- The odds of being killed by a shark are lower than 1 in 3.7 million.
- Fatality rates have been declining for decades, reflecting advances in beach safety, medical treatment and public awareness.
- COVID-19 has caused shark bite numbers in the past two years to dip slightly.
Jeremy Carr, 41, of Stuart, Florida, is a lifelong surfer, marine biology graduate and lover of everything that has to do with the water. During a dawn patrol session on Aug. 21, 2021, at one of his favorite surf breaks, Walton Rocks on Hutchinson Island in St. Lucie County, he had something happen he never thought would.
His left foot was grabbed by a shark.
It happened in the wash of the shore break as he began to paddle back out to the lineup. He had just finished riding his sixth wave of the morning and was eager to ride more. But he knew the bite was deep and painful and bleeding profusely.
It didn’t dawn on him until later at the hospital that it might be life-changing.
Sharks being sharks
Carr knew the shark bite was one of those one in a million occurrences. However, data released by the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) Monday suggests that the rate may be a little bit higher as once again, Florida ranked No. 1 in unprovoked shark bites in 2021. The annual report released by the Gainesville-based organization revealed:
- 73: Unprovoked shark bites worldwide
- 47: Unprovoked shark bites in US waters (ranked 1st)
- 28: Unprovoked shark bites in Florida (ranked 1st)
- 17: Unprovoked shark bites in Volusia County (ranked 1st)
- 51%: Surfing, activity when bit by a shark (ranked 1st)
- 11: Fatalities worldwide, 9 unprovoked
Researchers with ISAF, which is a division of the University of Florida’s Florida Museum of Natural History, scour media reports for news of shark bites, include reports from field researchers and verify with medical personnel the veracity of the information.
The ISAF team investigated 137 alleged shark-human interactions in 2021 to confirm the 73 unprovoked bites and an additional 39 provoked bites.
“Unprovoked attacks” are defined as incidents in which a live human is bitten in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark, according to the report. “Provoked attacks” occur when a human initiates interaction with a shark in some way, including spearfishers, divers that harassed or tried to touch sharks, people that tried to feed, unhook or remove sharks from a fishing net.
Shark fatalities higher
Globally, 11 fatalities are alarming, up from 10 in 2020, which was the highest since 2013. It’s about twice the annual average of five, but there were two in 2019 and one in 2018.
The majority of the fatalities once again occurred in Australia, where three people lost their lives. New Caledonia (2) and New Zealand (1) meant six of the fatalities took place in the Southern Pacific Ocean, where great white sharks, the largest carnivorous shark, prey on seals.
One fatality occurred in the US in California on Dec. 24 when an unresponsive male surfer was pulled from the surf at Morro Bay. It was the 29th unprovoked shark bite and second shark bite fatality in the state in the past 10 years.
kitesurfer Stephen Shafer, 38, of Stuart, was the most recent victim of an unprovoked and fatal shark bite in Florida. He was kite surfing Feb. 3, 2010, when he was accidentally bitten on the thigh by a suspected bull shark and died of severe blood loss.
Still, ISAF reports the odds of being killed by a shark are lower than 1 in 3.7 million.
“This year’s increase in fatalities does not necessarily constitute a shift in the long-term trends. Fatality rates have been declining for decades, reflecting advances in beach safety, medical treatment and public awareness,” the report says.
When a bite isn’t a bite
TCPalm maintains a Treasure Coast shark attack database extending back to 2004 and accounting for records of 45 shark bites. There were seven shark bites on beaches in the three-county area in 2021 – three in Indian River, two in St. Lucie, and two in Martin. However, ISAF lists only two in St. Lucie, one in Martin and none in Indian River.
“It’s possible there were recorded bites that our researchers were unable to confirm. They follow up on each reported bite with first responders and doctors, and the ongoing pandemic has made this particularly difficult, as their efforts are concentrated on COVID-19 mitigation,” wrote Jerald Pinson, a Florida Museum of Natural History science writer, in an email to TCPalm.
COVID-19 has caused shark bite numbers in the past two years to dip slightly, ISAF researchers reported: “The incidence of bites both in the US and globally have been declining. The numbers for 2020 represent a more precipitous drop than expected based on an analysis of long-term trends.2021’s numbers are back at typical levels, which we attribute to the resumption of marine recreational activities after the previous year’s pandemic-associated lockdowns.”
Welcome back to the water
Carr knew as soon as he was bitten that he would get back in the water. The shark bite was a temporary setback. I have stressed the word “temporary.”
“The second my orthopedic surgeon said I could, I got back in the water, and I was still in a walking boot,” he said. “I got one of those Sharkbanz repellent bands for my ankle — like all my friends and everybody wears now since my bite — and went out to get a couple of rides in.”
That was in early November, less than three months after his bite. It was a good day with a nice swell and Carr went to Stuart Beach and rode his longboard sitting down, on his knees, and once lying down tombstone style.
“I’m at about 80-90% range of motion for my foot and ankle and my doctor says I should get back to 100%. I’m still in weekly physical therapy breaking up the scar tissue, but I’ve been able to stand up on my surfboard and have been out seven or eight times now,” Carr said.
Still, he had to laugh the first time he returned to Walton Rocks in November.
“I had just paddled into the lineup and sat up on my board. All of a sudden, over my shoulder behind me, I saw a spinner shark jump high into the air several yards away and splash back into the water,” he said. “Everybody was laughing. It was as if the sharks were saying to me, ‘Welcome back!’ “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism