2008 on track to break ‘Year of Shark’ record

The morning sun shone off the incoming surf like the reflection of a mirror, giving no hint of what swims beneath the surface.

But New Smyrna Beach resident Tim Baker believes avoiding a potentially painful encounter with a swimming set of teeth can be as simple as paying attention.

“I stay away from bait balls and diving birds,” the 38-year-old wave rider said while watching the rollers lap the shore recently.

And, if conditions aren’t to his liking, “I will go elsewhere.”

Not everyone is as observant or concerned, which might explain some of Volusia County’s 22 shark bites this year, tying the record of 22 shark/human encounters set during 2001’s “Year of the Shark.”

A Tennessee visitor became the 22nd victim of 2008 while swimming Sunday off the beach in Ormond-by-the-Sea.

But, why this year has equaled the record is something no one has been able to quantify.

“There is nothing that corresponds,” Beach Patrol Capt. Scott Petersohn said. “The conditions are no different than in 2000 or 2007.

“There is no rhyme or reason,” he said.

George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, would agree.

If one looks at human population growth, logic would dictate as more people venture into coastal waters, the number of bites would grow annually, but the data does not always support that.

“There are variations,” Burgess said.

Bad weather or the down economy can result in fewer tourists, thus fewer people in the water. There are also conditions affecting sharks. For example changes in ocean conditions or resource management practices that have allowed species like black tips, which frequent Volusia surf zones, to increase in number, may be part of the equation. And while differences arise year to year, a comparison of decade to decade shows the growth rate of bites tends to mirror the growth of human population in a particular area, he said.

“They are all factors that come into play,” Burgess said, adding more people and more sharks increase bite odds. “It is like buying 100 lottery tickets instead of just one.”

Peterson said one commonality he has found between 2001 and 2008 was the higher than normal number of human-shark encounters during the month of April. In 2001, 10 people were bitten between April 5 and April 28 — three on April 12 alone. This year, six people were attacked between April 3 and 28. Most years, he said, April sees only two or three interactions.

But he can only speculate on the cause.

“Maybe the baitfish came in early,” he said. “Or the surf may have been good in April.

One obvious difference between 2001 and 2008 has been the news coverage generated by such attacks. Seven years ago, national media lined the beaches in a feeding frenzy of activity, particularly after that fateful day in April. However, this year a story of sharks in Volusia County was on front pages of newspapers worldwide because of a quick-fingered photographer who was able to snap an image of a jumping shark caught in midair amid a group of waterbound surfers.

“That has not dampened business,” said Steve Dennis, executive vice president of the Southeast Volusia Chamber of Commerce.

Lake Mary surfer Jason Donaldson, 35, isn’t going to let the possibility of a shark encounter stop him from enjoying the sport he has participated in for the last 15 years.

“The sharks (out here) aren’t big enough to hurt you yet,” he said.

(via News Journal Online)

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