Expert: Shark was trying kill, eat kiteboarder during attack; 'This was the real thing'
By Michael LaForgia Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
STUART — A shark attack that killed a kiteboarder on Wednesday was the rarest and most frightening kind of strike, a case of a powerful 9-foot predator likely meaning to kill and eat its human prey, a leading shark expert said Friday.
"There's a big difference between the normal hit-and-run bites that we see on the coast of Florida and what we're unfortunately experiencing here this week," said George Burgess, keeper of the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File. "This thing here was closer to our preconception about what a shark attack is."
That preconception, stoked by books and movies, doesn't hold for the vast majority of shark bites, which occur when sharks snap at humans while going after fish. But in rare instances, a shark will come across a human bobbing in the waves and attack with intent.
That's what happened to Stephen Schafer, 38, in the water south of Stuart Beach on Wednesday, Burgess said.
"This was the real thing," Burgess said. "This was a bigger shark apparently seeing a human as an appropriately sized item worth pursuing."
About 4:15 p.m., Schafer was a quarter-mile offshore when at least one large shark, probably a bull or tiger, attacked and mortally wounded him, according to Burgess and autopsy results. The Stuart man died of blood loss despite a Martin County lifeguard's efforts to save him, said Dr. Linda O'Neil, who examined Schafer's body Thursday night.
O'Neil said Schafer was bitten twice, once on the buttocks and once on the right thigh. She said the bites, which were 9 to 10 inches in diameter, likely came from the same shark.
Schafer had a set of puncture wounds on each buttock, "like it bit across his bottom," O'Neil said. "The upper jaw got one side and the lower jaw got the other side."
The shark delivered a fatal, tearing bite to Schafer's right thigh, a wound so deep that one tooth struck his femur, O'Neil said.
"The femoral artery was intact but all the smaller arteries that lead to the femoral in the region of the right thigh were severed," O'Neil said, which led Schafer to bleed out while lifeguard Daniel Lund, 46, fought wind and waves to drag him to safety.
Schafer probably lost more than 2.5 liters of blood, or half the blood in his body, O'Neil said.
The doctor said Schafer also had a bite wound to his right hand. He probably got it trying to fend off the shark as it bit his thigh, she said.
The autopsy couldn't determine how long Schafer had been bleeding before he was dragged in, but O'Neil said it likely was a matter of minutes before the lifeguard got to him.
Burgess also examined Schafer's body Thursday night and agreed with O'Neil's findings. He said the size of the bite marks and the manner of attack indicated the shark likely was 8 or 9 feet long.
Bull and tiger sharks roam the Florida coast year-round. A bull shark was responsible for the state's last fatal attack in 2005 in the Panhandle, which Burgess said was "very similar" to Wednesday's incident.
This was the first fatal shark attack ever recorded in Martin County.
Some scientists have theorized that bull sharks are more aggressive because their bodies produce more testosterone, a hypothesis yet to be proven.
About four fatal shark attacks are recorded worldwide each year.
As Burgess studied Wednesday's attack, he offered these words of warning to surfers and swimmers: "To reduce risks, it's recommended people stick together in groups and stay close to shore."
Teague Taylor, a close friend of Schafer's, said Schafer always stressed to him the importance of the buddy system.
"I grew up watching way too much Jaws," Taylor said. "If there's anybody who's hesitant or, for lack of a better word, scared, it's me."
But, he added, he and other surfers were determined to get back in the water.
"It'll be good for all of us," he said. "We all need to get back out there. The more we prolong it, the more that fear kind of sets in ."
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