JAWS on our beaches?

Dave's Wild Life

I was recently watching television one morning when the news anchor talked about a shark attack off the central Florida coast and a photo of a great white flashed up on the screen. Poor great whites. No matter what shark is implicated in any bite or attack (and there is a difference), great whites always have their mug shot on the news, like they’re the only species of shark out there. Never you mind that there are 350 some odd other types. Anyway, turns out some fisherman got popped by a small lemon shark trying to unhook it from his line. Some “attack,” huh? Sounds like a bite in self-defense to me.

Growing up in Naples, shark bites, attacks, whatever you want to call them, were almost non-existent despite the plethora of shark species swimming up and down our beaches on a daily basis. We’ve got small sharks like sand, blacktip, sharpnose, and bonnethead. These guys can deliver a nasty bite at best. And we’ve got the big ones, too: lemon, bull, hammerhead and tiger. Those guys can intentionally reduce you to bite-size pieces. That is an attack. But amazingly shark incidents in southwest Florida are incredibly rare. Anyone who has lived or worked on the high rises can tell you stories about sharks swimming right between unmolested swimmers and the safety of the beach.

In my younger, “bullet proof” years, I was probably a good candidate to become shark food. Sure, I heard the stories of nighttime shark fishing off the pier and hammerheads cruising the waves between local surfers but I just didn’t think about sharks too much. Shark attacks were someone else’s problem in South Africa or Australia. Our local sharks were on their best behavior. But we tempted fate over and over again just to be sure. Back in the 70s, when you had to navigate a sea of sandspurs to reach the beach, my friend Pat and I would swim across Doctor’s Pass to get to Lowdermilk Park. One day Pat needed some fishing tackle so we stopped by the local bait shop and the owner said he wanted to show us something cool. From a freezer he pulled a set of lemon shark jaws that fit cleanly over his head. “Where’d they catch that monster?” we asked. The answer was that eleven-footer came from Doctor’s Pass. You think that would have deterred our shortcut -- but it didn’t.

Another stunt we did was to swim out as far as we possibly could -- until the beach become an almost invisible line on the horizon. Fortunately, back then the water seemed to be a lot clearer so we thought we could see any danger coming along, not that we could have done anything about it anyway. The ocean is a wilderness underwater and we humans are mostly unprepared to deal with it.

Now here comes the really stupid stuff when I was old enough to know better and had studied up a bit more on shark behavior.

Our facilities manager here at the Zoo always had one kind of boat or another. We couldn’t wait for spring to come. The days were longer and the water finally warmed up. After work, several of us would drive to Naples dock, slide the boat in and putter out to where we could drive at a sensible speed. Skis were tossed in the water and we would take turns skiing out to Keewaydin. This of course worked up a healthy appetite so we’d pull up to a dockside eatery in Marco or Isles of Capri. Now fully fortified with a good fish dinner and shark repellent (a.k.a. rum runners) we’d ski in the dark all the way back. Except for the time I was on foot in the bush a stone’s throw away from a black rhino on a pitch black African night, I never been so creeped out as I was waiting in that cool, dark water for the boat wheel back around to pick me back up, clueless as to what was swimming underneath me.

So what’s the point? Sharks are out there. But let’s use our common sense. If they lived up to their undeserved nasty reputation, we’d never set foot in the water and I never would have reached adulthood. As I said, the ocean is a wilderness. Practice a few simple rules and don’t tempt fate like I did. Don’t swim at dawn, dusk, or after dark. Stay out of passes, estuaries, or river mouths. These are seagoing highways for ocean predators. Don’t swim in murky water either. Visibility is limited for you and the sharks. You may just get a “test bite” to see how you taste.

Conservationists say sharks have far more to fear from us than we do of them. And they’re right. Millions are senselessly killed every year mostly for the Asian shark fin soup trade.

And I’ve watched enough shark fishing on television to understand sport fishing for shark must be an awesome rush but remember some fish are too valuable to catch just once -- even a shark. Experts recommend catch and release, please.

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