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Sharks and Gators?  Riptides, Lightning and Boat Accidents Are The Real Killers

September 10, 2007 By Maria de los Angeles in Miami: Local News  | 2 Comments

funny shark cartoon by maria lemus
Cartoon by yours truly.

DO I NEED TO WORRY ABOUT SHARKS ON MY VACATION?

Thanks to mom and dad, I’ve been a Miami beach-goer for as long as I can remember.

If you ask me, the only sharks you need to worry about here are the kind that will love ya and leave ya, sell you a lemon or strip your pockets for a bum real estate deal. 

Never mind the sharks! What about the gators and crocodiles? In Florida, more people go to the beach than the swamp, so your chances of being nabbed by an alligator are lower than being bitten by a shark; however, it’s less likely you’ll escape the reptile’s jaws.  Between 1948 and 2005, 351 gator attacks proved fatal in 17 cases; whereas 509 sharks killed 8 victims.

OVERHEARD AT THE BEACH

It hardly ever fails:  when I go to the beach, which is fairly frequently these balmy summer days, I hear someone make a reference to Jaws.  Take yesterday, for example.  That 1975 shark thriller left such a permanent scar in our psyches, that a boy who hadn’t even been born in the 90s was humming the famous two-note theme song just to tease his sister.  And minutes later, a mother yelled to a child who was leaping into the surf: “Don’t go too deep, there are sharks!”

Even I can’t wipe the mighty predator from my mind.  I was swimming an hour before dusk in 4 feet of water just near the shore.  A school of bait fish zoomed by in typical organized panic.  “Maybe I shouldn’t get in the way of someone’s meal,” I thought.  But then I remembered:  what self-respecting adult shark would swim this close to shore in hot pursuit of tiny fish?  A jack crevalle?  Definitely.  A shark?  Nah. 

But then again, a shark might be following the jack …

It’s not surprising that sharks are the fodder of everyone’s nightmares, young and old.  Jaws so tarnished the reputation of these majestic fish that Peter Benchley, the author of the original novel, had a change of heart in his later years; he became an advocate for their conservation.

LIFEGUARD WARNS TO BEWARE OF LAND SHARKS

hot miami beach lifeguard
ABOVE: Senior lifeguard Armando Piedra, who currently works at the 41st street stand, takes good care of beach-goers. Unfortunately, he can’t rescue hapless girls from those pesky land sharks.

Is the fear of sharks really warranted in Miami Beach?  Armando Piedra doesn’t think so.  This hunky Miami Beach lifeguard has been watching over swimmers’ shoulders for ten years.  When asked about sharks he winks and smiles:  “Sharks?  What sharks?  The only sharks on Miami Beach are on the sand!”

Only a local could truly understand Armando’s wink.  He used to work in South Beach, but thanks to seniority, he now enjoys shifts at the 41st street lifeguard stand, where beach-goers focus on being laid-back, not getting laid. “I prefer mid-beach,” Armando stated matter-of-factly. “South Beach is too crazy.  Too many people.”

Mind you, I never referred to land sharks, he did.

If a man who spends his days keeping people from drowning shows more concern about the obnoxious behavior of humans than the routines of sea predators, you’d think he’d know a thing or two about local sharks—especially the kind that walk on two legs—because in one decade of service, he claims to have never seen even one fin looming menacingly in the waves.  Yet, this year so far he has rescued 10 swimmers from rip currents.  That’s an alarming number of potential drowning fatalities safely averted by one lifeguard alone.  “I’d be way more worried about riptide than sharks.  Also, sea lice are very annoying. They stick to your bathing suit.”

PLAYING IN THE SURF VS. LIVING ON THE TURF

The International Shark Attack File (ISAF), an agency devoted to collecting and analyzing data, would probably agree not only with Armando but also with my own non-scientific conclusion that the drive from the airport to your destination is more fraught with risk than a casual dip in the beach, at least in Miami-Dade County.

Humans and their driving shenanigans are far more dangerous than opportunistic, hungry fish, yet no one ever thinks twice about sitting behind the wheel of a one ton combustible metal trap speeding at 80 mph in congested roads where polite drivers (such as yours truly) are swept into a sadistic game of concrete rugby (no, I’m not kicking the ball, I am the ball).

But enough about Miami’s rough turf; it’s the beautiful surf that attracts a staggering number of locals and tourists each year to the shores of Miami Beach. 

The risk of an unprovoked shark attack is extremely low, considering that so many bodies splash away in our fair waters and that so few rogue sharks confuse a bikini bottom with a tasty lunch.  (That happens more often poolside at Nikki Beach Club, actually.)

According to the ISFA, Volusia, Brevard and Palm Beach counties hold the record for the greatest number of unprovoked attacks since 1882. Miami-Dade is on record for 10 attacks with one fatality in 1961.  Statewide, a total of 544 attacks have been recorded in 124 years, 13 of which were fatal.

Don’t get me wrong – sharks do occasionally take a nip at a body here in Florida.  Most recently, on September 3, a tourist in Fort Lauderdale received little hospitality from a fish that bit him on the wrist, but the bite could’ve been the work of a barracuda; on September 6, a woman suffered minor injuries after a shark bit her toes in Daytona Beach.

