Monday, January 2, 2012

Swim with the sharks?

My friend Richard loves swimming. Kayaking together in the archipelago of his native Sweden (where he owns Point65) I've known him strip to his shorts on impulse and sprint, whooping with anticipation up the face of an island to leap from the clifftop into deep water, just for the fun of it! Recently in Florida he decided to cool off in the waters of Boca Grande Pass.

Feeding the sharks?

With a look of disdain at the sign warning of strong currents (Richard loves currents and waves) he strode toward the water. True a swimmer was swept away by the current and drowned here, but the water's warm and inviting, and it's easy to see which way the current is flowing. What could be more inviting?

Boca Grande Pass, current warning

But as Richard prepared for his dip, a passing local approached him with some quiet words of advice. She suggested caution for a reason unrelated to the current. The sign doesn't mention sharks.

Sharks have been known to attack here, even in the shallows. But, I hear you ask, aren't there sharks all around the Florida coast, even in the shallows, and yet there are people swimming all the time without being bitten! Even though about half of all shark attacks in USA occur in Florida, in 2011 there were only 14 reported shark attacks in the entire state in the whole year. from The chances of even being nibbled at are infinitesimally small.

Well, it's true: few people actually get bitten by sharks even when they swim all year round. Humans probably are not the tastiest meal for a fish. But Boca Grande Pass is a rather special place... It's a place where tarpon gather to spawn.

brown pelican above tarpon

Tarpon can grow to 5-8 feet long and weigh 80-280 pounds. Boca Grande Pass is "the place" to go angling for tarpon. Catching a tarpon with rod and line is fine sport fishing; catch and release because tarpon don't make such good eating... for humans. However, it's not uncommon for an angler to bring a tiring 100 pound tarpon close to the boat and to finally land only the head. Sharks, especially hammerheads and bull sharks, are not slow to nip at a weary tarpon on a line. And they gather here in their thousands when there are tarpon about.

So if tarpon grow to 8 feet long, how big are the fish that eat them? The world record for the largest hammerhead shark caught goes to a shark landed in Boca Grande pass in 2006. It weighed 1,280 pounds. Now stuffed and harmless it is on display at Mote Marine, Sarasota. Mote is the perfect place to learn about marine creatures and what they eat before you test the waters.


Stuffed hammerhead shark

Richard is no fool. he's a good swimmer, but he changed his mind about swimming in Boca Grande Pass, just in case. Since there were no reported shark attacks on kayaks in Florida in 2011, and there are some great places to kayak... perhaps a glance at my "Guide to Sea Kayaking in Southern Florida" (Globe Pequot Press) might offer some good alternatives?

available from nigelkayaks store