Surfers defy risk at New Smyrna Beach -- even in peak month for attacks
Ludmilla Lelis | Sentinel Staff Writer
September 2, 2007
NEW SMYRNA BEACH
Avid surfers such as Taylor Smith and Joseph "Jody" Coursey know that riding the waves near Ponce deLeon Inlet means risking an encounter with a shark. They see the sharks regularly.
The area has earned the reputation of being the "shark-bite capital of the world."
Smith and Coursey became part of that history last weekend as Volusia's 11th and 12th shark-attack victims for the year.
Beach officials and a shark-attack expert know they won't be the last.
September is historically the peak month for shark attacks in Florida. Though school is back in session, beach-goers still swarm to the warm ocean waters on weekends and shortened school days. Meanwhile, migratory sharks are returning from summer feeding in the north Atlantic.
"We had 12 bites last year, and it's likely we'll top that," said Scott Petersohn, Volusia County Beach Patrol captain. "It's just a matter of the odds."
Yet it doesn't deter the surfers, who seem willing to risk a shark bite, especially because no surfer or swimmer has ever been killed by a shark in Volusia County.
Coursey, who had five tendons severed when a shark caught his left hand Aug. 26, can't wait to go back.
"I'll definitely surf again. It's not a question of being afraid of getting in the water again," said the 54-year-old Tavares resident and home builder. "The fun you get out of surfing far outweighs the dangers."
There is no place in the world where shark attacks occur more often than the half-mile stretch of beach directly south of Ponce de Leon Inlet in Volusia County, according to George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, who investigates reports of human-shark interaction.
Of the 62 unprovoked shark attacks against humans around the world last year, a dozen cases happened in Volusia, primarily on that stretch in New Smyrna Beach.
That beach has had the most shark incidents for more than a dozen years. In 2001, dubbed the "summer of the shark," the national media focused on the county's record-breaking 22 shark attacks.
Why Volusia? The reason is simple, Burgess said. The inlet and its murky waters attract both surfers and sharks in droves.
"Volusia is always going to be on top as long as Volusia has that stretch of beach near the inlet that is a popular surfing area," said Burgess.
Surfers love the inlet because the granite jetty and the sandbars there produce consistent surfing waves. "It is one of the most popular surfing spots on the east coast of Florida," Petersohn said.
Sharks congregate for the rich smorgasbord of mullet, mojarra and other prey that swim in and out of the inlet. The local species -- blacktip and spinner sharks -- have a particularly aggressive feeding behavior, in which they rush through the schools of fish with open mouths that snap in all directions.
Sharks can make mistakes
When the water is too murky, a shark may mistake a foot or hand for a mullet.
That's what happened to Smith, 27, of New Smyrna Beach, when he surfed Aug. 25 and his left hand got in the way of a shark.
"I've seen sharks in the shallows plenty of times, hunting for small fish," Smith said. "It was a very quick bite. Right when he realized I wasn't a fish, he immediately let go."
Smith never felt any pain, just a bump against his left hand, which immediately swelled up. The lineup of lacerations across the back of his hand required nine stitches.
Coursey, a Florida native who enjoys many outdoor sports, tells a similar story, though his injuries were more serious, requiring 11/2 hours of surgery to reconnect several tendons.
He had been surfing for several hours when he spied a mackerel flip out of the water by his left side. "I knew something was chasing it," he said. "As my left hand cleared my left hip, the shark hit my hand.
"From the force of him chasing that mackerel, he pushed my hand toward my face. Then he released me," Coursey said.
Despite having been bitten, both surfers say they will be back in the water as soon as their injuries heal.
"I would have gone back out that day," Smith said. "The waves out there looked so much fun."
Unlike the typical Volusia incident, shark attacks in the Pacific Ocean involving tiger sharks or great white sharks have been fatal. Luckily for local surfers, those mighty species aren't the sharks that feed near the inlet.
Both worldwide and in Volusia County, the rate of shark attacks has hit a plateau since the peak years of 2000 and 2001, Burgess said.
In Florida, a decline in tourism after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks probably played a role, as did the 2004 hurricanes, in reducing the number of shark incidents during the past few years.
Some shark populations have also hit critically low numbers because of overfishing.
Yet Burgess thinks people have been getting smarter about sharks. The intense media coverage has taught many people about what they need to do to avoid the risk.
Local surfers say they understand the risk and try to avoid getting bitten. But it just might be inevitable.
"You're playing the odds, and eventually something is going to happen, though you hope it doesn't happen," Coursey said.
"I just got in the middle of a shark and its prey. It was my fault for being there at the wrong time."
Ludmilla Lelis can be reached at email@example.com
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