Originally created 07/24/01

Fla. swimmers leery of water after shark attack



STUART, Fla. - A shark attack on an 8-year-old swimmer off the Florida Panhandle has beachgoers on Florida's east coast uneasy about going into the water.

"People are expressing concern, I think more so than after any other shark attack I can remember," said Andrew Ritchie, St. Lucie County's marine safety coordinator.

"Any time we fly the yellow flag - which indicates there are hazards in the water swimmers should be aware of - people start talking to our lifeguards in large numbers, asking if a shark has been spotted," he said.

Despite being more than 477 miles from the site of the Pensacola attack, lifeguards on the east coast think the story of Jessie Arbogast, of Ocean Springs, Miss., has taken a firm hold of the public's imagination.

On July 6, while visiting Gulf Islands National Seashore with his family, Arbogast's arm was bitten off by a bull shark. After his uncle wrestled the fish to shore, Arbogast's arm was pulled from the shark's gullet and surgically reattached.

Although yellow caution flags seem to pique sunbathers' curiosity and concern, Jim Shippes, a lifeguard at Jensen Beach in Martin County, Fla., said a heightened public awareness has manifested itself in other ways recently.

"People have been paying a lot more attention to our information board," Shippes said. "That's where we'll post the latest information on everything from currents to sea lice, and it seems like, more and more, people are looking for when the last shark was seen in the area."

State officials said the public's fear of sharks might be overblown and issued an advisory through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission intended "to put the attacks into perspective."

"Considering that millions of people swim, surf, scuba dive, fish or boat in Florida waters each year, shark attacks are relatively rare," said George H. Burgess, a fisheries biologist and director of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

"The reality is, you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be bitten by a shark during your lifetime," Burgess said. "In fact, more people are injured on land while traveling to and from the beach than by sharks in the water."

The kind of serious attack that occurred in Pensacola is rare in Florida waters, the experts said.

"Florida has a huge number of people in the water, and the number of person-hours in the water is probably higher than anywhere else in the world," said Dr. Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

"Florida also has a tremendously long coastline with tropical waters, a huge native population and an increasing tourist population."

Florida's east coast also has experienced an upswing in the number of sharks, one reason being local environmental protection efforts that have made the area more hospitable to scores of fish species.

"We've been seeing sharks a lot this summer," Ritchie said. "... In fact, a week ago we didn't allow swimming at all on Thursday or Friday because of the presence of sharks ranging from 5 to 9 feet long."

"A lot of people get out into the water, among the small bait fish, and think, 'Wow, this is neat,"' Shippes said. "That's really not the best policy to follow. If there are large amounts of bait fish in an area, bigger fish are sure to follow, and the sharks will be right behind them."

Though the Pensacola attack has people watching the waves, Shippes said he thinks September and October are potentially more dangerous, because that's when the sharks that have been around all summer are joined by migratory species drawn to the area by traveling schools of mullet, Spanish mackerel and bluefish.

"That's when we're really on alert, and when we issue the most red flags, keeping people out of the water," Shippes said.