Let’s put shark attacks into perspective.  Drowning, riptides and watercraft accidents are of far greater concern than shark bites for anyone venturing into the surf, as well contact with stingers such as jellyfish and sea lice, which won’t kill you, but definitely spoil the fun.  And let’s not forget sunburn and dehydration, which tax the body’s health.

By far, public natural enemy number one in Florida is lightning.  I’m scared shitless and here’s why:  from 1959 to 2006, 438 people have been fatally zapped, as opposed to 8 poor souls who’ve lost their lives to sharks – that’s 8 fatalities out of 523 unprovoked attacks. 

The ISFA data also points to other perils that are far more dangerous than coming face to face with your maker in the form of a big toothy fish:  tornadoes, vicious dogs, venomous snakes, home construction and boating accidents, bike riding, hunting and finally, collapsing sand holes.

Yes, sand holes!  According to the ISFA and a study conducted by Dr. Bradley Maron for The New England Journal of Medicine, 12 people died from shark attacks in the US between 1999-2006, but 16 were buried alive in sand during the same time period.  Imagine that: you’re just walking along, minding your own business and then suddenly the earth swallows you up.  Parents, take heed:  children are especially vulnerable because their bodies are so small.

Luckily, Miami Beach’s shoreline doesn’t have the kind of topography to support deep sand holes, but the mortality rate does help put shark attacks into perspective.

So what are the odds you’ll be attacked by a shark?  The ISFA thinks it’s 1 in 11.5 million.  I’d say, relax and swim to your heart’s content!

ONCE BITTEN, TWICE SHY

captain mike beach
ABOVE: Left to right - captain Mike Beach with chef Pete Noel - now there’s a tasty catch!

Sometimes, the odds aren’t in your favor, especially if you’re a veteran water baby. Mike Beach is president of RJ Diving as well as experienced captain, diver, sailor and underwater archeologist.  On July 4, 1996 he was feeding fish during a Bahamas dive when a reef shark went for his calf.  He bled profusely, required 400 stitches and endured a year of rehabilitation.

Mike had fed sharks many times prior for recreational purposes.  “I’ve got hundreds of photos of sharks,” Mike explained.  “But you develop a sense of complacency.  There were 15 sharks around me and I was pushing them out of the way.  The shark went for my propulsion (calve muscles) as it would any fish to disable me.”

Needless to day, Mike has since developed a healthy respect for sharks.

Not one to take no as answer from fate, Mike ran a triathlon one year after the shark bite incident and continues to dive as much as he ever did, but no longer feeds fish.  “I recognize the fact that it’s not the shark’s fault.  I was the antagonist in this tragedy.  I was in the shark’s world.”

Mike, who conducts regular diving trips out of Miami Beach Marina, doesn’t think local beach goers should feel too anxious about sharks.  “Sharks generally don’t attack, they’re just driven to alternate food sources.”

A SHARK BY ANY OTHER NAME

image
Mike still loves all sea life, but isn’t interested in being chummy.

In a recent trip, Mike came across this 12-foot tiger shark in the Bahamas, but remained calm.  “The word shark has such a negative connotation and it should be eliminated.  Just call them by their scientific name: elasmobranch.”

image
Use common sense and keep an eye on the flag.  Riptides, jellyfish and sea lice, not to mention unsavory characters, are realistic concerns for beach goers on Miami Beach.

Hmm.  I don’t think Steven Spielberg’s film would’ve earned the place of first summer blockbuster hit ever with the title ELASMOBRANCH, but I do agree that sharks are amazing creatures we should respect and admire—from a distance.

In a previous life, I used to be an avid angler and my experience taught me a great deal about fish behavior.  My recommendations?  Avoid swimming at dusk or dawn. Remove any flashy gold and silver jewelry.  Don’t wade in the water with a flesh wound.  Heed lifeguard warnings like gospel. Above all, enjoy.

Oh, and have a safe drive home.

Related Categories: Miami: Local News,

About the Author: Maria de los Angeles is a freelance wordsmith who loves to write about all things travel in Florida and the Caribbean. She is also the author of the award-winning blog Sex and the Beach.

See more articles by Maria de los Angeles.

See more articles by Maria de los Angeles

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2 Comments on

"Sharks and Gators?  Riptides, Lightning and Boat Accidents Are The Real Killers"

abby mazariegos says:

your not the only one trust me!i love all sea life still too.

Posted on 02/18/2008 at 6:51 PM

Lisa says:

We(my whole family and I) travel from california every summer to miami beach. In the 25 year we have gone we never saw anything in the water exept for maybe a passing manatee..or sting ray. Unfortunantley my sister decided to get into the water about 6pm and was bit on th foot by what we think may have been a small sand shark? With the bite marks were thinking that it was a small shark but who knows. She recieved 10 stitches but is totally okay. Just goes to show all sea life should be respected…we are on their turf.

Posted on 07/14/2010 at 1:20 PM

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