Hollywood has a way of sensationalizing events to entertain, inform or just plain scare moviegoers. Are there really great whites out there? You bet! Do we have any sharks in the Marco Island area? You bet! Now my goal is not to scare you, but to make you aware that there are some “things that go bump in the night” in our waters.Archival photos of the Collier County waters show that there were some extremely large sharks here in the past, some more than 15 feet long. That was 100 years ago and our entire estuarine and fishery systems have changed since then. However, one Florida Sea Grant director may have phrased it best: “Sharks are going to be here anyway and people always have to be mindful of that and take that into perspective.”
Are you scared yet? Don’t be! Attacks on humans are very, very rare. Data compiled by the Florida Museum of Natural History and the University of Florida state that there have been only eight unprovoked incidences in Collier County from 1882 to 2016. Lee County only had seven over that same 135- year time span. The majority of these “attacks” were attributed to mistaken identity because of poor visibility or just plain curiosity by the perpetrator. There have been no fatalities in our area.
There are fishermen who specifically go after sharks, very honestly, because they are here. Recreational fishing of this type has only been going on for about a century. Sharks, on the other hand, have been here for millions of years. Many of these fish are captured, tagged and released to help study their habits, behaviors and migration patterns.
Populations of these apex predators are falling drastically. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission notes that the number of sharks along our coast has declined by more than 75% over the last 25 years. Worldwide, an estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year. One species, the scalloped hammerhead, has lost 89% of its global presence in the last 18 years.
Some quick facts dictate that Florida recorded 103 shark bites in September and only five in January, spanning the period from 1926 to 2012 (Now! Go swimming now!). The Florida Keys had only one confirmed bite in the last 100 years. Globally, humans kill 11,000 sharks every minute, mostly for their fins.
As mentioned above, September sees the most shark bites statewide.
As a naturalist for a dolphin survey team in the area, this coordinates with the number of bites we see on our local dolphin population. In 2014 we saw four new calves born in September, but only one survived more than 30 days. A possible reason for the loss of the three could be sharks. A four-year-old named Skipper bears a scar from a bite received when she was eight months old and, just this past fall, an adult female named Dolly displayed bite marks.
Some of the more common species of sharks that we find locally would be blacktip, bonnethead, bull, hammerhead, lemon, nurse and tiger. Although some of these could be known to be more aggressive than others, it is always wise to be respectful of ALL of them.
So is it safe to go in the water? Eight unprovoked bites in 135 years is an indication that we are not on their menu. It’s a case of mistaken identity. Go, swim all you want, have fun in the water. But let me leave you with a little song… “Show me the way to go home…”
Bob is the owner of Stepping Stone Ecotours, conducting educational walks in the western Everglades. He is the author of two pictorial nature books, “Beyond The Mangrove Trees” and “Beneath The Emerald Waves,” both sold at local outlets or available at steppingstoneotours.com. Bob loves his wife very much!