World shark bite capital: Why is New Smyrna Beach the site of so many incidents?

Mary Helen Moore
The Daytona Beach News-Journal

Jai Villiamil has a vivid memory of his first visit to New Smyrna Beach.

The 12-year-old Cocoa Beach resident was in town for a surf camp. Nearby that morning, a man had been bitten by a shark, but Jai didn’t know that.

Jai jumped off his surfboard in waist-deep water and a shark’s jaws clamped onto his calf.

The first bite ripped open a nerve. The second tore his Achilles tendon.

"The feeling of being dragged under, dragged back. That was probably the scariest feeling," he recalled.

Jai’s surf instructor, who goes by Gnarly Charley, sprang into action, jumping in the water to scare the shark off, then using the boy's surf leash as a tourniquet to slow the gush of blood.

"He pretty much saved my life," Jai said.

"He saved his life for sure," Jai’s mom Jamerica Villamil said later.

Jai Villamil, of Cocoa Beach, spent two weeks in the hospital and had four surgeries to repair his leg from shark bites sustained June 14, 2021 in New Smyrna Beach.

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Jai was the victim of one of eight unprovoked shark bites in Volusia County so far this year, a slight uptick from the annual average of nine bites. Experts say there's no cause for alarm.

"That is about normal for Volusia," said Tyler Bowling, manager of the Florida Program for Shark Research. "We have seen even more bites in years past. So, this is just natural variation."

The year 2001 was the worst, with 22 unprovoked shark attacks recorded.

Volusia County Beach Safety spokeswoman Capt. Tammy Malphurs said though there were some serious bites this year, all were cases of "mistaken identity."

"There’s no reason to believe anything is out of the ordinary. These are the same accidental kind of bites that you typically see," Malphurs said.

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A shark is seen swimming in two feet of water in the 5300 block of South Atlantic Avenue in New Smyrna Beach.

In Volusia County, shark 'bites' not 'attacks'

Scientists and wildlife officials have called for the abandonment of the term "shark attacks" in favor of less sensational language like encounters, incidents, or bites.

"We do here in Volusia County call them shark bites, not attacks," Malphurs said. "Because that’s what they are."

New Smyrna Beach is the world's unofficial shark bite capital, but most bites are not life-threatening. The Florida Museum of Natural History's International Shark Attack File has no record of any fatal bite in Volusia County.

Each year, Beach Safety pulls about 3,000 people from rip currents. The same day Jai was bit, a 67-year-old traveler drowned in Daytona Beach Shores while swimming in an unguarded part of the beach.

"There are many other things at the beach that are more dangerous and more common than a shark bite. Sharks pique everyone’s curiosity, but rip currents are way more prevalent and a lot more dangerous," Malphurs said. "That’s why we stress to people coming in from out of town to make sure they're always swimming in front of the staffed lifeguard towers."

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Humans have a less than one in 3.7 million chance of dying from a shark attack any given year, according to the International Shark Attack File.

It's been more than a decade since a fatality in Florida, the last occurring off the coast of Stuart in 2010.

Surfers look for the right wave in New Smyrna Beach, Thursday, July 22, 2021.

Jai said he knows the shark that bit him did it accidentally, and he still dreams of becoming a marine biologist. 

"I’ve always really liked sharks. My opinion hasn’t really changed," he said.

Bowling said the waters around New Smyrna Beach are common hunting grounds for juvenile sharks, which hunt in the surf to hide from prey as well as their own predators, larger sharks.

"These young inexperienced animals make mistakes. Often the person is twice the size of the shark, so the shark does a very quick bite and release as it is just as freaked out as the person," Bowling explained.

Beachgoers should stay out of the water in areas where schools of baitfish are spotted.

"In places like New Smyrna, where the water is murky, the blacktip sharks can't see very well. So, they are likely reacting to flashes of movement. This could be a nice mullet or a human's foot," Bowling said.

For Jai, the time off his feet has been tough. He’s used to playing competitive soccer and surfing. His mom said she’s had to get used to him playing X-Box to stay connected to his friends.

"Being at home all day long is king of rough," Villamil said. "I’m super proud of him."

