Florida Fatal Encounters, Sharks Vs. Rip Currents

A dream day at the beach can quickly turn into a nightmare. But the most likely cause won’t be a shark.

The Deadliest Thing In The Water?

When someone gets bitten by a shark the incidents receive the media spotlight since they’re unthinkable and shocking. Nobody ever wants it to happen to them (or anyone). A day at the beach is supposed to be an escape, a happy, relaxing place.

Two bites (presumably sharks), happening the same day along the Amelia Island shoreline this past week, launched the city of Fernandina Beach like a rocket into the national news (read more details about these incidents further below). The good news? These bites were “non-life-threatening-injuries,” according to the statement issued that day (July 13, 2018) by the Fernandina Beach Police Department.

many national news outlets cover shark bites
Many National News Outlets Cover Shark Bites

National News

This Fernandina shark story took off, gaining national attention, described as “a rare double shark attack,” by a Reuters report. Also covered by other national news outlets such as FOX, CNN, ABC news, and newspapers far from Florida such as the Washington Post, New York Post and Chicago Tribune.

There’s no doubt about it. Sharks grab attention. Their fear-inducing reputation precedes them. However, public perception of shark “attacks” is skewed. There are much greater dangers than sharks in the water, with more numerous incidents and many more fatal encounters.

Rip Current Warning Signs Are Prominent & Numerous Along Amelia Island Beaches
Rip Current Warning Signs Are Prominent & Numerous Along Amelia Island Beaches
Plenty of people don’t fully comprehend this other potential danger that often lurks in the ocean, ready to grip the unsuspecting.

16 Florida Rip Current Deaths In 6 Months

A dream day at the beach can sometimes quickly turn into a nightmare, and the culprit most often is a rip current, not a shark. Watch an educational U.S. Coast Guard video about rip currents below, it could help save your life.

Sharks Vs. Rip Currents

During the first half of 2018 (Jan 2018 through June 2018), there have been 16 rip current deaths in Florida, according to preliminary data compiled by the National Weather Service (NWS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) . During this same time period, there have been zero Florida fatalities from sharks.

Compare these 16 rip current fatalities in just a six month period, to a much longer time frame — a decade of shark data. Looking at full calendar years from 2008 through 2017, there’s been one fatal shark attack in the ten year period, in Florida waters. The last fatality reportedly happened about eight years ago in 2010. Consider the “annual risk of death during one’s lifetime” due to a shark attack has been calculated at one in 3.7 million. Shark data is according to research published by the International Shark Attack File, at the Florida Museum of Natural History (University of Florida). “The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) is the world’s only scientifically documented, comprehensive database of all known shark attacks.”

Around the nation, according to National Weather Service and NOAA during the 10-year period (2008 – 2017), there were 574 rip current fatalities in the U.S.

But shark stories attract more attention. “Shark Week” kicks off July 22, 2018, so lots of TV programming about sharks will be splashing across screens in a matter of days. With so much focus on sharks, especially lately with these Fernandina shark bites, it’s a good time to raise public awareness about the far greater threat to beach goers. Florida visitors, especially tourists who don’t frequent ocean beaches, may be less aware of the threat of rip currents.

Florida Tops Charts For Shark Bites

Florida waters are, indeed, notorious around the globe for having the most unprovoked shark bites. But consider how many people live in Florida, over 21 million (now the 3rd most populous state in the USA), plus how many visit Florida (over 116 million tourists last year). There’s bound to be more human-wildlife clashes, such as sharks in the ocean (and alligators in other bodies of water around the state). There are millions of people both in and near natural predator habitat around the Sunshine State.

Shark Attack Data 2017

“For decades, Florida has topped the charts for worldwide shark attacks and 2017 was no exception. Florida’s 31 cases represented 58% of the United States total,” according to the International Shark Attack File. “Significantly, the United States did not have any shark attacks that resulted in a fatality…the 31 unprovoked shark attacks in Florida are on par with the most recent five-year annual average of 29 incidents, but lower than 2016’s annual total of 35.”

