Sharks are drawing a great deal of attention in Florida, after several well-publicized attacks on humans and an unusual mass-gathering of the creatures in shallow waters along the state's Gulf Coast. Shark researchers acknowledge that attacks have been on the rise in Florida in recent years, but dismiss any notion that the animals are targeting humans.
Last year, 79 shark attacks on humans were reported worldwide - the largest number since tracking began in the 1950's. Of the 79 attacks, 34 occurred in Florida waters. That is more than 40 percent of the world total. Of those 34 attacks, two were fatal.
The trend is continuing this year, with 16 attacks reported in Florida to date. Last month, a bull shark bit off the arm of an eight-year-old boy near Pensacola. Doctors managed to re-attach Jessie Arbogast's arm, but the boy remains in a light coma, and may have suffered brain damage from loss of blood.
Shark researcher Michele Heupel of Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory says shark attacks are more frequent in Florida today than they were just 10 years ago. But she says any sudden concern about sharks is unwarranted.
"Attacks this year are a little bit below average from what we have been calling 'normal' for the last few years," she said. "I think, what is really happening this year is that we've had some sensational things happening, which have drawn a lot of media attention, and has made people look at sharks a lot harder, and think about them more than we normally do."
Ms. Heupel says world shark populations have declined precipitously in recent decades, endangering the long-term survival of many species. Thus, she says, the rise in shark attacks is not a matter of sharks infesting the seas and purposefully seeking human flesh, but of humans packing coastal regions and spending large amounts of time in the water.
"We are having record numbers of people at the beach, and getting in the water, and participating in water-based activities," said Ms. Heupel. "What that does is increase the probability that humans and sharks and other marine life are going to run into each other. When we put more people into the equation, it ups [increases] the chances of actually seeing these animals."
Earlier this week, hundreds of sharks, some more than three meters long, were spotted massed together in shallow waters north of Tampa. For days, spectacular video footage shot by a local television news crew filled the airwaves. One might think the images would dissuade people in the region from venturing into the water, but a random sampling of local scuba diving equipment retailers and instructors contacted by this reporter reveals no dip in business this week.
Scuba diving instructor Joyce Gordy, of Tarpon Springs, Florida, says the sharks gathered far from area beaches. She says the incident poses little cause for concern.
"They [the sharks] do it every year, and stay for about two days, maybe three," she says. "One year, they stayed three days, but most of the time it is a day to two days. And then they are gone. They go back out to deeper waters. And they are just in there feeding on the feeder fish."
Nevertheless, Ms. Gordy says there are a few rules all beach-goers should follow.
"You do not swim in the early morning," she says. "You do not swim late at night. You do not swim or snorkel in murky water. You do not wear anything shiny, and if you do happen to see a shark, stay still. Movement is what attracts them to you. If you stay still they will leave. The attacks happen by accident. They do not happen because sharks are targeting humans."
Statistically, a person is more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a shark. Even so, marine biologists say any time humans venture into the sea, they are entering a wild habitat. They say a healthy respect for the creatures that live there is warranted; panic is not.