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Florida leads US in shark attacks

By Gary Taylor, The Orlando Sentinel –

ORLANDO, Fla. — Even though it had fewer shark bites reported in 2011 than any year since 2004, Volusia County, Fla., continues to be saddled with the nickname of shark-bite capital of the world.

But officials insist the shark encounters off the Volusia coast are more likely accidents than attacks.

For many people, the mere mention of sharks produces visions of a great white chomping someone in half. In fact, most bites in Volusia amount to no more than a few scratches or perhaps small puncture wounds caused by small sharks.

Most of the shark bites are less serious than a dog bite, said Volusia County Beach Patrol Capt. Tammy Marris.

“But people are just interested in sharks,” she said.

Volusia County accounted for about half of the 11 documented bites in Florida last year, helping the state once again lead the nation in shark attacks.

But in a year when worldwide fatalities reached a two-decade high, there were no deaths by shark attack reported in the United States, according to the University of Florida’s annual International Shark Attack File report.

The 12 fatalities worldwide suggests tourists are exploring more-remote places prone to shark attacks, said George Burgess, director of the file at the Florida Museum of Natural History located on the university’s campus.

There were three deaths in Australia, two each in Reunion, the Seychelles and South Africa and one each in Costa Rica, Kenya and New Caledonia.

There were 29 unprovoked shark attacks in the waters off the United States. Australia was second, with 11 shark attacks, followed by South Africa, with five, and Reunion — a French island in the Indian Ocean — with four.

The report showed six shark bites off the coast of Volusia County, but Beach Patrol officials said their records show just five bites last year.

Shark bites in Volusia typically occur near New Smyrna Beach, where blacktips and spinners feed on bait fish. Occasionally, a foot gets in the way, Marris said.

When that happens, the shark realizes it is not a fish, spits it out and moves on, she said.

“I’ve had plenty of friends who have been bitten by sharks,” said Chuck Carter of Nichols Surf Shop in New Smyrna Beach. “Almost every one of them who was bitten by a shark or had a shark encounter still go surfing.”

New surfers ask questions in classes, but seasoned surfers pay little attention to the sharks, he said.

“It’s a whole bunch of hype,” he said.

Even in 2008, when there were a record 23 bites — surpassing the previous high of 22 set in 2001 — none was life-threatening, Marris said.

The most serious bites occur when the shark cuts a tendon and surgery is required, but those are rare, she said.

In fact, officials point out that Volusia beaches are well-staffed with lifeguards, and minor bites they record might go undocumented at other beaches.

And although Volusia County is known as the shark-bite capital of the world, its beaches have never seen a fatal shark attack.

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