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Until recently shark bites were rare in Florida' panhandle


Shark bites are extremely rare, but in Florida's Panhandle last Friday, sharks injured three people off the coast of Walton County. A woman and a teenage girl had limbs amputated. Another young woman was treated for flesh wounds. Joining us now is Gavin Naylor. He's director of shark research at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Good morning, Gavin.

GAVIN NAYLOR: Good morning.

SCHMITZ: So Gavin, three people bitten by sharks on the same day in the same area. That sounds terrifying. Was it the same shark?

NAYLOR: No, it's very unlikely to have been the same shark. In fact, the most recent data suggests they were two different species.

SCHMITZ: And tell us what - about what we know about these incidents that happened on Friday in Walton County, Fla.

NAYLOR: So at about 1:10 p.m. off Watersound Beach, a woman was attacked by what appears from credible witnesses to have been about a seven-foot bull shark, and her left hand was severed. And then the shark turned around and bit her in the abdomen. And then there were four people in the area, and they quickly rushed her to the shore, where she got immediate medical attention. And I think she's very lucky to be alive, but apparently, my understanding is she's doing well now, and she's recovering in hospital, but her injuries were quite severe.


NAYLOR: She was about 300 yards away from the beach in an area where there's lots of sand dunes at the ridges underwater, and the shark was obviously swimming in and out of those ridges.

SCHMITZ: So authorities spotted bull sharks in that area on Friday. What are they like?

NAYLOR: So bull sharks are fairly tubby, robust sharks. They can be - for sharks that are in the same genus as them, they can be fairly aggressive and fairly persistent. They make a living in estuarine waters. They tolerate marine water very well, but they can also go up rivers. And they are very abundant off that coastline. They are blunt-snouted and have very big heads, not quite tadpole-like, but they have huge heads with very powerful jaws.

SCHMITZ: And, Gavin, any idea about why these separate attacks happened on the same day? Is there any evidence of what happened here?

NAYLOR: Absolutely. We see this from time to time. Shark bites are incredibly rare. So, in general, we find single incidences. But sometimes, when environmental conditions are such that the sharks are brought closer into shore, then collectively, many sharks are brought closer into shore. And if there's a lot of people in the water, then from time to time, we see multiple bites in a very localized area within just a few hours of one another. That's happened on Long Island before, about three years ago, and this is the first instance in this part of Florida. But it's not completely unprecedented, and it's just a consequence of environmental conditions.

SCHMITZ: That is Gavin Naylor, director of shark research at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Gavin, thank you.

NAYLOR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARC DE SOLEIL'S "MUMBO SUGAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.