At least five surfers and swimmers were bitten by sharks over a recent nine-day period. The incidents boost Volusia County to a total of nine shark bites this year, more than double the four reported last year.
Terry Fenzil-Salvano and her family were swimming off Daytona Beach Shores last Wednesday when a shark fin emerged like a scene out of a movie.
“We were floating around and talking when a fin emerged from the water and glided by my son’s girlfriend and I about four to five feet away,” said Fenzil-Salvano, who was vacationing from Telford, Pennsylvania.
The family scrambled out of the water before they could become the latest victims of a flurry of shark bites off Volusia County’s beaches.
At least five surfers and swimmers were bitten by sharks over a recent nine-day period. The incidents boost Volusia County to a total of nine shark bites this year, more than double the four reported last year. Between the bites and the increase in shark sightings, beachgoers are wondering what’s going on out there.
Beach safety officers, shark researchers and fishermen cite a combination of factors, including large numbers of people in the water and ocean currents bringing bait fish closer to shore that in turn attract sharks.
Surf conditions were good last week, said Capt. Tamara Malphurs with Volusia County Beach Safety and Ocean Rescue, so that may have lured more people out to deeper water. It’s happened before.
A News-Journal analysis shows the recent bites were the most over nine days dating back to at least 2009. But the analysis — of a News-Journal database of every reported bite on the county’s beaches dating back to 2009 — shows a flurry of bites occurs every few years.
Three people were bitten on the same day on May 17, 2009 and on September 18, 2016. Three people were bitten within seven days in September 2012. And the following September four people were bitten over 10 days.
Volusia County usually leads the world in the number of yearly shark bites, but the bites are often more characterized as nips than “attacks,” a case of mistaken identity when sharks think splashing hands and feet are fish, bite and let go once they realize their mistake.
Jimmy Hull, a commercial fisherman who owns Hull’s Seafood Restaurant and Market in Ormond Beach, said the most recent bites have “everything to do” with a colder ocean current or upwelling that is bringing the food sources for sharks closer to shore.
In an upwelling, cold, nutrient-rich water from the bottom of the ocean rises to the surface. It’s cloudy and filled with food that attracts bait fish, which in turn attract larger fish, including sharks. A colder current showed up more than a month ago, said Hull.
From Hull’s point of view, “the shark population is enormous.”
David Caruthers, owner of Strippin Lips Fishing Charters, also has been seeing lots of sharks.
“Sandbar sharks are everywhere,” said Caruthers. He also sees “a lot” of hammerheads and Atlantic sharpnose sharks. In July, he snapped photos of a whale shark he saw about 10 miles east of Ponce Inlet.
“I can’t tell you how many sharks I see daily,” he said. “If people only knew.”
Catch study figures available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries show steady increases since 2000 for some species off the Southeast Atlantic coast, including the sandbar, black tip and Atlantic sharpnose sharks.
The agency has begun an assessment of shark populations in the Atlantic, said John Carlson, a NOAA research biologist.
While some shark species have recovered from previous population declines and seem to be increasing — including the black tips often blamed for bites off the Volusia coast — Carlson said other species, such as the dusky shark, are taking longer to recover. That’s in part because it takes 20 years or more for the sharks to mature to breeding age.
Carlson believes it’s more likely the recent bites could be blamed on an increase in people going to the ocean, surfing and fishing, which increases the probability of bites.
“Still, the chances of being bitten or attacked by sharks are really rare,” Carlson said. “You have a better chance of being injured in a car on the way to the beach than you do of being injured by a shark when you’re in the water.”
Malphurs said sharks also are seen more often when the nearshore waters are more clear than normal.
For beachgoers, the shark encounters have been a surprise, but weirdly coincidental with the Discovery Channel’s recent annual “Shark Week” programming.
Fenzil-Salvano, 47, has vacationed at the Shores since she was a child. “I can honestly say this is the first time I’ve ever had a sighting while I was swimming,” she said. “What a way to celebrate ‘Shark Week.’”
The incident won’t prevent her from returning to the beach. “They are supposed to be there. I’d be more sad if there were no sharks,” she said. “I’m sure they are there and we (usually) don’t know it. Just happens that this time I got to see its fin.”
Rob Bader feels the same way, despite two shark encounters during the week he, his wife and family were vacationing from Cincinnati. On Monday last week he and his wife drove over from Orlando to watch the sun rise and spend the day on New Smyrna Beach. On the way, Bader’s wife told him she had heard there was a shark bite over the weekend.
“But I figured the odds of two shark bites happening in two days were nearly impossible, so I went out into the water,” he said. They noticed the purple flag flying at the beach entrance and knew from previous vacations that meant marine life could be in the water.
“I was about waist deep when I saw something in the water to my left, maybe three or four feet away,” he said. As he made a hasty exit to the shore where his wife stood, “she had this shocked look on her face and asked ‘Was that just a shark fin?’” He replied: “Yeah, I thought I just saw one next to me.”
A couple of days later, he stood on the balcony at the Sea Dip hotel and watched a shark swim south, maybe 50 feet offshore. “Its top fin crept out of the water 10 or 11 times,” he said.
Once the shark was past, they went out to swim. “Yeah, there was a shark in the water,” he said. “But it’s the ocean. That’s to be expected.”
When you see a shark at the beach
If you see a shark at the beach, what should you do?
Notify the closest lifeguard.
What will the lifeguard do?
Make announcements and warn people to leave the water temporarily.
What if you’re not near a lifeguard?
Advise other swimmers in the area. Officials said there’s no point in notifying Volusia County Beach safety personnel because the shark would probably be out of the area before they arrived.