Thinking Tech

Lightning strikes much more likely than fatal shark attacks

Lightning strikes much more likely than fatal shark attacks

Posting in Science

Fatal shark attacks like the one off the South Florida coast Wednesday are as rare as they are haunting. Scientists are trying to determine which type of shark were involved, theorizing they were white, bull or tiger sharks.

I have been in the Palm Beach area all week -- about 15 miles south of where an experienced kite surfer was killed in a rare fatal shark attack Wednesday.

In fact, we have been staying on Singer Island, where swimming has been banned all week because sharks were congregating close to shore.

"Dozens, if not hundreds, were seen swimming very close to shore Wednesday and Thursday. Many were cruising in just three to four feet of water. Lifeguards identified the vast majority as spinner sharks but a few tiger sharks were in the mix as well," according to Swimatyourownrisk.com which issued the advisory.

Well, guess who went swimming Wednesday morning in the beach off Singer Island: me.

Yours truly and a friend took a plunge into the strong Singer Island surf yesterday and stayed in the water for few minutes, blissfully unaware of the warning. Now we know why no one was in the water.

Late Wednesday afternoon, 38-year-old Stephen Schafer was surrounded and killed by sharks about a half-mile from Stuart Beach. Scientists theorize the attack was from either great white sharks that usually habituate colder waters or bull, spinner or hammerhead sharks.

"[Smaller species of shark] are the species involved in the occasional nips off the east coast, especially in Volusia County (eastern central Florida), but they are not man-eaters. If, indeed, the gentleman yesterday was bitten by sharks, it's far more likely it was a larger species such as a bull or a tiger, or a white shark if [they were] in the area," according to George Burgess, a shark expert with the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) at the Florida Museum of Natural History. He was quoted in a story on Skichannel.com.

Indeed, the great white shark is the most lethal. But it has only accounted for 65 fatalities and 244 unprovoked attacks between 1580 and 2008, to the best of the ISAF's knowledge. Second and third most-lethal are the bull and tiger sharks, each with about a third as many fatalities and attacks as the great white.

We're heading north today, so taking another dip is not an issue. Apparently, though, we didn't have all that much to worry about: the ISAF reports there were just eight shark fatalities in Florida between 1959 and 2008, compared to 453 deaths from lightning strikes.

Ironically, lifeguard Daniel Lund, who swam out to Schafer atop a rescue board and brought him to shore, was the victim of a serious shark attack in 1986, according to a story in the Palm Beach Post.

Fortunately for Lund, lightning did not strike twice.

Lund describes his nerve-wracking rescue attempt in a Youtube video. He said he saw several sharks as he and another rescuer neared Schafer, describing the sharks as shadows in the water. There was blood around Schafer, which some scientists believe attracts sharks in quantities as little as one part per million in seawater.

There's also a school of thought that colors (in the form of bright swimwear) attract sharks, even though they are believed to be colorblind.

The numerous kite surfers we saw up and down Florida's southeast coast during the past week were all wearing black wet suits.

Photo of George Burgess: International Shark Attack File

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure