DESTIN — Sharks may be on the brain a little bit more than normal this week as the Discovery Channel’s 30th annual “Shark Week” gets underway.
But while the network dedicates this week almost exclusively to sharks, most Northwest Floridians know that sharks are a common occurrence in Gulf of Mexico waters every day of the year.
Graham Northup, the curator of fish and reptiles at Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park on Okaloosa Island, said humans come into contact with sharks a lot more often than they might think.
“Most people don’t realize that when they’re in the water, a shark is swimming pretty close to them pretty much all the time,” Northup said. “We have millions of people who come to the beach every year and there are thousands of sharks swimming around, but very rarely do they interact with people who are in the water.”
According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, since 1882 there have been a total of 1,400 recorded shark attacks in the U.S. Florida leads the way in shark attacks by a large margin, with 812 recorded attacks. The next highest is Hawaii, with 159 attacks.
But only six of those 812 attacks have been recorded in Santa Rosa, Okaloosa or Walton counties since 1882. And only four have taken place since 2000.
Experts caution that there’s no need to panic or cancel your beach trip plans — the odds of being attacked by a shark are extremely rare, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History. Scientists estimate the odds of being killed by a shark are one in 3.7 million. You have a better chance of being killed by lightning, fireworks or accidental poisoning than you do in the jaws of a shark.
“Shark attacks are very, very rare,” Northup said. “’Jaws’ was a great movie, but it kind of put a fear into people that really isn’t warranted. People getting behind the wheel of a car have an incredibly higher chance of being killed (in a car accident) than they do being killed by a shark.”
But while shark attacks are rare, they do happen. The Daily News rounded up the four recorded shark attacks in Northwest Florida in the past 20 years (archives were not available for the remaining two before that time), including the tragic and fatal attack on a teenage girl in Walton County in 2005.
Destin, April 2, 2017: 17-year-old Caitlyn Taylor, a softball player from Kentucky, was bitten on both legs by a shark while swimming near a sand bar in front of the SunDestin Beach Resort & Hotel. The girl fought the shark off and her teammates pulled her to shore. She received 120 stitches in both of her legs.
Caitlyn’s mother, Tracey, recalled the ordeal in an interview with the Daily News a year after the attack.
“She didn’t feel the bite, she just felt the pressure,” Tracey said. “That’s when she started punching it. It was like instinct took over. She had nicks on her fingers from where they hit the shark’s teeth.”
Caitlyn still has jaw-shaped scars on her legs but is moving on, her mother said.
Okaloosa Island, July 14, 2014: Terrell Moore, a 39-year-old tourist from Tennessee, was bitten on the foot by a shark while he was swimming with his wife and 11-year-old son about 75 yards from the shore on Okaloosa Island. Experts believe the shark was lured to the area by two men who were fishing about 15 feet from where the man was swimming.
Moore said the shark was relatively small, and his wife told the Daily News at the time that he was grateful to have only suffered a broken foot. He and his family continued on with their vacation after the attack.
Destin, Oct. 5, 2013 — Zachary Standridge, 12, of Madisonville, Tennessee was wading knee-deep in the Gulf of Mexico in front of the Sugar Beach Towers when he was bitten in the arm by a 2- to 3-foot shark. The bite wound went down to the bone, doctors said, and Zachary went through 10 weeks of intensive physical therapy to regain use of his arm.
His mother, Katie, told the Daily News at the time that she was thankful the attack wasn’t worse.
“He’s doing really well. Right now his arm is working like it should for what it’s been through,” she said in 2013. “It was a nightmare, but there were so many blessings that have come out of this terrible incident. It could have been so much worse.”
Miramar Beach, June 25, 2005: A 14-year-old Louisiana girl died after being attacked by a shark while swimming about 250 yards offshore with a friend. Jamie Marie Daigle of Gonzales suffered at least five bite marks to her abdomen, legs and buttocks, according to her autopsy report. Experts said it was likely the shark thought she was competition getting in the way of fish, though they noted it was highly unusual for a shark to bite a human several times even if it did think the human was competition.
“Sharks are not there to eat us,” said Dr. Erich Ritter, a shark behavior expert, in a 2005 news conference at the Walton County Sheriff’s Office. “They bite out of stress or competition. Normally, after the first bite they let go.”