More About Rip Currents

According to U.S. Life Saving Association, 80% of lifeguard rescues are due to rip currents. Learn what to do if one grips you. Take a moment to watch this video produced by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Amelia Island Lifeguard Towers

There are 16 lifeguard towers on Amelia Island. Safety experts advise the public to enter water near a lifeguard station. Fernandina’s Ocean Rescue lifeguards will “respond to water emergencies on the 12 miles of beach from Fort Clinch State Park to the southernmost point of Amelia Island,” during the summer beach season.

Amelia Island Beach Lifeguards, Summer Season Sea Oats
Amelia Island Lifeguards & Summer Sea Oats

It’s important to appreciate the inherent danger of the sea itself, stay alert and pay attention to warning flags at the beaches. Use cell phones to get beach condition updates, text BCHSAFE to 888-777.

Obviously, nobody wants to become a statistic, or for a family member, friend, or anyone to land somewhere in the numbers. Whether it be shark or rip current data.

Where Do Shark Attacks Happen Most in Florida?

Volusia County in Florida with 299 recorded shark bites/attacks (home to famous beaches in Daytona and New Smyrna) and Brevard County with 144 (data going way back to the late 1800s), lead the state with highest number of shark incidents. Reported shark bites over this same time in northeast Florida were: Duval County 39, and St. Johns County 41. By comparison, here in Nassau County (Amelia Island), four bite/attacks had been recorded, prior to this week’s shark bites. Of course, these other counties mentioned have much bigger populations than Nassau County.

Two Shark Bites Same Day in Fernandina
Get Daily Beach Condition Updates, Text BCHSAFE to 888-777
Get Daily Beach Updates, Text BCHSAFE to 888-777

Getting bitten, presumably by a shark, became an unfortunate reality for two unlucky people along the Amelia Island shoreline, on a recent Friday the 13th, this summer of 2018. Shark encounters resulting in bites are an extremely rare occurrence here in northeast Florida.

One bite happened at Fernandina Beach’s Seaside Park (the Sadler Road public beach access). The other occurred further south along the shore, about 1.2 miles away. Both happened in shallow water and occurred within a few minutes of each other. Both victims were male (a man aged 30 and a minor aged 17). Whether it was the same shark is unknown.

The adult victim, Dustin Theobald, soon after posted some photos on Facebook, gave a few interviews, and showed nasty looking lacerations on his injured foot (two surgeries required). It appears his recuperation process will take time — maybe 6 weeks. A GoFundMe page was set up on his behalf, to help with expenses. As far as this local man’s attitude, it seemed great. Fully aware this was an anomaly, he indicated the incident will not keep him out of the ocean in the future. Some might feel otherwise, if it were them.

Most shark bites are thought to be a case of “mistaken identity.” Apparently, the sharks think we’re fish food. Of course, no one wants to be one of those “mistakes.” But as noted above, very few of these shark-human clashes are fatal, thank goodness.

What Type of Sharks in Florida?

Since 1926, the largest percentage of unprovoked Florida shark attacks were Bull sharks (20%), Blacktip (20%), Spinner (16%), and Hammerhead (13%), as indicated in a pie chart by the International Shark Attack File. Is any percentage of this “shark pie” Great Whites? The answer is no.

But the fear of sharks is deep-seated. Those watery scenes created by Hollywood of the “Great White” shark have become embedded in the memory banks of a generation-plus.

See more shark attack data worldwide and the breakdown of numbers for each Florida county at the International Shark Attack File .
ABOUT DATA MENTIONED HERE: Note that because of the challenge of tracking surf zone incidents (i.e rip currents), “accurately tracking these types of fatalities is difficult because so many go unreported and undocumented.” Also, compiling accurate shark attack data worldwide is a difficult task, and not all incidents are (or were) reported.

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By The Editor

Observations of island life, news & opinion by W.B. Lawson. With background that began at a newspaper, she later spent 14 years in the financial services and real estate industries (managing editor at an equity research publishing firm). She's enjoyed the laid-back Amelia Island lifestyle since 1993.