Ideal conditions for surfers — and sharks
NEW SMYRNA BEACH, FLORIDA — Gary Miller has surfed all over the world but never sees more sharks than he does when he’s riding the waves here on his home beach.
“The sharks are the worst right here,” said Miller, who lives in the neighboring town of Edgewater. “I see them all the time.”
That might explain why this quaint tourist destination and surrounding beaches in Volusia County on Florida’s east coast are known as the “shark bite capital of the world.”
Last year, nearly 15 percent of the shark bites worldwide — 10 of the 72 total reported — happened right off these beaches. The county has led the world in shark bites for years, a phenomenon that experts say is the likely result of New Smyrna Beach’s popularity with surfers and its location near an inlet to one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in the world, the Indian River Lagoon system.
"When you put a mix of a lot of people and a lot of sharks together, you’re going to have shark bites," said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. Burgess tracks shark bites worldwide.
Most of the local bites happen on the north end of New Smyrna Beach, usually near the inlet. “Inlets are always hot spots for sharks and other predators” because of the tides and sea life moving through them, Burgess said. “That means predators can sit outside there and get a tidal smorgasboard right in front of them.”
Dredging and a pair of jetties flanking the inlet have built up these “very nice underwater sand dunes right off the side” that create the kind of waves that attract surfers, Burgess said. “So the surfers are enjoying a place that is also shared by reasonably abundant prey fishes and sharks.”
Last year, Tristen Durham of Edgewater, Florida, was bitten on his foot as he jumped off a wave while surfing near the jetty in New Smyrna Beach.
"I hit the surface and pushed off and it grabbed my foot and kind of drug me a little bit," said Durham, 15. He never got a look at the shark, he said, but "it was pretty big."
Durham said he wasn’t scared. "I was more mad than anything that I had to be taken out of the water," he said. "It was a fun day."
Durham precisely fit Burgess’ profile for those most often bit: Young, male surfers. And, like most surfers who get nipped, Durham couldn’t wait to get back in the water to go surfing again. He said he never even thinks about the bite, even when he goes in the water, unless someone else brings it up.
Debbie Salamone of Orlando was walking waist-deep in the ocean along Canaveral National Seashore, just south of New Smyrna Beach, when she was bitten in 2004.
"All of a sudden this big fish jumped out of the water right next to me," said Salamone, who later organized The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation group. She realized it was an indicator sharks might be in the water. As she turned to go, a shark grabbed her foot.
"The fish had very conveniently gotten out of the way and now my foot looks just like the fish," she said. At the same time she could feel the shark clamped onto her foot, she felt slithering around her legs, which Burgess told her later was probably a school of fish.
"I’m absolutely confident the shark made a mistake. It let go and I think it realized it made a mistake," said Salamone, featured in a documentary, "United Sharks of America," airing July 5 on the National Geographic Wild network as part of its "SharkFest" programming. The Discovery Channel's "Shark Week" also starts July 5.
The odds of being bitten by a shark — even on New Smyrna Beach — are astronomical, said Salamone. "We should realize that sharks have a lot more to fear from us than we do from them."
Most of the bites that occur here are referred to as nips or nibbles, rather than the life-threatening attacks that have occurred in North Carolina in recent weeks. "The injuries are minor in comparison to people who get their arms or legs torn off but they can still be a big inconvenience for people, painful, with long-lasting effects," said Salamone. "My Achilles tendon was completely severed. My foot was mangled."
Sharks have come after Miller and tried to bite him, he said, and he once had an 8-foot bull shark come up out of the water between his board and two other guys. "We left immediately," he said.
But, surfers and the people and businesses that depend on tourism in New Smyrna Beach take it all in stride, even using the reputation in their advertising. A local brewery serves "Shark Bite" beer and a hospital advertisement once featured a surf board with a chunk missing.
"You can’t be scared," Miller said. "What else are you going to do? You love to surf and this is the only place that has waves."
— Dinah Voyles Pulver, Daytona News-Journal