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A Florida surfer who found a tooth embedded in his foot from an attack 24 years ago now knows what bit him: a blacktip shark.
Jeff Weakley discovered the tooth after popping a blister-like bulge on his foot last year. He was planning on turning it into a pendant but turned it over to the Florida Program for Shark Research instead after reading about how scientists there identified the shark species responsible for a bite off New York by analyzing DNA from a tooth retrieved from the victim’s leg.
Sure enough, researchers confirmed that the attack that sent Weakley to hospital nearly a quarter century ago resulted from a chomp by Carcharhinus limbatus, a shark species commonly responsible for bites in Florida.
“I was very excited to determine the identity of the shark because I’d always been curious,” says Weakley, editor of Florida Sportsman magazine. “I was also a little bit hesitant to send the tooth in because for a minute I thought they would come back and tell me I’d been bitten by a mackerel or a houndfish – something really humiliating.”
The confirmation of the shark species astonished scientists, who assumed that Weakley’s immune system would have broken down any viable DNA in the tooth to analyze after so much time.
Weakley, who was bitten while surfing at a college beach party, was back in the water – his foot bandaged and wrapped up in a waterproof bootie – within a few weeks. He still surfs regularly these days.
“I certainly don’t have a hatred of sharks or any feeling of vindictiveness toward them,” Weakley says. “They’re part of our natural world.”
According to the Florida Program for Shark Research, blacktips are responsible for roughly 20 per cent of the attacks that occur in that state’s waters. Most cause superficial wounds.
About 70 per cent of shark bites are caused by unidentified species.
For anyone who likes to play in the ocean, whether it’s surfing, paddle boarding, or swimming, a Canadian shark expert reminds that bites are extremely rare, as are stories of the animals’ teeth being lodged in someone’s body for so long.
“I’ve never heard of anything like that,” says Kristi Burnett, associate researcher and outreach coordinator Sharks of the Atlantic Research and Conservation Coalition (ShARCC). “Unfortunately, sharks shed their teeth quite regularly. Usually with anything severe, the person would get medical attention immediately and everything would be removed.
“Most shark attacks, which are not provoked, are with surfers,” adds Burnett, who’s also an assistant researcher at Dalhousie University. “Potentially what’s happening is mistaken identity for seals.”
Seals, and not humans, are a food source for sharks.
Another theory to explain why sharks bite is simply that they’re curious creatures; they want to know what the strange object is, Burnett says.
Headlines of Jaws-like fish causing serious injuries or fatalities are enough to scare people straight out of the water.
A 21-year-old California woman died while snorkelling with her family in a roped-off area in the Bahamas after being mauled by three tiger sharks on June 26.
A 65-year-old California man died while swimming about 60 yards from Maui’s Kaanapali Beach in May. It was the third reported attack in the state so far this year.
However, bites and fatal attacks are relatively uncommon, Burnett says.
“On most occasions, people do make it to shore,” she says. “Most result in stiches. We’re not on the food chain for them.”
There are ways to minimize your chances of being bitten by a shark and reduce the risk of injury, Burnett says.
Avoid going into the water around dusk and dawn, when waters get a little bit murky, which tends to be a feeding time for sharks. A mid-day dip tends to be safer.
Avoid areas where seals are gathered.
Wetsuits provide some exposure protection.
Sharks can see colour contrasts well, so you may want to avoid high-contrast or brightly coloured swimwear or gear. Scientists at the Florida Museum suggest dark blue or black fins, masks, wetsuits, and scuba equipment and remind people not to wear jewellery or watches that could reflect light and attract sharks.
Don’t swim or dive alone.
Stay closer to shore in shallower water. “Bigger sharks don’t always venture in, although they can,” Burnett says. “Being closer to shore increases the chances being able to make it back to shore.”
Here’s Burnett’s biggest current pet peeve when it comes to shark safety: people trying to get that winning Instagram shot.
“At a certain level, you could be pestering the animal or interrupting a feeding time, especially if you’re trying to touch the shark,” she says. “You wouldn’t do that to a grizzly bear or wolf; they’re a wild animal.
“More and more people are trying to interact closely with these animals with the rise of social media,” she adds. “People will say they’re doing it to try to show that a shark isn’t dangerous. But if something were to go wrong it would be just the opposite.”
Canada is home to great white sharks, blue sharks, basking sharks, and dogfish, among more than 20 other shark species off all three coasts.
There has never been a fatal attack or bite in this country, Burnett says.
“Of the interactions people have had with sharks here, people have been awestruck,” she says. “People think of sharks in the typical sense, as these big, large fish, but most sharks are a metre or under. They’re definitely not something to be fearful of.”