Jai was hospitalized for nearly two weeks and has had four surgeries since. He is expected to walk again and is already out of his cast and walking with a boot and the assistance of a knee scooter.

"I already have a lot of feeling back," Jai said the last week of July. "It’s completely numb on the bottom of the foot, but I can move my toes some."

Jai Villamil. seen here with his mom Jamerica Villamil, is preparing for the school year.

Researchers studying New Smyrna Beach shark attacks

Shark bite statistics have climbed in recent decades and are most common in the summer months, generally peaking in August and September in Florida.

"Shark bites have increased long term, which is likely due to the increased human population. However, we have been monitoring a steady decrease in bites for the last decade," Bowling said. "Most shark populations globally are in decline from overfishing."

Bowling said their research team is conducting a movement tracking study at New Smyrna Beach to examine what environmental conditions bring sharks close to shore.

"The vast majority of incidents that occur there are very minor bites from juvenile blacktip sharks," he said.

Volusia County is up to nine shark bites in 2021 if you include a July 30 incident in which a fisherman was bit by a shark he hooked. The International Shark Attack File, however, doesn't classify those incidents as "unprovoked."

New Smyrna Beach Thursday, July 21, 2021.

Across Florida, Bowling said anglers have reported increased depredation, when sharks take a bite of their catches.

"This is a learned behavior by shark species to get an easy meal, but the increased sightings by anglers have been making sharks seem more numerous than they really are," he said.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission does offer some tips on how to avoid shark bites.

How to avoid shark bites

  1. Swim in a group. Sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual.
  2. Swim only in areas tended by lifeguards.
  3. Don't wander too far from shore. The closer you are to assistance, the more likely you are to survive.
  4. Avoid being in the water during twilight and after dark, when sharks are most active.
  5. Don't enter the water if bleeding. Sharks have a strong sense of smell.
  6. Avoid wearing shiny jewelry, which can resemble the sheen of fish scales.
  7. Avoid waters known for fishing. Diving seabirds are a good indicator that schools of baitfish are in an area.
  8. Also be careful around sandbars and near steep drop-offs. These are favorite hangouts for sharks.
  9. Use extra caution when waters are murky.
  10. Avoid excess splashing, which can draw a shark's attention.
  11. Sharks can see contrast particularly well, meaning uneven tans or bright colored clothing may draw their attention.
  12. Don't let pets in the water.
  13. Don't enter the water if sharks are known to be present, and get out of the water if sharks are sighted.
  14. Never harass a shark.
Beachgoers play along the shoreline in New Smyrna Beach Thursday, July 22, 2021.

All the shark bites from 2021

  • April 30: A 64-year-old local woman was bit on the foot while sitting on her paddle board  on a sunny Friday morning in New Smyrna Beach just south of the jetty. The water was about 8-10 feet deep. She was taken to the hospital as a precaution.
  • May 6: An Oregon woman, 21, was wading in about 4 feet of water when she was bit on the foot shortly before noon Thursday in the northernmost part of Daytona Beach Shores.
  • May 27: A girl, 12, was surfing at Ponce Inlet when a shark bit her on the foot on the hot, sunny Thursday before Memorial Day.
  • June 14: A man, 71, from Palm Beach County was standing in knee-deep water with a boogie board when a shark bit his foot on Monday near the Flagler Avenue approach.
  • June 14: Jai Villiamil was bit in the second bite of the day, about 1.5 miles north of the first.
  • June 18: Another 12-year-old, this time a boy from Orange City visiting Bethune Beach with his parents on a Friday afternoon, was bitten in the arm in waist-deep water. He too was taken to the hospital.
  • July 4: A Miami boy, 8, was bit on the leg while standing in waist-deep water at 4 p.m. in front of Winterhaven Park in Ponce Inlet. The boy, who was hospitalized, was the only person on this list to have actually seen the shark, described as between 2 and 3 feet long.
  • July 15: An 11-year-old from Georgia was boogie boarding on a Thursday afternoon in south New Smyrna Beach when he was bit on the leg shortly after 4:30 p.m. The child was hospitalized.
  • July 30: A 47-year-old fisherman from West Virginia was bit on the hands after hooking a shark near the jetty at Ponce Inlet. The 4-foot shark was released and the man's wounds did not require a trip to the hospital.