Our Hungry Sea

From Maine to Texas, the East Coast beaches have been scenes of increasing encounters between people and sharks in recent years. Let's have a closer look at what's going on.

by Rod Hunter

By all accounts, Thadeus Kubinski didn't give sharks a lot of thought as he took his morning swim from the dock of his waterfront home. Nor, for that matter, was his lack of concern surprising.

The 69-year-old retiree was well aware that the warm Gulf waters off Pinellas County, Fla., were home to a variety of sharks. But the chance of a large one showing up in the quiet waters of Boca Ciega Bay, on the south side of St. Petersburg, were mighty slim. Separated from the open waters of the Gulf by barrier islands, and connected to the Gulf by just a couple of deeper channels, the shallow bay was an unlikely spot for a large shark to enter. Most of his neighbors agreed with that assessment, and few could remember seeing any large sharks in the bay. That's why Kubinski had no qualms about beginning his day with a swim, and he had been diving off his dock on warm mornings for years.

That is exactly what Kubinski was doing on the morning of Aug. 30, 2000, when he landed in the jaws of a 9-foot, 400-pound bull shark.

Kubinski became the only shark attack fatality in the United States during 2000. But he certainly wasn't the only shark attack victim. In fact, it may surprise some, but when Kubinski dove into the warm Florida coastal waters that morning, he was unknowingly entering the most dangerous shark attack area in the world!

According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), there were a record 84 documented unprovoked shark attacks throughout the world in the year 2000. Of those, 34 (almost half) occurred in Florida. The most dangerous county was Volusia, with 12 documented attacks, followed by Palm Beach County with six.

The Sunshine State waters only got more dangerous in 2001, with 29 attacks out of 52 reported worldwide through September. Astoundingly, 20 of the attacks have been in Volusia County alone. But other areas have also been perilous this year. Virginia Beach, Va., recorded its first shark fatality in 30 years during September, while North Carolina's Outer Banks witnessed its first fatality there since 1957.

Blacktip sharks are responsible for many of the shallow-water attacks along East Coast shores. Photo by Rod Hunter

Overall, North America accounted for 63 percent of all documented unprovoked attacks worldwide in 2000. Five occurred in North Carolina, three in California, two each in Alabama and Texas, and one each in Louisiana and South Carolina. The figures for North Carolina and Alabama set new records for the number of attacks in those states.

While few shark attacks are fatal, they often cause massive tissue damage that can result in years of rehabilitation or, in a number of cases, permanent impairment.

Just what species of sharks did the biting might surprise some. The movie "Jaws" did much to acquaint the American public with the size, power and ferocity of the great white shark, which routinely reaches lengths of 18 feet and can weigh over 3,000 pounds. Equipped with large, razor-sharp teeth, even a modest-sized great white can have a bite width of over 30 inches and is easily capable of cutting an average-sized human being in half.

The great white is also the shark most likely to launch an unprovoked attack. The ISAF keeps records of those attacks in which the species can be positively identified, and the great white heads the list by a wide margin.

Fortunately, not many people in the United States will run into one. Great whites are not common in U.S. waters, except for the northern west coast. California has recorded 79 great white attacks throughout history, while Oregon has 14 and Washington State has two. On the Atlantic coast, New Jersey has documented four, while Massachusetts, North Carolina and South Carolina have recorded just one each, although in late July 2001, what was suspected to be a 14-foot great white attacked a charter fishing boat off Cape Cod, Mass.

There has never been a documented great white attack in Florida, yet that state had experienced 439 unprovoked shark attacks through the end of 2000. Obviously, other species of sharks are dangerous, and the list is actually quite extensive.

Leading that list is the tiger shark, which the U.S. Navy Diver's Manual has always rated as being equally as dangerous as the great white. Next, with a close number of documented attacks, is the bull shark - a very aggressive species that commonly reaches 6- to 9-foot lengths and is known to attack large prey. Along the Gulf Coast, they are actually the most common attacker. The sand tiger shark, although not well known, has committed at least 39 attacks over the years, while the blacktip, a common game fish along Florida's Atlantic Coast, is credited with 26 unprovoked attacks. Blacktips are the sharks most likely responsible for a significant percentage of attacks on Florida's Atlantic beaches. Many of these blacktips are only in the 4- to 5-foot range, but their teeth are big enough. The hammerhead is another potential killer that has been documented in a number of unprovoked attacks, and they can grow beyond 14 feet in length.

While these are the sharks the ISAF has determined are most likely to launch an unprovoked attack on a human being, they're not the only ones. There are 42 species on the list that have considered people as food in the past, although not all are present in U.S. waters.

What makes these "other" sharks particularly dangerous is that they all commonly invade extremely shallow water. It is rare for a great white to move into water shallower than 10 feet, but many of the other sharks will.

In early July 2001, 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast was playing in knee-deep water in the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Escambia County, Fla., when he was fatally attacked by a 7-foot, 200-pound bull shark. Knee-deep water is not very deep when it's measured on an 8-year-old, yet the shark was there.

That, unfortunately, is the type of situation where the majority of shark attacks occur in the eastern United States.

According to the ISAF, swimmers and waders in relatively shallow water comprised 46 percent of shark attack victims in 2000. Surfers accounted for 31 percent of attacks, while divers - whom many would normally consider to be at risk - accounted for only 18 percent of shark attack victims.

When it comes to shark attacks, it's not necessarily "high risk" behavior that puts one at risk. All one has to do is run into a hungry shark at the wrong time and place. With more people entering coastal waters, the chance of t

hat happening increases, and this is cited by experts as the reason for steadily increasing shark attack numbers.

The sensational nature of a shark attack guarantees it will make front- page news, but the reality is more mundane. More people are struck by lightning each year than are attacked by sharks. The old "struck by lightning" clichÂŽ is often overused, but in this case, it is true. In fact, an individual is vastly more likely to be killed or injured in an automobile accident while driving to the water, than by a shark at the water.

Still, statistics are only comforting if you are not one of them, and when it comes to sharks, there are certain actions that can increase one's chance of becoming a victim. Here is how to reduce your risk:

  • Stay in groups when in the water. Sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual.
  • Do not wander too far from shore. This isolates you and places you farther from assistance.
  • Avoid being in the water at night or during twilight hours, when sharks often feed.
  • Do not enter the water if you have an open wound or are bleeding. The shark hunts with its nose.
  • Avoid waters that have known effluents or sewage discharges. These draw baitfish and feeding sharks.
  • Do not enter the water if large schools of baitfish are present. Sharks often follow such schools during warmer weather. If birds are diving on the bait, it's a good bet sharks may be feeding below.
  • Avoid wearing shiny jewelry or light-colored, high-contrast clothing. It can be mistaken for the flash of a baitfish.
  • Refrain from excessive splashing, and don't take pets into the water with you because of their quick and erratic movements. It duplicates an injured fish, a favorite shark prey.
  • Be very cautious if swimming over a steep dropoff or in a deeper channel between sandbars. These are where the big sharks like to feed.
  • Lastly, stay alert to your surroundings and avoid becoming complacent. Remember, Thadeus Kubinski had been diving off the same dock, into safe waters, for years.

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