Georgia boy, 12, fights off shark in Fernandina Beach; 4 bitten since Thursday on First Coast
Josh Bitner Jr. was playing Sunday in the waist-deep surf off Fernandina Beach when he yelled to his parents to show them a big seashell, and “something grabbed my leg and turned me around.”
The 12-year-old Georgia boy screamed “shark,” but his father thought he was fooling around. Then it turned him around again biting him a second time, Josh told reporters Monday at UF Health Jacksonville.
“I was going backward dragging my foot,” he said. “I pushed myself out of the water until people saw I was split open, then they lifted me out of the water.”
Josh was treated by paramedics for lacerations on his leg, then taken to UF Health for stitches. He is in good condition, hospital officials said.
This was the first shark bite reported in Fernandina Beach this year. But another was reported Sunday at Vilano Beach, plus two more Thursday at Jacksonville Beach and Little Talbot Island, bringing the total to seven in Northeast Florida since June.
The number can be blamed on bait fish like mullet, International Shark Attack File Curator George Burgess said. Mullet leave local rivers to spawn in the ocean in late summer. So when sharks, barracudas and other predators “create havoc” as they head for the free food along the shore, it may be time to avoid the surf, Burgess said.
“You have an unholy soup of mullets, sharks and humans, and it is a formula for what we have this time of year,” said Burgess at Gainesville’s Florida Museum of Natural History. “We are visitors to the sea and when we visit, we have to be a bit more careful because there are more fish around. One of the ‘do’s’ is to avoid any situation when [bait] fish are seen in the water or birds are diving to catch them.”
Florida has had 16 shark-bite reports so far in 2015, according to the Shark Attack File. That includes six in Volusia County, five in Duval and one each in St. Johns and Nassau counties.
Sunday’s Fernandina Beach incident occurred about 12:30 p.m. at the Jasmine Street beach access, police said. Josh and his mother, who live in Sparks north of Valdosta, were visiting his father who works in Northeast Florida. Josh said he wanted to swim before the splint on his right foot, broken in a football accident, was replaced by a cast.
He said what he thinks was a lemon shark was “a little bit smaller” than him, and he’s 4-foot-9.
“I grabbed its top fin and lifted it out of the water and punched it,” the 12-year-old said. “It was just instinct. If something is turning me around and hurting me, then I’m going to punch it.”
Meanwhile, 16-year-old Filippo Schiavo was bitten in the hand about 7:30 a.m. Sunday while waist-deep off Vilano Beach, according to the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office.
The St. Augustine teen said he was shooting photos when he felt a tug on his right arm, then surfaced to find his injuries, according to the police report. He said he didn’t see a shark, but did see a lot of bait fish around him before he was bitten.
Then Thursday a former lifeguard was surfing off Little Talbot Island when he was bitten. The wound required 38 staples, Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue Capt. Rob Emahiser said.
Another surfer, 20-year-old Bryan Liebetrau, also was bitten on his right foot Thursday afternoon near 11th Street South in Jacksonville Beach, Emahiser said.
He said so many surfers told him that they saw sharks off Jacksonville Beach on Sunday that he got out of the water.
“It is simple math, if there are a ton of bait fish, there are a ton of predators,” Emahiser said.
Other recent local incidents include a child possibly bitten by a shark Aug. 29 in Atlantic Beach south of Hanna Park. On Aug. 19 police said a 10-year-old girl was bitten on the right leg near the 2500 block of Beach Proper South in Jacksonville Beach. And on June 28 a woman was bitten by something that could have been a shark near 37th Avenue South in Jacksonville Beach, Emahiser said.