In recent weeks, the country has heard about shark attacks off the Carolina coast and great whites off the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico – then of course, we just completed “Shark Week”. This sometimes makes visitors to our beaches a bit unnerved about swimming. Each year we hear about how other activities we engage in are much more dangerous than swimming in the Gulf where there are sharks – and this is true – but we may still have a concern in the back of our minds. So – we will give you some information that will hopefully enlighten you on the issue of sharks.
First, what kind of sharks are in the Gulf and how common are they?
According to Dr. Hoese and Dr. Moore from Texas A&M, there are 30 species of sharks who have been found in the Gulf of Mexico – and this includes the great white. They range in size from the Cuban Dogfish (3 ft.) to the whale shark (60 ft. in length). Each has their own niche. Some, like the large whale sharks, are plankton feeders. Others, like the blue and mako, are open ocean travelers covering large stretches of water hunting prey. Others, like the blacktip and spinner, are more common near shore – close to estuary outfalls where food is plentiful. And others still, like nurses sharks, are bottom dwellers feeding on slow fish and crustaceans.
The Bull Shark is considered one of the more dangerous sharks in the Gulf. This fish can enter freshwater but rarely swims far upstream. Photo: Florida Sea Grant
As far as how common they are – I was involved in shark tagging in the early 1980’s and we tagged several species. Blacktips and spinner sharks were very common. We also tagged a lot of bull and dusky sharks – though dusky sharks are declining. Tiger sharks were not as common at the time. It was believed this was due to an increase in shark rodeos in the 1970’s – which were popular during the “Jaws” films. However, those events stopped for several years and recent shark events have once again captured tigers. There are five species of hammerheads that were tagged – the scalloped and bonnethead were the most common. White sharks and makos are in the Gulf but were never tagged. It was believed they spent more time offshore (where we were not sampling). Both species have been seen closer to shore in recent years, but there are no reports of any problems from this. It is possible they have been doing this all along and were just undetected. Blacknose, finetooth, and silky sharks were also frequently tagged.
People are probably not surprised to hear that sharks frequent the bays. Many of the species mentioned above do so. The small (3 ft.) Atlantic sharpnose shark is one of the most common. Sawfish were once common in the estuaries but have declined significantly across the region to do over harvesting in the early 20th century. They are currently protected.
You have probably also read that bull sharks have been found in freshwater rivers – and this is the case. Some have been found several miles up river systems.
What type of prey do sharks prefer and how to do they select and hunt for them?
This, of course, varies from species to species. Plankton feeding whale sharks generally cruise slowly through the water column filtering small fish and crustaceans – the same as the great whales. They do tend to feeding in deeper water during the day and closer to the surface at night. They are following what is known as the Deep Scattering Layer. This is a large layer of zooplankton (animal plankton) that migrates each day – deeper (600 feet or so) during the daylight hours and closer to the surface in the evenings.
Bottom dwelling sharks feed on benthic creatures like flounder and crabs. Many have the ability to detect their prey buried beneath the sand using electric perception they have.
Many species of sharks are what we call “ram-jetters”. This means they do not have a pump system to pump water over their gills. So, in order to breath, they must swim forward. Swimming continuously requires a lot of energy. Most of them are what we call opportunistic feeders – meaning they will grab what they can. Stomach analysis of such sharks find primarily fish and squid, but other creatures have been found – such as birds and even other sharks. The general rule here is seek prey that is “easy”. If your objective in feeding were to obtain energy – it would not make since to chase prey that would require a lot of energy to catch. Simple first, and take opportunities when you can. It is the ram-jetter species that people are most concerned. Swimming and taking opportunities. However, evidence suggest that we are not a prey of choice, not good opportunities. More on this in a minute.
Tiger sharks are interesting. It is in their stomachs we find such things as hubcaps, metal, and other sorts of garbage. Because of their tooth design, they are also capable of eating sea turtles.
How often do shark attacks on humans actually occur and what were the people doing that may have enticed it to happen?
Records on human shark attacks are kept at the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, FL. This data set only logs unprovoked attacks – those where the people were doing their thing and all of a sudden… Not those where humans were pulling them into their boats after fishing or grabbing their tails while diving.
