiura, who studies shark migration.
Surfers, too, have started using drones.
In New Smyrna Beach, Florida, surfers and sharks flock to the swells where the Atlantic Ocean rolls in past a rock jetty. They often bump into each other as one rides the waves while the other chases the plentiful fish.
That interaction results in more bites here than at any other single location in Florida or around the globe, earning the community and its home county, Volusia, the title "shark bite capital of the world."
Giuseppe "Joey" Liuzzo, who has surfed New Smyrna for more than 20 years, says he sees sharks almost every time he goes to the beach. But, when he put his first drone up over the inlet a few months ago, he was amazed.
"You see sharks everywhere," he said. "You see them next to surfers, under surfers, around surfers. Last week I put my drone up and I caught 10 sharks in one frame."
Despite New Smyrna Beach’s fearsome reputation, most shark encounters there are nips or scratches, thought to be cases of mistaken identity when a shark encounters the hand or foot of a surfer while chasing fish.
Darren Kaye, 46, paddles over sharks "all the time" on New Smyrna Beach, he said. "You’ll just look down at them underneath you. But you don’t really think anything of it."
In July, after riding one wave all the way in, "to water only a couple of feet deep," he realized as he started to jump off his board that he was about to step onto a shark.
"I kind of planked because I didn’t want to step on it. I ended up hitting the shark’s dorsal fin with my shin," he said. "Basically we scared the crap out of each other."
Seeing video of the sharks in the water can surprise surfers, Lowe said. "The surfers say they (the white sharks) don’t act anything like they show on Shark Week," he said, "and I go, 'I know!'"
Of 64 documented unprovoked attacks worldwide last year, only two were fatal. So far this year the Shark Attack File has documented two unprovoked, fatal shark attacks in the United States and three unprovoked in Australia. That’s up slightly from the long-term average of four deaths from unprovoked attacks each year.
In Maine in July, Julie Holowach was killed by a great white off Bailey’s Island. It was the state’s first recorded fatal shark attack and its first attack since 2010.
California surfer Ben Kelly was killed by a shark in May, at Manresa State Beach on Monterey Bay. The Shark Attack File stated a white shark is believed to be responsible. It had been 30 years since an unprovoked shark bite in the Monterey area.
Worldwide, shark bites have decreased over the past two years.
Back in Florida, Kaye said he was undaunted by his recent encounter. He immediately paddled out and caught another couple of waves. But then he saw another shark, and another, and realized his leg was bleeding from hitting the hard tooth-like skin of the shark.
"I paddled back out and went over a third shark," he said, "and when I saw that shark, I just paddled back in on my belly on the board."
He was back in the water three days later.