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Tuesday, April 11, 2000

Florida leads world
in shark attacks

25 people suffered bites off
Florida last year, compared with
just five in Hawaii; no one died
in America, though

Staff and wire reports


GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Shark attacks are more common in Florida waters than anywhere else in the world, with 25 people suffering bites in 1999.

Still, that's fewer attacks in the Sunshine State than in any other year during the past decade, according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

And none of the 31 total shark bite victims in Florida, California and Hawaii in 1999 died, a phenomenon attributed to improved trauma care, said George Burgess, a biologist and keeper of the shark attack file at the University of Florida museum.

In Hawaii, there were five confirmed shark attacks last year -- three off the Big Island and two off Maui.

Hawaii officials believe a surfer was injured by a stingray on Kauai on March 8, rather than a shark as initially reported, reducing last year's count from six to five.

"There has been a change in the rate of fatalities over the last century, particularly since 1950," Burgess said. "The reason for that, by and large, is simply a matter of better medical care being available on-site to attack victims."

There were 49 nonfatal shark attacks worldwide in 1999, down from 54 in 1998. Four people died: two in Australia, one in Hong Kong and a third in an unspecified area.

Most shark bites occur in highly populated recreational areas, like Florida's coastline. As more and more people head to the beach for surfing, swimming and other aquatic sports, more and more are likely to become the victims of sharp predatory teeth, Burgess said.

"The 1990s had the highest number of attacks than in any other decade and that's what you would expect with the population going up, up, up and number of people in the water going up," Burgess said.

Tiger sharks and bull sharks are the sharks most feared in the tropics, Burgess said. They inhabit warm waters around the world.

White sharks -- dubbed the biggest threat to humans worldwide because they favor human-sized food -- prefer colder waters, like off northern California and around Australia.

"It is the largest of the predatory sharks and goes after large prey," Burgess said of white sharks. "Humans are in the right size range."

Surfers are the most likely to suffer a bite, followed by swimmers, divers, body surfers, kayakers, then victims of air or sea disasters.

No shark attacks have been confirmed in Hawaii so far this year.

In the last attack in Hawaii, in November, Rhode Island visitor Laurie Boyett was bitten near the Kona Village Resort .

The incident involving Boyett brought to 38 the number of shark attacks reported in Hawaii from 1990 to 1999, more than three times the number of attacks that were reported in 1970-79.

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