Blacktip sharks are one of the smaller sharks in our area reaching a length of 59 inches. They are known to leap from the water. Photo: Florida Sea Grant
Based on this data – there have been 3031 unprovoked shark attacks reported worldwide since 1580 A.D. This equates to seven attacks / year. Granted… not all attacks are reported, particularly from the undeveloped regions of the world – and from early history, but it does give us something to look at.
Currently, we are averaging between 70 and 100 shark attacks worldwide and between 5-15 of these are fatal. Honestly, this is very low when compared to other activities in which humans participate.
||Deaths from Other
||Deaths from Shark Attacks
|1959 – 2010
||Lightning strikes – 1970
|2004 – 2013
||Rip Currents – 361
|2001 – 2013
||Dog bites – 364
|2000 – 2007
||Hunting accidents – 441
|2002 – 2013 (Florida only)
||Boating accidents – 782
As you can see… the risk is much lower.
It is true that most of the shark attacks worldwide are in the United States (46%) and that most in the U.S. are in Florida (56%). However, it is believed that this is due to the number of Americans (and Floridians) who enjoy water activities. In Florida, most of the encounters have been on the east coast – 89% of them! There have only been 65 attacks reported from the west coast – only 37 from the Florida panhandle – since 1580 A.D. There have only been six reported from Escambia County and one from Santa Rosa in that time.
As far as what people were doing when a shark attack occurred – most were surfing, but swimming has increased in recent years. This is believed to be connected to the increase in the number of humans swimming. The human population visiting beaches, particularly in the U.S., has increased significantly. Most shark attacks occur in near shore waters – which would make sense… that is where we are. Most are the “hit & run” version – meaning the shark hits the person and runs… not returning. Based on Florida reports, it is believed most of these are blacktips, spinners, and blacknose sharks. These rarely end in a fatality. “Bump & Bite” – meaning the shark circles, bumps the person, and then bites, are not as common. It is believed most of these are from great whites, tigers, and bull sharks. The few fatalities that happen are usually from this form of encounter.
When assessing “risk” in an activity you have to consider “control”. This means that the more you are in control of the situation, the less risky the activity seems to be. Most feel that in the water, the shark is in control – this increases our fear and risk concern. However, as mentioned in this article, many of the other activities we are involved – where we think we are in control – are far more risker than swimming on the open Gulf of Mexico.
However, shark attacks do occur and there are a few things swimmers can do to reduce their risk.
- Do not swim alone – all predators will try and isolate an individual from a group before they attack – much easier to attack an individual than a group
- Do not swim near dusk or after dark – to increase their chance of hunting success, sharks are more actively hunting in low light conditions
- Remove shiny objectives like jewelry – sunlight hitting metal objectives can appear to be baitfish to a shark
- Avoid blood in the water – it is true they have an excellent sense of smell – small amounts of blood in the water can be detected as far away as 100 feet suggesting easy prey nearby. Avoid swimming near fishing activity where bait and fish blood may be discharged into the water
I have been swimming in the Gulf all of my life. It is too much fun to worry about a low risk encounter with a shark. Follow the simple rules suggested by the ISAF and you should not have any problems.
The International Shark Attack File – https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/shark-attacks/.
Hoese, H.D., R.H. Moore. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana & Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M Press, College Station TX. pp. 327.
The St Andrew Bay pass jetty is more like a close family friend than a collection of granite boulders. The rocks protect the inlet ensuring the vital connections of commerce and recreation. One of the treasured spots along the jetty is known locally as the “kiddie pool”, which is accessible from St Andrew’s State Park. There are similar snorkeling opportunities throughout northwest Florida. Jetties provide an opportunity to explore hard substrate or rocky marine ecosystems. These rocks are home to a variety of colorful sub-tropical and migrating tropical fish.
Snorkelers and divers who visit are likely to see a variety fish like sergeant majors, blennies, surgeon and doctor fish, just to name a few. Photo by L Scott Jackson.
Exploring a jetty is more like a sea-safari adventure than an experience in a real swimming pool – it is a natural place full of potential challenges that first time visitors need to prepare to encounter.
