Florida has the highest number of shark attacks worldwide with a documented 488 attacks in the past 120 years, according to the Internal Shark Attack File. Volusia County alone has the highest number, with 157 attacks. With these numbers in mind, many beach-goers have an incurable fear that they will be the next victim. Not to mention the effect of shark movies, such as the classic Jaws, on the fear struck public.
But even though Florida shores are home to many sharks, there haven’t been significant attacks this year, said Alexia Morgan, shark researcher at the Ichthyology department of the Florida Museum of Natural History.
“Florida is the No. 1 place for shark attacks around the world,” said Eric Hovland, a senior biologist at the Florida Aquarium. “Granted, we have more coastline and more swimmable waters year around, it will bring the most amount of tourists. Statistically, there are more people swimming in Florida in January than there are anywhere else in the nation,” said Hovland.
Given the ratio of people in the water to the number of shark attacks, Hovland said people should not be so concerned about the occurance of an attack.
“We do have a healthy population of sharks off of the Florida coast, including about 25 different species,” Hovland said.
Sharks are often attracted to surfers because of the colors on their wetsuits and the motion surfers take when paddling. Almost all animals in the ocean have a light bottom and a dark top to their skin. The reason for the light skin on the bottom is because when the predator looks up toward the water’s surface, the sun makes the animal blend in with the surroundings. When the sharks look at a fish struggling, the visual key for a shark is the color of the fish. The shark sees a darker image and knows the fish is swimming sideways and it is hurt, so the shark dives in for the kill, said Hovland.
In the same way, a black wetsuit on a surfer appears as a dark fish and the movement of the arms and legs dangling from the board looks like a fish in distress. This is why sharks bite the legs and arms that are dangling off of the board. It’s instinct, Hovland said.
“A shark attack is so statistically rare, it is like telling yourself you are going to get hit by a bus,” Hovland said. “Sharks are more likely to encounter a person, rather than people encountering a shark.” Sharks are attracted to the scent of blood. There are other stimuli as well, including fish swimming in the area.
“It’s like hearing a pin drop in the middle of traffic, then locating it,” Hovland said. “If you look at the sharks, you would know that if they truly wanted to create damage they would do a lot more than just bite a person here and there, they would cause a lot more problems,” Hovland said.
“The most misconceptions of sharks are that they are mindless eating machines,” Hovland said. “The amount of food that the shark actually consumes is very small; I feed the sharks here three times a week, with about 1 percent of their body weight of food each time.”
Hovland said sharks have existed for more than 400 million years but only in the past few decades did humans become their No. 1 predators.
“Sharks are extremely slow reproducers they have long life expectancy patterns but they do not reach sexual maturity until 15-20 years old with only reproducing about one shark,” Morgan.
A program at the Florida Aquarium, ‘Fear to Fascination,’ is offered to help people conquer their fear of sharks, and it takes them underwater to experience the fascination of sharks, said Hovland.
“Your risk of a shark attack are compared to your chances of getting bit by animals in New York City, hit by lightning, having an accident in your home, or being attacked by an alligator,” says the Internal Shark Attack File.