Two out-of-town visitors to South Florida were bitten by sharks last week, and both wounds are suspected to have been inflicted by blacktip sharks, according to media reports.
Blacktips don’t seek interaction with humans, according to Stephen Kajiura, a professor of biological sciences at Florida Atlantic University. But those who venture into the water should be aware that one of the world’s largest shark migrations is going on right now — roughly 650 feet off the shoreline in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Bryce Albert, a 20-year-old college student from Naples, was bitten on the left arm near the Juno Beach Pier on March 18. Albert was treated at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach and is expected to make a full recovery.
Days later, Jay Weiskopf, a 9-year-old boy from Wisconsin, was vacationing on Miami’s South Beach with his family when he was bitten on the shoulder while body surfing, The Miami Herald reported. Doctors were able to do a skin graft and save his arm.
Both bites reportedly happened in shallow water. Albert was bitten in 4 to 5 feet of water.
“I felt my arm basically get hit and, like kicked almost,” Albert told WPEC-News Channel 12. “I can like feel now, looking back on it, I felt like the nose of the shark basically hit my body.”
Weiskopf was bitten in the shoulder, the child’s mother, Kristine, told WPLG-News Channel 10.
“He just said, ‘Ow,’ and I looked down and there was about a 4-foot gray shark just kinda swimming away ... so I just scooped him up and ran him up the beach.”
Weiskopf is hospitalized, but recovering.
“We thank God that he didn’t take his life. That he’s gonna be OK,” Weiskopf’s father, Ren, said.
Kajiura said blacktip sharks have sharp, needle-like teeth that they use to impale slippery, smaller fish.
“When they bite a person, you’re getting punctured by a whole bunch of these sharp little needle teeth,” he said. “But it’s not like a big bull shark or tiger shark with huge, serrated triangular teeth that are cutting off huge chunks of flesh.
Blacktip sharks average about 5 feet long and 270 pounds.
Kajiura and his team from the FAU Elasmobranch Lab have been studying the blacktip shark migration for about a decade.
At its height, thousands of blacktip sharks, as many as 1,200 sharks per square mile, head down the U.S. East Coast toward South Florida on their annual winter migration to warm water.
“These blacktips are pretty skittish,” he said. “They’ll stay out of the way. But when you have conditions like murky water where they can’t see us until they’re much closer, they don’t know what to do and they’ll bite.
“It’s like startling a dog or something. It might just bite before it runs. It’s much the same way with the sharks.”
Right now, with the migration about two weeks from concluding, there might only be hundreds of sharks near the shore, according to Kajiura.
“But there is lots of activity up in the north end of Palm Beach County,” he said.
Kajiura suspects the bites in Juno Beach and South Beach might have been the result of confused blacktip sharks swimming in murky water.
Kajiura said many South Florida beaches have recently undergone replenishment efforts, during which sand is added to the beach. Sometimes that makes the water cloudy, and blacktip sharks can’t see what’s in front of them.
It’s not known whether Juno Beach or Miami Beach have recently undergone replenishment. Phone and email messages weren’t immediately returned.
“When you consider the huge number of people who are down in South Florida, and the fact that we have literally thousands of sharks down here at the same time, we have remarkably few bites,” Kajiura said.