Most people bitten by sharks in the shallow, murky water of Volusia County, on central Florida’s east coast near Daytona Beach, just feel a tug, and maybe some thrashing around their ankles. Then they look down to see one of their legs streaming with blood, pierced by dozens of puncture holes. It happens all the time on the 75-km stretch of coast, because Volusia County has the largest number of shark attacks in the world. Of 639 bites worldwide between 1999 and 2008, Volusia County had 135. That’s more than one-fifth of the entire world’s attacks, and about one-third of all attacks in the U.S.
“When you’re surfing on a wave you can sometimes even see sharks underneath you,” says Jeremy Johnston, a long-time surfer raised on the east coast of Florida, who’s had sharks bump into his legs, but has been lucky enough to avoid any bites. “You see one and you lie down, float on the board and go straight into shore. It’s scary.”
The University of Florida recently did a study on the sharks of Volusia County, and figured out why they’re so prone to chomping on beach goers, and why they especially target surfers. “The nature of the sport, the kicking of the feet, the wipeouts, are provocative,” said George Burgess, director of the university’s International Shark Attack File. “Sharks in that environment have to make quick decisions. Sometimes they bite and instead of finding a mullet they have a human hand.”
A nutrient-rich inlet with strong tides, high surf and well-developed sandbars brings in huge numbers of mullet, mackerel and other prey fish, which in turn attract the 1.5- to 2.5-m spinner, bull and blacktip sharks that are plentiful along the Florida coast. Those same conditions also make for excellent surfing, which attracts crowds of people. “On any given day where there’s a little wave you can find almost 200 people out in the water,” says Johnston.
The higher the concentration of people, the greater the chance someone will encounter a shark, and all those feet and ankles make it easy for multiple predators to mistake a human limb for a fish. The vast majority of bites are on legs, and Burgess’s study also found that they usually occur in less than two metres of water and with people wearing swimsuits with contrasting colours, which sharks can easily spot.
But because the sharks in the area are far smaller than the three-to six-metre great whites seen in Hollywood movies, there’s never been a lethal attack in the county, and the damage done is usually similar to a nasty dog bite. People “don’t even feel it,” says Johnston. “They see a big old gash or puncture and the flesh is flapped to the side.”
Signs warning about the shark-ridden waters are posted around area beaches, but they are little deterrent to surfers and swimmers, and short of avoiding the water there isn’t much they can do to prevent a bite. “You’ve just got to know you’re taking a risk,” says Johnston. “It’s their home. You get in the way, they’ll bite.”