Divers and snorkelers are required to carry dive flags when venturing beyond designated swimming areas. These flags notify boaters that people are in the water. Brightly colored snorkel vests are not only good safety gear but they help you rest in the water without standing on rocks which are covered in barnacles and sometimes spiny sea urchins.
According to the Florida Department of Health, most sea urchin species are not toxic but some Florida species like the Long Spined Sea Urchin have sharp spines can cause puncture injuries and have venom that can cause some stinging. Swim and step carefully when snorkeling as they usually are attached to rocks, both on the bottom and along jetty ledges. Photo by L Scott Jackson
Dive booties also help protect your feet. I found out the hard way! A couple of years ago my foot hit against a sea urchin puncturing my heel. The open back of my dive fin did not provide any protection resulting in a trip to the urgent care doctor. My daughter later teased it was an “urchin care” doctor! Sea urchin spines are brittle and difficult to remove, even for a doctor. Lesson Learned: “Prevention is the best medicine”.
After a couple of weeks of limping around and a course of antibiotics, I recovered ready to return one of my favorite watery places – a little wiser and more prepared. I now bring a small first aid kit, just in-case, to help take care of small scrapes, cuts, and other minor injuries.
Gloves are recommended to protect hands from barnacle cuts and scrapes. Shirts like a surfing rash guard or those made from soft material help keep your body temperature warm on long snorkel excursions. Along with sunscreen, shirts also protect against sunburn.
There’s opportunity to see marine life from the time you enter the water with depths for beginning snorkelers at just a few feet deep. Some SCUBA divers also use the jetty for their initial training. Most underwater explorers are instantly hooked, and return for many years to come. Photo by L Scott Jackson
Finally, know the swimming abilities of yourself and your guests, especially when venturing to deeper areas. It’s good to have a dive buddy even when snorkeling. Pair up and watch out for each other. Be aware that currents and seas can change dramatically during the day. Know and obey the flag system. Double Red Flag means no entry into the water. Purple flags indicate presence of dangerous marine life like jellyfish, rays, and rarely even sharks. Local lifeguards and other beach authorities can provide specific details and up to date safety information.
Follow these beach safety tips for helping your family enjoy the beach while protecting coastal wildlife.
An Equal Opportunity Institution. UF/IFAS Extension, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension. Single copies of UF/IFAS Extension publications (excluding 4-H and youth publications) are available free to Florida residents from county UF/IFAS Extension offices.
It was disheartening to read that even with double red flags flying, 22 people had to be recused from the Gulf near Destin, FL recently, and one person lost their life. In that spirit, I believe it is important to review information on the importance of respecting our sometimes-unforgiving gulf.
First of all, stay calm.
Photo By: Laura Tiu
Swimmers getting caught in rip currents make up the majority of lifeguard rescues. These tips from Florida Sea Grant and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service (NWS) can help you know what to do if you encounter a rip current.
What Are Rip Currents?
Rip currents are formed when water flows away from the shore in a channeled current. They may form in a break in a sandbar near the shore, or where the current is diverted by a pier or jetty.
From the shore, you can look for these clues in the water:
- A channel of choppy water.
- A difference in water color.
- A line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving out to sea.
- A break in incoming wave patterns.
If you get caught in a rip current, don’t panic! Stay calm and do not fight the current. Escape the current by swimming across it–parallel to shore–until you are out of the current. When you get out of it, swim back to the shore at an angle away from the current. If you can’t break out of the current, float or tread water until the current weakens. Then swim back to shore at an angle away from the rip current. Rip currents are powerful enough to pull even experienced swimmers away from the shore. Do not try to swim straight back to the shore against the current.
Tips for Swimming Safely
You can swim safely this summer by keeping in mind some simple rules. Many people have harmed themselves trying to rescue rip current victims, so follow these steps to help someone stuck in a rip current. Get help from a lifeguard. If a lifeguard is not present, yell instructions to the swimmer from the shore and call 9-1-1. If you are a swimmer caught in a rip current and need help, draw attention to yourself–face the shore and call or wave for help.
Photo by: Laura Tiu
How Do I Escape a Rip Current?
