ALMOST half of world's shark attacks this year were in 50-mile stretch of Florida beach

Tuesday, August 21st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Almost half of the world's shark attacks this year have occurred along a single stretch of Florida's coastline long considered one of the finest surfing spots in the state.

While the area's pristine beaches and good waves attract surfers, experts say the green waters teeming with baitfish _ ballyhoo, mullet, pilchards _ are what draw the predators.

``It's a smorgasbord of food coming back and forth,'' said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File in Gainesville.

Six people were bitten by sharks off New Smyrna Beach over the weekend, raising to 15 the total of attacks along more than 50 miles of Volusia County's beaches this year, Burgess said. The Volusia County Beach Patrol has a higher figure _ 17.

Forty shark attacks have occurred worldwide since January. Twenty-nine of them have been in the United States.

Last year, there were 79 shark attacks worldwide, 51 in the United States, 34 in Florida and 12 in Volusia County, Burgess said. The county is now on track to surpass its record of 18 shark attacks, set in 1996.

Lifeguards on Monday temporarily closed a quarter-mile stretch of New Smyrna Beach for a third day in a row after a shark was spotted swimming in the surf.

The precaution followed the beach patrol's standard policy of clearing the water for up to an hour after a sighting, said Capt. Robert Horster.

Surfers, lifeguards and shark experts are quick to point out that encounters in Volusia County are nothing new. Surfers and kayakers regularly see sharks in the surf. Last Easter weekend, there were seven attacks over a two-day period.

``They're always there. You just have to be careful and know what's around,'' said surfer Leonardo Pedreros, 18.

A combination of murky water, caused by recent heavy rains pouring runoff into the water, and an unusually crowded beach because of a surfing contest over the weekend, may have caused the sharks to mistake humans for fish.

``When the water is clean, there is no problem because the sharks can see,'' said Dan Jacocks, 44, who kayaks every morning off New Smyrna Beach, about 15 miles south of Daytona Beach.

On Saturday, a shark bit 19-year-old Jaison Valentin's left hand for food while he was surfing off New Smyrna Beach. The animal left a 2-inch gash on the back of his hand, requiring surgery to repair torn tendons and ligaments.

``It took a nice big chunk out of my hand,'' said Valentin, who said he plans to return to surfing once his hand is healed. ``I knew to get the hell out of the water.''

Another victim, 17-year-old Becky Chapman underwent surgery after being bitten in the leg. She was in good condition Monday.

Sharks also have been on the attack this month in the Bahamas, where two Americans were bitten in the leg. Both are recovering at a Miami hospital, one after having his leg amputated.

An 8-year-old boy was attacked by a bull shark in July in Pensacola, on Florida's Gulf Coast, about 400 miles away. Jessie Arbogast's arm was severed and he lost nearly all his blood. The arm was reattached but Jessie remains in a light coma.

Surfer Sean Nolan saw one advantage to the shark attacks.

``It thins the line,'' said Nolan, 24, a student. ``Usually it is so crowded. Maybe this will keep people away.''