Experts share tips to lower risk of shark encounters

SANTA ROSA BEACH, Fla. (WMBB) — The risk is never zero, but there are things you can learn and do to lower your risk of a shark encounter when visiting Walton County beaches.

Following 3 shark bite victims on Friday, June 7, experts are weighing in on bull shark patterns along the Panhandle.

“They’re one of the most abundant sharks. By no means does it mean that we have too many of them,” said Hannah Medd, lead scientist at the American Shark Conservancy. “They’re pretty much everywhere because they can handle salt, brackish and a little bit of freshwater. They’re actually able to be in all sorts of aquatic ecosystems and habitats.”

With warmer gulf temperatures, bull sharks will be closer to shore due to bait fish moving to more shallow water.  

“The movement patterns are usually determined by their mating season and prey. So how they’re going to find each other for mating, and then how are they going to feed? And so a lot of the times that’s driven by things like temperature and prey availability. So in the areas like the Panhandle during this time of the year, bait fish, which is part of their natural diet, come in a little bit shallower,” Medd said. “They’re more prevalent in the area and so therefore, the predators, which are bull sharks, might be coming in and using that same area, which unfortunately overlaps where humans like to use the area as well.”

Medd said if bull sharks are in feeding mode they will check things out that could register as an injured animal or fish. 

“It’s pretty well documented that humans are not on the menu. We’re not a natural prey item,” Medd said.

“But of course, it’s the perfect conditions for mistaken identity, meaning the visibility might be low because you’re on the inside of one of the sandbars and it’s all churned up. If the sharks are moving from east to west and they’re feeding that way and they’re all in kind of feeding mode, anything that looks like something good to eat, they’re going to try,” Medd said.

However, without the option of using hands sharks tend to check things out by taking a bite. 

“We can give off some some smells that are familiar to their prey items. So, you know, they feel that heartbeat. They can tell if there’s some something living in the water,” Medd said. “Nine times out of ten, even more, it’s likely they’re going to be a bite and release because even through just biting us, it’s not the same as a fish. We’re not going to taste the same. We’re mammals. The body composition is going to be different.”

Two of the three victims suffered two bites each from suspected bull sharks. Something Medd said is extremely rare.

“If a shark is already in feeding mode and a hand just kind of grazes the top level of the water and there’s a flash of white that looks like a fish that’s spinning, it might take that bite and then most times they’re going to swim off after that,” Medd said. “However, in some very, very rare cases, something else has already triggered them. They’re at a level like nine of ten and they’re already amped up and ready to go. And so unfortunately, sometimes this can happen where they’ll come back for another bite to be like, ‘am I sure that’s not what I wanted to eat?'”

With the peak of the beach season ahead of us, both Medd and Marine Ecologist with Faller, Davis & Associates Brennan Wehrhahn have some tips to lower your risk for mistaken identity.

“It’s hard to tell someone how to swim, but be mindful about how you’re swimming. If you’re making erratic splashing noises on the surface, that triggers a response from predators. A lot of times that response is an instinct that can’t be controlled,” Wehrhahn said. “A shark isn’t going to necessarily go after a small fast swimming fish when there’s a larger injured fish, because that is less calories burned for more calories taken in. So when people, especially tourists are at the beach and you’re splashing on top of the water, you’re mimicking and giving off that same vibration as an injured animal.”

“If you ever see any kind of bait fish jumping up, get out of the water as fast as you can, calmly but quickly,” Medd said.

“When you’re coming to the beach, leave your jewelry at home,” Wehrhahn said. “Some of the lures we use for fishing is just a piece of shiny metal because it catches light, refracts light and mimics the movement of an injured fish.”

If you tend to float while at the beach, Medd and Wehrhahn said standing is safer than being on the surface.

“It’s one thing to be floating on top of the water in the shallow areas but once you drop off on that second sandbar and you start getting into the deeper water you could appear to just be a floating blob of meat, essentially,” Wehrhahn said.

“If you’re in water that is hip or waist deep and you’re standing vertically, if they’re swimming towards you they don’t know how much of you is behind you. You know it’s just your legs but to them, they’re coming straight at you so they’re not sure. It adds a question mark. Like, is that is that thing six feet long? They don’t know and they’ll probably most likely avoid it,” Medd said.

South Walton Fire District has been flying purple flags since the incidents Friday, signaling a threat of marine animals.

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