- Rip currents pull people away from shore, not under the water. Rip currents are not “undertows” or “rip tides.”
- Do not overestimate your swimming abilities. Be cautious at all times.
- Never swim alone.
- Swim near a lifeguard for maximum safety.
- Obey all instructions and warnings from lifeguards and signs.
- If in doubt, don’t go out!
Adapted and excerpted from: “Rip Currents” Florida Sea Grant
The Foundation for the Gator Nation, An Equal Opportunity Institution.
Dr. Monica Wilson, University of Florida Sea Grant, shares an update on the research that has occurred in the past five years since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Presented in the Rodeo Room at the Destin History and Fishing Museum. Photo credit: Laura Tiu
The Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill occurred about 50 miles offshore of Louisiana in April 2010. Approximately 172 million gallons of oil entered the Gulf of Mexico. Five years after the incident, locals and tourists still have questions. The Okaloosa County UF/IFAS Extension Office invited a Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Scientist, Dr. Monica Wilson, to help answer the five most common questions about the oil spill and to increase the use of oil spill science by people whose livelihoods depend on a healthy Gulf.
The event was held at the Destin History and Fishing Museum on Monday evening, July 11, 2016. Executive Director, Kathy Marler Blue partnered with the University of Florida to host the event. “The Destin History and Fishing Museum has a vision that includes expanding its programs to include a lecture series,” said Blue. Over 20 interested individuals attended the lecture and the question and answer session was lively. This was the first in what hopes to be an ongoing lecture series, bringing more scientific information to our county.
Dr. Wilson is based in St. Petersburg, Florida with the Florida Sea Grant College Program. Monica uses her physical oceanography background to model circulation and flushing of coastal systems in the region and the impacts of tropical storms on these systems. She focuses on the distribution, dispersion and dilution of petroleum under the action of physical ocean processes and storms. For this lecture, she covered topics such as: the safety of eating Gulf seafood, impacts to wildlife, what cleanup techniques were used, how they were implemented, where the oil went, where is it now, and do dispersants make it unsafe to swim in the water?
The oil spill science outreach program also allows Sea Grant specialists to find out what types of information target audiences want and develop tailor-made products for those audiences. The outreach specialists produce a variety of materials, such as fact sheets and bulletins, focused on meeting stakeholder information needs. The specialists also gather input from target audiences through workshops and work with researchers to share oil spill research results at science seminars that are facilitated by the specialists.
The Destin History and Fishing Museum is a nonprofit organization whose members are dedicated to preserving, documenting, and sharing the complete history of Destin. Please subscribe to their Facebook page for information on upcoming events. The UF IFAS Extension Okaloosa County office also hosts a Facebook page with announcement of upcoming programs.
For additional information and publications related to the oil spill please visit: https://gulfseagrant.wordpress.com/oilspilloutreach/
The sugary white sands along the Panhandle, attract millions of visitors to our area throughout the year. It is important for locals and visitors to understand and consider the following tips for safety at the beach.
The danger of rip currents far outweighs the danger of having a shark encounter. As a result of past storms, the nearshore sandbars along our beaches have changed and the frequency of rip currents has increased. A rip current is a turbulent, fast flowing current that can carry a swimmer out to sea very quickly. The currents are formed when water rushes out to sea in a narrow path (like a break in the nearshore sandbar or from an obstruction of the current caused by a groin or jetty or other type of barrier). Rip currents can last for a few hours or may be permanent; they usually exist when the surf is rough and after storms, but can occur on calm days.
Some signs of rip currents include:
- A difference in water color. The water may be murkier from increased sediments or appear darker because it is deeper.
- A channel of churning, choppy water.
- A line of foam, seaweed or debris being carried directly out to sea.
Rip currents can be difficult to spot. Wearing polarized sunglasses will help you recognize changes in water color. Click here to learn more about rip currents.
If you are caught in a rip current, try not to panic or swim against the current. Swim to the left or right of the current, parallel to shore until you are out of the current. Rip currents range in width from a few feet to many feet wide. If you can’t break out of the current, float calmly out until it ends, usually just beyond the breakers. Then swim diagonally to shore.
