On a surf outing a few years ago, as I paddled out to the sandbar, I felt something rough and solid brush against my leg. A shadow larger than my shortboard passed in the turquoise water below.
I was surfing in the breaks off New Smyrna Beach, Florida, a city known to many as the Shark Attack Capital of the World and to me as home. The nickname comes from the International Shark Attack File, a database of all global shark encounters; by its records, Florida far leads the United States in shark attacks, and Volusia County, where my seaside hometown sits, has accounted for more than one-third of its total since 1882.
To locals, the title is a bit of a joke, intended more for tourists than as a broad safety warning. Shark sightings happen here just about every day, so being a resident usually involves unlearning one’s fear of attack.
“If you’re in the water, surfing or swimming in the ocean long enough, you’re going to see them or you’re going to interact with them,” said Andrew Ethridge, a captain for Volusia County Beach Safety, which oversees the shoreline south of Flagler Beach to the Canaveral National Seashore.
Ethridge, a 25-year veteran of the beach patrol, has swum thousands of miles in the ocean in his lifetime. He’s seen his share of sharks but never been bitten. When they come close, he keeps swimming. No big deal.
For more casual beachgoers, each sighting is treated as a momentous event. Tourists and locals climb onto the hoods of cars parked along the white sand. Boardwalk strollers whip out their binoculars for a view. People leave the pastel-colored shops of Flagler Avenue, the town’s coastal main street, and head to the beach. A statue of a surfboard stands on the sidewalk where the street meets the dunes.
The thrill of spotting a fin is often twinned with trepidation, however misplaced it may be. Statistically speaking, sharks are much more maligned than they are dangerous. Last year, 64 shark attacks occurred worldwide, and only 5 resulted in fatalities, according to the International Shark Attack File. That number represents an infinitesimally small percentage of all the beachgoers who swim with sharks.
Despite the gruesome imagery cemented in the public imagination by “Jaws,” most shark encounters are mundane. Even here, most days, humans and sharks coexist in the waves without incident. (There have been 4 shark attacks in New Smyrna Beach this year, none of them fatal.)
Most “shark attacks” are exploratory bites in which the shark grabs on and releases its human prey, leaving behind the recognizable half-moon of gashes from their teeth and little else. Lifeguards in the Shark Attack Capital have to report every run-in, from the biggest chomp to the tiniest nibble.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I’ve treated an untold number of sharks bites,” Ethridge said. “In my experience, we haven’t had somebody lose a limb, lose a finger, or, you know — there have been no amputations. There’s been no graphic fight like people expect to see from a shark bite, or like they see in the movies.”
(As in the movies, though, most shark attacks are “provoked attacks” — encounters humans have initiated.)
So, back to my encounter. As I watched the long body of the shark undulate slowly, flicking its tail fin to swim beneath my board, I thought to myself: This shark isn’t going to bite you. What are you really afraid of here? It was the same in the water as it was on land. The shark was an obstacle preventing me from taking on the break, and I was ready to let it: It’s easier to balk at the first sign of trouble than it is to accept the challenge of the waves.
The shark circled back and brushed my foot. If it bit me, I would always have that telltale semicircular bite. I would carry a story on my skin. I dipped one hand beside my board, and, slowly, cautiously pushed a palmful of water, extending one arm back as I reached ahead with the other, propelling myself forward.
As I paddled out to the sandbar, I turned my head to look back for a fin. A wave rolled toward the shore. Otherwise, the water was an empty pane of glass. Another surfer caught the wave farther down the break. Visitors lounged on the white sand, so far away that they blurred in the summer heat like a mirage. Wake sprayed against the jetty rocks in the distance.
There were sharks near me in the water, even if I couldn’t see them. Every time I went into the water, I was taking a risk. I already knew that. And in any case, you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than to be bitten by a shark, even here.
At the sandbar, I bobbed in the water, still thinking about the sharks. The raised ripples of a set, a trio of perfectly formed waves that would break one after another, swelled on the misty horizon. I waited as the set rolled closer, and when the first wave was just about on top of me, I turned toward shore. The wave surged beneath me, gathering strength, and I paddled as fast as I could until I was going the same speed.
As the wave was rising to curl, I looked back again and saw a lemon shark close to the surface. That moment’s distraction made the nose of my board dip too hard toward the water. I couldn’t let the shark distract me. If I did, I’d end up eating it. The wave would throw me down and scrape me along the sandbar, where I would really get to play with the sharks. I couldn’t let that happen. I paddled harder to right myself, my board snapped forward, sliding down into the small curl, and I popped up to stand in a crouch, riding the wave as it rushed forward.
That’s when I heard the whistle. The lifeguard stood on his red stand, flicking his small flag to call bathers into shore. He blew it again, pointed the flag at me, then thumbed it back toward the dunes like an umpire. You’re out. I knew what he was doing.
“There’s a shark!” I heard someone yell. As most bathers scrambled to shore, I rode the wave out into the slushy shallows. When I could stand, I picked up my board and started walking along the tide line away from the jetty to find another spot and jump back in.
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