Jaws Comes to Florida

August 3, 2011

Another year, another Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.  This year’s episodes, beginning on Sunday, July 31st, offer more unique opportunities to learn about these incredible animals. Every night we sit glued to the television, looking for new information and enjoying beautiful shots of the sleek creatures we often scuba dive with. 

At the same time, I’m looking for a Florida connection and it doesn’t take long to find one. A brief mention of Florida in the show entitled “Jaws Comes Home”  (so titled because it is shot in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, an area where part of the Jaws movie was filmed) quickly catches my attention.

The show documents the research of an enthusiastic U.S. Fisheries scientist in Cape Cod where Great Whites have been showing up with more and  more frequency. The scientist manages to tag the sharks and learn where they go once they leave the Cape Cod area.  It seems they head south, along the contours of the U.S. shoreline, including down and around the Florida peninsula. 

I know there are dangerous sharks in our Florida waters, such as the Tigers, Bulls and Lemons.  But I always thought Great Whites were concerns for Californians, Australians and South Africans, not Floridians. Now I want to know if these traveling Great Whites are just passing by Florida on the long highway to somewhere else, or have other plans in mind.

A quick search on Great White encounters in Florida reveals that most reports are by fishermen, and many are located in the Gulf of Mexico.  According to the International Shark Attack Files in Gainesville, between 1920 and 2010  there have been no recorded attacks by Great Whites in the state of Florida.

 

Great Whites were at one time common in Florida waters, most likely due to an abundance of their favorite food source — seals. More specifically, Caribbean Monk Seals. Since the seals extinction in 1948, it’s anyone’s guess as to how many Great Whites are here in Florida now, and why.

The show’s revelation about the travel of the Great Whites gave even my dive buddy Matt a moment to pause, reconsidering those solo dives he does off his boat, 19 miles out in the ocean.  After a few moments of silence, he finally proclaims that I need to dive with him from now on and that we’ll find someone else to stay on the boat.

Uh…no. 

While shark cage diving with Great Whites in Guadalupe, Mexico is on my bucket list, being surprised by one in a dive off the coast of Florida is not.


Shark Week 2010

August 6, 2010

Every year we mark the calendar for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. We always hope for new and exciting coverage of sharks in the wild but have been disappointed the last few years. I guess you can only be so creative with sharks swimming freely out in the humanless ocean.  Regardless, the programs will hopefully reach more and more people and educate them on these incredible creatures.  To learn to respect them, not just fear them.    

So far I have been scuba diving with Nurse Sharks, Reef Sharks (Gray, Black-Tip, White-Tip), Lemon Sharks, Silky Sharks, Galapagos Sharks, and Hammerheads.  I have not witnessed the power of Bull Sharks or Tiger Sharks, nor do I care to.  But I know one day I may just happen upon one while down under, particularly while diving in South Florida.  I do, however, wish to see a Great White, but only from a cage.  One day.  

Shark Surprise in Roatan (Honduras)

  

Grey Reef Shark in Bora Bora

  

Silky Shark at Roca Partida (Socorro Islands)

  

Shy Hammerhead Shark (Socorro Islands)

 

Florida’s Link to Shark Week

What does Shark Week have to do with Florida?  Florida is usually mentioned in two or three episodes every year,with at least one reference to New Smyrna Beach’s status as “Sharkbite Capital of the World.” (That’s shark “bite” not shark “attack.”  There is a difference!)

Yes, there are sharks in the murky water off the coast of New Smyrna Beach.  With bait fish all around, the area is a fantastic feeding spot for sharks.  It’s just that humans get in the way sometimes.  A slashed leg, a bit hand, usually minor injuries based on mistaken identity. Rarely, if ever, do you hear of a shark attack in the area. 

Florida is always going to provide material for Shark Week.  With all this water surrounding us, how can we not have a  plentiful supply of sharks? One new episode this year is Shark Attack Survival Guide, which mentions a shallow water attack of a young boy fishing in Florida.  A previous year’s program, replayed this year, places Florida number one as the deadliest location for shark encounters, followed by Australia and South Africa. Then there is the famous International Shark Attack File, maintained at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville.  I can guarantee this is mentioned every year. 

How to Minimize Your Risk  The International Shark Attack File makes several recommendations to minimize the chances of being bitten by a shark.  Floridians would do well to memorize them.

  • Always stay in groups since sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual. 
  • Do not wander too far from shore – this isolates an individual.  
  • Avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight hours when sharks are most active.  
  • Do not enter the water if bleeding from an open wound or menstruating.  
  • Wearing shiny jewelry is discouraged because the reflected light resembles the sheen on fish scales.  
  • Avoid waters with known effluents or sewage and those being used by sport or commercial fisherman, especially if there are signs of bait fish or feeding activity. Diving seabirds are good indicators of such action.  
  • Use extra caution when waters are murky and avoid uneven tanning and bright-colored clothing – sharks see contrast particularly well.  
  • Refrain from excess splashing and do not allow pets in the water.  
  • Exercise caution when occupying the area between sandbars or near steep drop-offs – these are favorite hangouts for sharks.  
  • Do not enter the water if sharks are known to be present and evacuate the water if sharks are seen while there.    

Just like everyone else, I have seen the movie Jaws.  And yes, it still scares me.  Yet, scuba diving has taught me more about these ancient creatures. Now as Shark Week 2010 comes to a close, I’m hoping more people have garnished respect for them. They are an important part of the ecosystem, and humans are not their preferred meal.

I’ve always been a bit weary about what is below my feet while swimming in the ocean.  Now as a diver my preference is to stay off the ocean’s surface.  I would rather be 60 feet deep with them, than be on the surface not knowing they are lurking just below.  The majority of bites and attacks occur in shallow water.  Yet, living in Florida, a quick trip to the beach invites a dip in the ocean to cool off, to dive under a few waves, or just float over the top of them. Sometimes you just have to take the risk.