Tips for ocean safety follows rare shark attack off Key Biscayne

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It could have been worse.

That’s the consensus by medics and rescue workers who responded to a shark bite victim late Friday afternoon about 1.5 miles off the southwestern tip of Key Biscayne’s Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.

As the sun was beginning to set to open Easter weekend, a 36-year-old man reportedly received a one-inch puncture wound to his lower leg while in the waters around “Stiltsville,” a historic landmark of what was once home to 27 wood stilt houses (now just six remain) built on concrete pilings in the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay.

A speedy fire-rescue boat from the City of Miami Fire Rescue Marine Operations Center at the Bayside Marina brought the victim into the No Name Harbor shore, where Key Biscayne Fire Department personnel escorted him to Mercy Hospital, six miles away, where he was initially listed in stable condition before being treated and released.

There was no word if the man was a Key Biscayne resident.

“It was not a traumatic injury,” said Marcos Osorio, Fire Marshal and Deputy Chief for the Village of Key Biscayne Fire Rescue Department. “The puncture was really not significant, but he’s lucky considering there could have been multiple (lacerations), because when sharks bite, with their serrated teeth, they also are known to rip.”

The critical concern in this case would be if the man’s wound had gotten infected, Osorio said.

Had it been more serious, or if there was excessive bleeding, he likely would have been transported to the Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Shark bites are rare in Miami-Dade County. Heading into this year, only 16 have been reported since records were first kept in 1882, according to the International Shark Attack File based at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida.

Volusia County (in particular, the New Smyrna Beach area) leads the state with 312 all-time recorded shark bites, followed by Brevard (150) and Palm Beach (79).

But as the waters get warmer, and as windy conditions churn up the surf like it did Friday - thus decreasing the shark’s visibility - it’s not uncommon.

In fact, two shark bites took place recently within a five-day span in Indian River County. A teenage girl was bitten just 15 feet offshore of John’s Island Club in Indian River Shores. Then, five days later, just three miles north, a 45-year-old man reportedly was bitten on his feet in the waters at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort.

Last year, Florida accounted for 16 of the 33 shark bites reported in the U.S., with the COVID pandemic partly responsible for helping keep that total down from 41 incidents in 2019.

Newsweek reported that the Shark Attack File investigated 129 incidences of water-related bites (but not all confirmed if by sharks) in Florida in 2020.

“Sometimes you’ll see overhead photos of a large group of sharks, and while it may look impressive, sometimes those are just Nurse sharks, and usually they’re just bottom dwellers, and not the Blacktips (or even Spinner sharks) that are known to bite,” Osorio said.

Osorio was preparing to travel to Key West for an Easter getaway when he was alerted to Friday’s incident. Since then, he has spoken to the media from CNN to Telemundo.

“There are reasons why we’re always on (call),” he said. “We’re like an insurance policy.”

Osorio said when the yellow boat linked to the victim was brought in to shore, other people were onboard as well, meaning they were crucial in getting the message to responders, such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

In addition to boating or swimming with friends, other safety measures Osorio recommends include knowing your location and understanding the situation.

“First, make sure your marine radio is working and try Coast Guard Channel 16 (distress) or try 911,” he said. “It’s important to know your latitude and longitude. A lot of these boats have a lot of nice electronic devices, but if you don’t know how to use them, it does you no good. And describe your vessel in detail; this one happened to be yellow, so that helps make it easier to locate.”

If you’re swimming on a beach, there is a good way to avoid danger, Osorio said.

“Try not to swim when you see a lot of fish jumping around,” he said. “They’re called baitfish for a reason, and what do sharks like? And avoid windy conditions that stir up the ocean and make the water murky.”

In this case, several lessons were learned. But the hard way.

“This was pretty rare,” Osorio said. “But we’re visitors in their ocean and we’ve got to respect their territory. At the end of the day, they’re (like) animals and they’re going to make mistakes. And when they assume it’s a fish, they’re going to bite.”

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