Taking the Bait

Taking the Bait

Why People Keep Returning to the Shark Bite Capital of the World

Words by Christine Van Dyk 

I remember Chrissie Watkins sprinting across the dunes of Amity Island, stripping off her clothes as she ran. Without a fear of what lie beneath, she dove headlong into the ocean. Her long legs slowly paddled through the moonlit water, blond hair fanned around her like a crown. Then, in an instant, she was gone.

Many of us remember Chrissie gasping for air as the unseen creature drug her under again and again. And, if we’re honest, every time we’ve gone in the ocean since, a dormant childhood fear surfaces. Imaginary frights creep into our thoughts: a dorsal fin popping up without warning, a sudden movement in the murky water, an ominous tune…da-dum, da-dum, da-dum.

Jaws awoke a primal fear that remained long after the credits rolled, because unlike Freddy Krueger or Pennywise the Dancing Clown, this villain was real.

According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), the chances of being attacked by a shark are roughly one in 11.5 million, far less than being struck by lightning. Yet, 39 percent of Americans are terrified to enter the ocean. To some it seems irrational, and yet, sometimes even lightning strikes.

As a teen, Chase Elmore was out surfing when a wave carried him to within three feet of water. Diving off his board with his arm outstretched, he felt something latch onto him with intense pressure.

“I instantly knew what it was,” he said. “It felt like my hand had been run over by a truck. After a few seconds it released and I lifted up my flayed hand.”

Chase suspects he’d gotten too comfortable, “jumping into the surf as casually as I would my own swimming pool.”

“I was so focused on the surfers fighting for the wave, I didn’t notice the birds diving for fish,” he said. "I didn’t consider what was happening below.”

Using his board leash, he tied off his mangled arm and tracked down his brother among the hundred or so surfers in the water. By then, a small crowd had gathered to see the black-tip shark bite that would require 25 stitches.

Despite movies like Jaws, shark bites in warmer waters are more often exploratory, not predatory. In fact, attacks are so infrequent, a support group known as Bite Club has been formed to allow victims to share these rare experiences.

“It’s usually a case of mistaken identity,” Jim Bubaloni, a surfer of 37 years, says. “They see a necklace, a ring or the bottom of a foot and that flash of light catches their attention. They take a small bite to determine their interest.”

These encounters are especially likely in fall when bait fish run closer to the shore. The strong tidal flow of Ponce de Leon Inlet draws schools of fish near the coast of New Smyrna Beach, Florida, the unofficial ‘shark bite capital of the world.’

According to ISAF, anyone who has swam at New Smyrna Beach has been within ten feet of a shark. Yet, visitors return year after year—lured by sandy beaches, laid-back vibes and some of the best surfing on the Eastern Seaboard.

To Jim, the benefits of catching the perfect wave far outweigh the danger; and despite his scars, Chase says he still surfs every chance he gets.

So, why are we so willing to jump into water teaming with sharks? What keeps us dipping our toes into these waves? I guess despite the terrifying image of Chrissie Watkins, the thought of the carefree girl diving into the tranquil ocean water is just more enticing…and realistic.


Tips for Avoiding a Shark Bite

  1. Swim with a buddy.
  2. Avoid wearing jewelry.
  3. Stay near a lifeguard and look for posts of “dangerous marine life.”
  4. Swim close to shore where help is nearby.
  5. Avoid the water at dusk and dawn.
  6. Never go in the ocean if you’re bleeding.
  7. Be careful playing in sandbars and tidal pools where sharks hang out.
  8. If you’re on a board, lay down and take your hands and feet out of the water.
  9. Keep away from people fishing.
  10. Look out for diving birds which indicate schools of baitfish.