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Shark attacks at a low for 2020, but deaths double 2019 numbers

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 8/5/2020 By Joe Mario Pedersen, Orlando Sentinel
SeaWorld Orlando guests get up close views of the sharks at the Shark Encounter attraction, photographed January 25, 2019. © Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS SeaWorld Orlando guests get up close views of the sharks at the Shark Encounter attraction, photographed January 25, 2019.

Shark attack numbers have been as out of place as a fish out of water this year, where the number of suspected attacks are low, but the total number of shark-related fatalities is already more than double 2019 1/4 u2032s totals.

On Friday a 22-year-old Sanford woman was surfing in New Smyrna Beach when she was bit on the foot by an unidentified shark. The woman was taken to the hospital, with a non-life-threatening injury.

The attack comes just one week after an 11-year-old boy from Lake Wales, Florida was standing in waist-deep water and was bit on the foot by an unknown shark, according to the Volusia County Beach Safety Ocean Rescue. The boy’s injuries were also non-life threatening. He was not transported to the hospital.

While those two attacks occurred in close succession to each other, the year has been relatively attack-free.

There have been four reported attacks in Volusia in 2020 - all in New Smyrna Beach, which is known as the Shark Bite Capital of the World. Volusia has had 312 confirmed attacks from 1882 to 2019, according to the International Shark Attack File, ran out of the University of Florida.. The next highest total comes from Brevard County with 150 attacks.

Overall, shark bites in Volusia are down this year, though, according to Volusia County Beach Safety Cpt. Tamra Malphurs.

Typically the average number of suspected bites falls to about seven to eight during this time of the year, Malphurs said.

During this time last year, Florida had 18 suspected shark attacks, with half of them in Volusia including five within two weeks of one another. The number of unprovoked and suspected shark attacks are down this year in Florida with only eight documented reports in the state.

Tyler Bowling, a manager of shark research at UF, told the Sentinel in 2019 thata the number of bites in Florida usually rises during the heat of July and August when more people are in Sunshine State waters. So it figures that number might dwindle as the global pandemic of COVID-19 continues to impact tourism and therefore beach attendance.

“It is far lower than normal by this time of the year,” Bowling said. “So while annual bite numbers have been in decline, this year has had such a significant drop we think something else is at play, very likely COVID. Can’t have bites if people don’t go to the beach.”

That might speak for shark attack numbers around Florida, but it doesn’t account for Volusia’s low number where beach attendance hasn’t been as low, Malphurs said.

“Summer traffic on the beach has been down a bit due to the social distancing parking we have established,” Malphurs said. “We are still seeing large crowds, especially in our more popular areas.”

While shark attacks are low, shark fatalities have been on the rise in the world. In 2019, there were only two fatal shark attacks: one was recorded in the Bahamas and the second was in Reunion Island, which lies off the coast of Madagascar.

So far in 2020 there have been five shark-related deaths: three in Australia and two in America. Two of Australia’s deaths happened within the same week of each other in early July.

Most recently, a woman was killed by a great white shark last week off Bailey Island in Harpswell, Maine. It was the first shark-related death in Maine’s history, ISAF reported.

The victim was identified as Julie Holowach, 63, who was a retired fashion executive from New York, according to an obituary by the Boston Globe. Holowach was a seasonal resident of Harpswell spending her time there in the summer and living out the winter months in Naples, Florida. She was about 20 yards off the shore when the attack occurred. Experts believe the victim may have been mistaken for a seal, according to ISAF.

There’s a number of ways to avoid incidents with sharks:

- Avoid wearing jewelry. The shimmering metals could look like fish scales.

- Avoid splashing. Splashing imitates the behavior and sound of a distressed fish.

- Avoid murky water. This is the chosen hunting ground for sharks such as blacktips.

- Do not swim during low light hours. This is the most common time sharks go hunting.

- Swim in groups. The more people sticking together, the less likely a shark will approach.

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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