Two recent local unprovoked shark bites in Palm Beach County waters are vivid reminders that swimmers must be vigilant despite the urge to get outdoors as pandemic limitations vanish.
“We are visitors in the shark’s home when we go swimming. While there is a small likelihood of being bitten by a shark, we must always be aware,” said Stephen Kajiura, a professor of biological sciences at Florida Atlantic University.
Neither of the shark bites was fatal. Both occurred in shallow water.
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A man in his 50s was fishing off Lake Worth Beach Park on the morning of March 31 when a shark bit him on the knee. He was taken to St. Mary’s Medical Center where officials said his injury was not life-threatening.
Eleven days later, an adolescent boy was bitten on the right foot near his big toe off Highland Beach about 4 pm The boy was treated for non-life-threatening injuries at Bethesda Hospital East, according to Fire-Rescue officials.
What kind of sharks were the likely culprits?
Blacktip sharks now are continuing their annual northerly migration in big schools from South Florida back to coastal Virginia and North Carolina. Often confused with spinner sharks because they leap up and twist in the air, black tips, which can grow up to 6 feet, often come close to shore seeking smaller fish to eat, said Kajiura.
“There are thousands of blacktip sharks migrating through our area. This has been a typical year. Nothing unusual,” said James Davis, the director of aquatics for Palm Beach County, which oversees 14 lifeguarded county beach parks between Tequesta and Boca Raton.
Watching her 12-year-old son Sean frolic with other children on the exposed rocks off Ocean Reef Park during noontime low tide this week, Rene Gilligan said she read about the annual shark migration. As she sat on the sand, a steady northeast wind flapped two warning flags on the lifeguard stand: purple for dangerous marine life, yellow for medium-wave hazard.
The unlikelihood of a shark attack, as well as the urge to get outside, made hitting the beach impossible for her and Sean to resist, said the visitor from Troy, Mich.
“After all these months indoors, how can we not come out and enjoy this beautiful beach?” she asked, holding up her flat palms as 3-foot waves lapped the shore under the bright blue sky.
Water activities are booming in Palm Beach County
Beach activity — and other water pastimes such as boating, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and diving — is booming, say local recreation organizers. About 6 million people visited Palm Beach County’s 14 guarded beach parks in 2021, up from the usual of about 5 million, said Davis.
“All activities — pickleball, swimming, hiking, bicycling — have been packed. People really want to be outside,” said Davis.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is more people are having water-related accidents, said Jim Emmons, executive director of the Orlando-based Water Sports Foundation Inc.
When the pandemic hit, boating sales skyrocketed. So did sales of kayaks, canoes and paddleboards.
“People saw boats and other watercraft as a way to social distance. The problem is, many of these people are getting on the water without proper safety training,” said Emmons.
Nationwide, both accidents and deaths on watercraft increased about 25 percent in 2020 compared with 2019. Emmons expects another increase when those figures are announced later this year for 2021.
The Sports Foundation is promoting more public water safety programs. People having their first watercraft experience is the target audience, said Emmons.
“We’re seeing a spike in people signing up for watercraft safety programs. That’s encouraging,” said Emmons.
With big crowds expected at Palm Beach County beaches this Easter weekend, swimmers should be careful. Avoid swimming in murky water close to shore where a shark could mistake you for a smaller fish, said Kajiura, who scuba dives as a hobby.
Blacktip and other sharks easily can tell the difference between a human and a fish in Palm Beach County’s clear ocean waters, he said.
“When I see a shark, I’m excited. They are amazing animals,” Kajiura said.