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Love Bites

Learning to live in peace (not pieces) with sharks.

June 1, 2002
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Pensacola, Florida, July 8, 2001, dusk-Eight-year-old Jessie Arbogast was splashing about in the shallows, enjoying life in the warm water. Then, with no warning, a bull shark sank its teeth into his arm. Jessie would never enjoy life the same way again.

His uncle, who witnessed the attack, wrestled the beast to shore. On the beach, a park ranger pumped four bullets into the shark’s tiny brain, pulled Jessie’s severed arm from its dying mouth, and rushed the boy to a hospital where surgeons took 12 hours to reattach the limb.

And so began-key theme music-the Summer of the Shark. Every time you turned on the news, you saw images of sharks patrolling the East Coast, attacking, snacking on, and maiming innocent beachgoers.

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Fortuitously timed books came out about this country’s first bloody summer-the New Jersey shark attacks of 1916. Another on the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in WWII, the crew becoming a buffet, made the best-seller list. It was a media feeding frenzy-pun most definitely intended.

Yet, at the same time, divers in Cuba were hand feeding cousins of the shark that got little Jessie. “Since 1985 people have been diving with the bull sharks here and no attack has ever happened,” says Elda Brizuela, an Emmy Award-winning nature filmmaker and shark researcher. Back in the Keys, some guy was riding hammerheads for fun, and over in the Bahamas, a University of Miami professor was taking kids on underwater shark-feeding tours.

In reality, 2001 was an off year for attacks. Only 3 people died worldwide (in Brazil, North Carolina, and Virginia), compared with 12 in 2000. Steve Webster, a marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, says 1993 had the highest number of fatalities, with 14. To put it in context, he adds that in the same year 200 people were killed by jellyfish. But we’re not having nightmares about jellyfish.

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There’s something about sharks that gets us. A fishing buddy, and psychologist, calls it high-concept death. It’s a primal fear. Modern man expects to die in a 21st-century way, such as a car wreck or cancer. Not to be devoured like part of some ancient food chain. And worse, to be alive during most of the process. So it’s no wonder we hate-and fear-sharks.

Our instincts say one thing, yet the facts tell us sharks aren’t the threat we make them out to be. The truth is that a shark’s nature isn’t easy to define. They may not be friendly, but they aren’t always out for blood either.

Miss Understood

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Although it’s easy to laugh, albeit nervously, at media hype, Summers of the Shark-seasons when they seem to go on a murderous rampage-have been documented.

David Kelton, a statistician and professor at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business, says the phenomenon could be what is known as a Poisson burst, or the when-it-rains-it-pours law. “I don’t know anything about sharks,” Kelton admits. “But shark attacks happening in bursts doesn’t mean anything extraordinary. In fact, it’s quite ordinary.”

This idea of things suddenly happening is named for the French mathematician Siméon Denis Poisson. He found that events that occur randomly and independently of one another will experience a burst of activity, followed by a long period when nothing happens, then another burst, and so on. It’s like accidents at a factory or customers coming into a store. Poisson discovered this in the early 19th century while commissioned by the Prussian army to find out why so many officers were being kicked by their horses. “I don’t think the horses got together and decided to kick the officers all at once,” Kelton says. Nor, for that matter, do sharks get together and discuss eating humans. So it may not be ocean dumping, commercial fishing, or any one fact that you can point to that causes these bouts of bloodletting.

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No matter what their timing, sharks do kill people. In their defense, Wes Pratt, a marine biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, Apex Predators Division, claims that 999 times out of 1,000, a shark will swim out of the way to avoid humans. “They’re just misunderstood big fish,” he says. Somehow that doesn’t seem to get most of us feeling warm and fuzzy. The more common reaction is that 1 out of 1,000 is too much. They’re evil. We should kill them-and we do.

Of the 360 species of shark, 80 are threatened with extinction. Each year humans eliminate between 10 million and 30 million sharks. On the other hand, the Global Shark Attack File (GSAF), part of the Shark Research Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, the only organization that scientifically investigates shark attacks, lists only 1,500 fatalities due to shark attack since the first verifiable assault in 1560. In the war against sharks, it looks like we’re winning.

Six species are implicated in the majority of attacks. The meanest is the bull shark, which has a sneaky habit of feeding in fresh water, where we don’t expect them. In the 1930s one was caught in the Mississippi River north of St. Louis. Also on the most-wanted list are great whites, tiger sharks, hammerheads, blue sharks, and oceanic white tips, which decimated the crew of the USS Indianapolis. Usually, though, sharks aren’t out to purposely eat us.

Erich Ritter, a marine biologist at GSAF, says sharks are often just using their jaws to explore their environment. It’s like a baby sticking a block in her mouth to learn what it is. “When a shark comes across a surfer in the water, it wants to see what the surfer is,” says Ritter, who has a lot of experience swimming with-and being bitten by-bulls and great whites. “So it bites him.” Generally speaking, sharks have all the food they want, so if you’re not on their menu, they usually let you go, then swim away. According to Ritter, many shark attacks are accidents-at least from the shark’s point of view.