Remember, always use common sense and swim responsibly. For current surf conditions check out the National Weather Service rip current forecast.
Know the meaning of the beach warning flags:
- A double red flagmeans the water is closed to the public.
- A single red flag means the surf is very dangerous and you should stay out of the water.
- A yellow flag indicates that you should take caution when in the water.
- A green flag indicates that conditions are safe for swimming.
- A purple flag means there could be dangerous marine life such as jellyfish.
When swimming at the beach it is important to remember that the Gulf of Mexico is a wilderness, not a swimming pool. Use common sense when enjoying the Gulf. Some safety tips to remember include:
- Swim near a life guard.
- Know your swimming abilities and limits, if you can’t swim stay out of the water.
- Swim in groups or use the buddy system; never swim alone.
- Be aware of weather conditions; get out of the water and away from the beach during electrical storms. Taking shelter in a building is best, but otherwise a car.
- Always enter the water, feet first every time!
- Don’t swim in murky waters or between dusk and dawn.
- Stay calm in the event of an emergency.
- Pay attention and know the meaning of beach warning flags. Pay attention to lifeguards.
- Avoid swimming in areas where people are fishing.
- To avoid being stung by a sting ray, shuffle your feet, this will stir up the sand and scare away sting rays.
- Always wear sunscreen or protect your skin with clothing.
- If you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard, have someone call 9-1-1. Throw the victim something that will float and yell instructions on how to escape. Remember, many drown while trying to save someone from a rip current.
Follow these tips to help make a visit to the beach a safe one!
Summertime and swimming at the beach just go together naturally in Florida with our state’s more than 1,000 miles of coastline. Many fond memories are created along these salty margins and the Panhandle region of the state has some of the top-rated beaches in the world. It is a great place to experience a relaxing, cool dip in the Gulf of Mexico on a balmy summer day. One thing to be aware of though is the possibility of an encounter with one of the Gulf’s “stinging” inhabitants and what to do if this occurs.
The Moon Jelly is a Common Inhabitant Along Panhandle Shores. Photo courtesy Florida Sea Grant
There are actually several different organisms that have the capability to sting. This is primarily their mechanism for capturing food but it may also serve to deter predators. Most belong to a group of organisms called “Cnidarians,” which includes the jellyfish. Most jellyfish are harmless to us and are important food sources for many other marine creatures, including some sea turtles, fish and even other jellies! Some species are even dried, shredded and eaten by humans. However, there are several types of jellyfish that will inflict a sting when brushed against and some that are actually a serious hazard. Keep in mind that people also react differently to most venoms, exhibiting varying degrees of sensitivity. The most dangerous types include some of the box jellyfish species (visit HERE for general map of worldwide jellyfish fatalities), and the blue-colored Portuguese man-o-war, which is sometimes common on our shores after sustained southerly winds during summer. A few of our locally common species that cause pain but of a generally less-severe nature include the moon jelly, sea nettle, and cannonball jellyfish. We even have some species of hydroids that look very much like a bushy brown or red algae. They are usually attached to the bottom substrate but when pieces break off and drift into the surf they can provide a painful encounter.
If you are stung there are a couple of things you can do to help and a couple of things you should not do. First, move away from the location by getting out of the water so you don’t encounter more tentacles. Carefully remove any visible tentacle pieces but not with your fingers. You should also change out of swimwear that may have trapped pieces of tentacles or tiny larval jellyfish against the skin. Do not rinse the area with fresh water as this causes the remaining stinging cells to fire their venomous harpoons. If symptoms go beyond a painful sting to having difficulty breathing or chest pain you should immediately call the Poison Information Center Network at 1-800-222-1222 or call 911.
Another thing to watch for in areas where public beaches display the beach warning flag system is a purple flag. This flag color at the beach indicates dangerous marine life and quite often it is flown when jellyfish numbers are at high levels. All of this is being written, not to scare you away from our beaches, but to help you enjoy our beautiful coastline with a little better understanding of what is out there and what to do if you happen to have a brush with a jellyfish. The vast majority of encounters are a minor irritation in an otherwise pleasant experience.