10 years ago, missing boy became Treasure Coast's lone shark attack fatality
9-year-old James Willie Tellasmon lost his life off Indian River County shore
By Lamaur Stancil (Contact)
Sunday, November 23, 2008
James Willie Tellasmon
James Willie Tellasmon would be taking his first steps into adulthood this year.
Instead, James was 9 years old when he stepped into the Atlantic Ocean and never returned. The boy, who teachers described as soft-spoken and studious, became a tragic anomaly in Treasure Coast history 10 years ago this week.
Authorities said James was attacked by a shark north of Jaycee Beach on Nov. 21, 1998. A 3 1/2-hour search that day proved fruitless. It wasn't until the next day searchers found part of the boy's body, severed by a shark bite.
James is the only person killed by a shark on the Treasure Coast. He is one of just 13 deaths in Florida attributed to sharks, according to records provided by University of Florida Museum of Natural History.
"It was one of the first incidents I had where I was dealing with a family facing that type of loss," said Vero Beach Police Lt. Matthew Monaco, 33, who was a rookie patrolman when he was called to Jaycee Beach the day James disappeared. "At the time, we didn't know we were dealing with a shark attack. We stayed at the beach until dark, and I went home that night thinking it was a drowning."
The following day, a dive team from Indian River County Fire Rescue discovered James' torso and legs in the water. The state medical examiner speculated a bull shark was the attacker, though other experts have said it may have been a tiger shark.
The boy had arrived at Jaycee Beach with family and friends early on the afternoon of Nov. 21, said Vero Beach lifeguard captain Nathan Rieck. He said he had some concerns about the family because they were walking north of the beach's guarded area.
"You need an extra pair of eyes looking out for you," Rieck said.
Thirty minutes after he lost sight of the beachgoers, Rieck noticed someone running frantically from the north side of the beach. Rieck and other lifeguards followed the man to the place where James disappeared and began searching for the boy.
"It was a long, horrible afternoon," Rieck said.
On the shore, Monaco talked with the family members.
"Part of my job was to be there with the family, but it bothered me that I couldn't dive in to help with the search," Monaco said.
Since the incident, reported shark attacks have been uncommon, but not far from the thoughts of local lifeguards.
"We keep an eye out for the bait fish, and we'll call people to come out of the water if we see them," Rieck said. "The important thing is for people to stay in the guarded areas of a beach. It's not a water theme park."
While the state Medical Examiner's Office was convinced the boy was killed by a shark, at least one expert who reviewed the evidence believed that wasn't the case. Instead, Erich Ritter, a researcher for the New Jersey-based Shark Research Institute, said James drowned first and his body was attacked after he died.
"No discolored water (blood) was seen" in the area James disappeared, Ritter wrote in his report. "It seems more likely that the boy, caught in the strong rip current, was drowned and his body was carried a distance offshore where it was scavenged by several species of sharks and marine animals."
Before his death, James attended Sebastian Elementary School. The 1999 yearbook was dedicated to him, said Principal Pat Donovan.
Attacks are most commonly reported along the coast in Central Florida. Here's a look at the number of unprovoked attacks in the state from 1882 to 2007:
More than 50: Volusia, Brevard and Palm Beach counties
20 to 29: Martin, St. Lucie and St. Johns counties
10 to 19: Indian River, Duval, Pinellas, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, and the Florida Keys
1 to 9: Bay, Collier, Escambia, Flagler, Sarasota, Lee, Manatee, Santa Rosa, Franklin, Nassau, Walton, Okaloosa, Gulf and Charlotte counties
Most attacks: Volusia, with 210
TREASURE COAST SHARK ATTACKS
Indian River County: 17 (one fatal, 1998)
St. Lucie County: 28 (none fatal)
Martin County: 27 (none fatal)
REDUCING RISK OF SHARK ATTACKS
•Always stay in groups; sharks are more likely to attack a lone person.
•Do not wander too far from shore — this isolates an individual and additionally places one far away from assistance.
•Avoid being in the water during darkness or twilight hours, when sharks are most active and have a competitive sensory advantage.
•Do not enter the water if bleeding or if menstruating — a shark's olfactory ability is acute, and sharks are attracted to blood.
•Do not wear shiny jewelry because the reflected light resembles the sheen of fish scales.
•Sightings of porpoises do not indicate the absence of sharks — both often eat the same food.
•Use extra caution when waters are murky, and avoid uneven tanning and bright-colored clothing — sharks see contrast particularly well.
•Refrain from excess splashing, and do not allow pets in the water because of their erratic movements.
•Exercise caution when in the area between sandbars or near steep dropoffs — these are favorite hangouts for sharks.
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