In the Jessie Arbogast case, Ritter talked with the surgeon and was shown photos of the carnage. “The first bite on the thigh, and the arm that was resting on it, showed the small puncture wounds common to an exploratory bite,” Ritter recounts. “When the shark let go, the boy started pushing it away with his hand. Being in shallow water and not able to back up or submerge, the shark retaliated with a ‘stress bite’ to the boy’s arm with serious intent.” Both were natural reactions, triggering a horrible end result.

Then there’s Manny Puig (pronounced pweeg), who can’t seem to do anything wrong around sharks, no matter what he does, which includes holding them, as he is doing with a bull shark in the photograph on page one. Puig started hanging out with sharks when he was 18. Now, at 47, with gray-streaked hair down to his shoulders, he’s their best friend. The way he explains it, riding a shark is easy. “I let the shark feed toward me and let him get comfortable,” he says with a soft Cuban lilt. “Then I grab on to him and go with him. I get on his back and hold his dorsal fin and go as far as I want.” Sounds like fun. How does he pull off this stunt without becoming a meal? “I can read sharks and know how they think and how to interact with them. Do it wrong and you may get an explosive reaction, with the shark tearing into you.” And he should know. Puig has been bitten once on the leg while watching a feeding frenzy, plus a couple of times on the fingers. “They have a limit,” he says. “Annoy them the wrong way and they’re quick to retaliate. They have a temper.”

A View From the Beach

Okay, so they’re not malicious murderers and you’re more likely to get hit by lightning than become a shark’s happy meal. Just don’t get too complacent. Mike Capuzzo, author of last summer’s best-seller Close to Shore, about the 1916 shark attacks, says his research shows that the animals develop a taste for human flesh. The subject of his book was credited with killing four people in 12 days. “It was hunting humans,” says Capuzzo. The nation was so panicked that President Woodrow Wilson sent the Coast Guard out to assassinate the beast. Finally, a seven-foot-long shark (never accurately defined as to what type) answering the perpetrator’s description was killed, and during the autopsy, 15 pounds of human flesh was found in its stomach. Peter Benchley borrowed the tale for his book Jaws, which became Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster. Ever since, people have been afraid to go into the water.

Although the fearsome villain in Jaws was manufactured (the mechanical shark “Bruce” couldn’t even swim), the experts think the likelihood of becoming shark bait is very real. Webster, for instance, says, “Any increase in shark attacks is definitely a result of more people spending more time in the water, providing more opportunities for sharks to attack.” And, he notes, there’s a lot of coastline in Florida, where 50 out of the 71 attacks since 2000 have occurred. There’s more coastline there per person than any other state. It’s a matter of numbers-and odds.

Ritter thinks there’s more to it than having too many people in the water. As one of the world’s most informed researchers on shark attacks, he concludes that 90 percent of all U.S. attacks are due to sportfishing. For example, he links the Arbogast incident to a boat chumming off the beach an hour before and up current of the spot where the boy was hit. “It was low tide, a lot of fishing was going on, and baitfish were in the water,” Ritter says.

Brizuela has a different opinion. “Sharks attack because there are city chemicals or rubbish in the sea and we dredge the sand from the ocean to build up the beaches,” she says. “We’re changing the natural environment of these animals.” She may have something here. Away from Cuba’s cities the shoreline is still unspoiled. Even with the water filled with fish blood, the typically aggressive female bull shark has no history of attacking humans there.

Obviously, there is no answer. Sharks remain an innocent force of nature that can be misunderstood with deadly consequences. “I’ve played with them,” Ritter says. “You can pet a bull shark, even hug it.” Just don’t turn your back on it.

How to Hug a Hammerhead

You’re out swimming and dog-paddle into a shark. It’s all over but the bleeding and screaming, right? Not so fast. If you see the shark, you’re on your way to a clean getaway. According to Cal State marine biologist Chris Lowe, 85 percent of shark victims never see their attacker. That puts you in the lucky 15 percent. Now, how do you encourage it to leave you alone?

“Sharks are sensitive to your nervous system,” explains Elda Brizuela, Emmy Award-winning nature filmmaker. “People who swim with sharks often practice meditation.”

So now that you’re calm while staring death in the face, you should try to stop breathing. “When these guys in Cuba feed the sharks, they take their regulators out so there are no bubbles,” says Brizuela. She also advises that you try to position yourself to the side of the shark rather than in front of it. Try to keep arm and leg motion to a minimum, lest your hands and feet look like fish. If you can, head to the bottom and squat or kneel. “You have to be humble when you go into their realm.”

According to Wes Pratt, a marine biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, dealing with sharks is easy. “Get out of the water,” he says. “Running away, backing out, is the most prudent thing to do. If one of these guys is having a bad day, if he’s hungry or cranky, fend it off with anything at hand. Bang on its snout, poke it in the eyes. The first thing to do is end the encounter and get out of the water.”

Adds Steve Webster, a marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California: It’s also prudent to stay out of the water at dusk or dawn-feeding time for Jaws. Or you can move to Kansas and take up tennis. Which sounds like an even worse death.

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