The Slate Gist

The Bull Shark 

It lurks in the shallows, even in fresh water. And it loves to kill. 

On July 6, as 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast waded in about 2 feet of water along Florida’s Gulf Islands National Seashore, a 7-foot-long bull shark ambushed him, tearing off his right arm and a chunk of his right leg. The attack came so near to shore that Jessie’s uncle and another beachgoer were able to grab the shark and drag it onto land where park rangers shot it, pried its mouth open, and retrieved the severed arm. The boy almost bled to death and lapsed into a coma. Surgeons reattached the limb, and though Jessie is showing signs of coming to, doctors say it’s too soon to know if he’ll make a full recovery.

Earlier that day, just a few miles away, I was standing on the dock of my family’s house contemplating a swim. I can’t claim a premonition, but something made me hesitate. Call it a flash of anxiety. A thought of how the once benign waters of the Florida Panhandle have seemed a little less inviting this past year. Last summer, not far from the scene of the Arbogast attack, a bull shark ripped the swimming platform off a 22-foot speed boat. The same week, bull sharks mauled a group of triathletes as they trained 15 miles down the coast. Chuck Anderson, a 44-year-old school assistant principal, lost his right hand and much of his arm and barely made it to shore as the sharks trailed him. Less than two months later Thadeus Kubinski, a retired businessman living near Tampa Bay, was attacked by a bull shark when he jumped off his backyard dock into five feet of water. His stunned wife ran to call 911. Kubinski died before help arrived. As I finished this story, the Associated Press reports that a man surfing just down the beach from the scene of the Arbogast attack was bitten while sitting on his board. He was taken to the same hospital, but his condition did not appear serious. The culprit wasn’t identified, but the attack fit the bull shark’s MO.

Chances are you’ve never heard of the bull shark. That’s not a surprise. It doesn’t enjoy the fearsome reputation or star power of other man-eaters. Its hide is dull gray. It’s about as streamlined as a backhoe, its beady eyes are set far forward on a thick snout, giving it a top-heavy,  somewhat bovine appearance (hence the name). Hardly the stuff of Hollywood legends. Like your quiet next-door neighbor, the bull shark seems an unlikely killer. Still, many experts consider it the most dangerous shark in the world. And if you think you can avoid it this summer by sticking to the shallow water, or even back bays and estuaries, think again. As its recent victims found out, the bull shark is liable to turn up anywhere.

Contrary to popular perception, only three kinds of sharks consistently attack humans: The great white of Jaws fame; the tiger shark, bane of Hawaiian surfers; and the bull shark. Whites and tigers are well known and feared: The majestic bruisers often exceed 15 feet in length and weigh a ton or more. Bull sharks are comparative runts, usually measuring 7 to10 feet and topping out at between 400 and 500 pounds. But their size is a poor indicator of their lethality. The bull’s pugnacious disposition and penchant for sudden attacks in seemingly safe surroundings make it the pit bull of the shark family.

All sharks sometimes venture close to shore, but bull sharks are the only killers that like to hang out in water where your feet touch bottom. They inhabit temperate seas throughout the world, and their domestic range extends from the southern coast of Massachusetts to the Florida Keys and around the Gulf of Mexico. They are far less common in the cold-water currents of the West Coast, the domain of the great white. More alarmingly, bull sharks can’t be counted on to keep to the ocean. They are the only shark, and one of the few creatures of any kind, that can live in either salt or fresh water. Though they normally prefer tropical and subtropical seas, bull sharks have been found in the Mississippi River above New Orleans and have attacked bathers in the Ganges and the Amazon. Lake Nicaragua was thought to have a unique species of freshwater shark until it was discovered that the beasts were bull sharks swimming upstream from the Caribbean, braving the rapids on the San Juan river like salmon coming home to spawn. Many researchers think a bull was the legendary “Jersey man-eater,” the shark that killed several swimmers in Mattawan Creek in 1916 and inspired Peter Benchley to write Jaws. However, Michael Capuzzo’s recent best seller about the attacks, Close to Shore, fingers a juvenile great white.

The bull shark possesses an indiscriminate palate: It will eat just about anything—other sharks, dolphins, and porpoises. (That stuff about dolphins meaning there aren’t sharks around? Forget it.) Compared to their cousins the tiger and blue sharks—whose large, dark, disc of an eye make them such efficient sight hunters—the bull shark is as blind as Magoo. They often hunt in murky waters where visual acuity is less of a factor. Like all sharks, they command a keen sense of smell and can detect erratic movements from long distances. When zeroing in on prey, bulls use either a “bump and bite” technique to investigate the target or a more deadly rush attack where it delivers maximum damage immediately. As its stout build is complemented by disproportionally large jaws and teeth, the bull’s bite is a deadly, shredding, vise.

The ubiquity of the plain-jane bull sharks lead some to assume they are a local species. In Africa they are often called the Zambezi shark. In India, the Ganges shark. In Australia, shovelnose, slipway grey, and Swan River sharks. In other parts of the world they go by square-nose, cub, or Van Rooyen’s shark. By whatever name, bulls are known as an accomplished ambush predator. Since so many of its attacks occur in remote regions and are attributed to local fauna, the global total of bull shark attacks is difficult to calculate.

Despite the recent spate of incidents, shark attack remains a freak accident. Though it’s often reported that the number of attacks worldwide is up sharply, the rate of attack has remained more or less constant. There are just more people in the water. To lessen your chance of attack, avoid brightly colored clothes or jewelry in the water; don’t swim near dawn or dusk (when Jessie Arbogast was attacked); stay away from schooling bait fish; and, stay out of the water when you are bleeding.

I grew up swimming on the stretch of beach where Jessie was attacked. My friends and I would tow rafts out to the edge of deep water to dive for sand dollars and go spear fishing along the jetties and sandbars. We never thought much about sharks, and in all those years I never laid eyes on one, unless it was being hauled in to a boat or weighed in at a dock. The sharks were always there of course, just out of sight. But we knew they never did anything to people. Almost never.

That old certitude seemed far away as I stood alone on my dock staring down into the water with visions of Thadeus Kubinski and Chuck Anderson flashing in my head. My jitters were irrational, I knew. Worrying about being attacked by a shark every time you swim in the ocean is like worrying about being struck by lighting every time you run in the park: It happens, but c’mon, you still take the run. Then, just as I was laughing off my anxiety and ready to jump, a local fisherman’s words about sharks and where you find them came back to me:

Three feet long;
Or three feet between the eyes.
Thirty miles out;
Or as far as you can throw a baseball.
You never know.

I turned around and went upstairs.