Friday, August 24, 2007

Just when you thought it was safe......

"It behooves people to be aware of the fact that when they go swimming, they're entering a non-native environment and there are wild animals," stated John Mandelman, assistant research scientist at the New England Aquarium.

They have examined the carcess, interviewed witness and according to a state environmental official, the animal spotted in the first week of August 2007, eating a seal off North Beach, Chatham MA, probably was a great white shark. In 2004, a great white made the news when it was trapped in a lagoon on Naushon Island off Falmouth MA, for two weeks and it had been an estimated to be 1,700 pounds.

The huge, bloodthirsty sharks featured in so many movies including the famous "Jaws" tend to be lone creatures and can travel 30 to 50 miles a day. They also have a slow metabolism so that it is felt that they can go several weeks or even up to a couple of months between feedings.

Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium stated that they tend to stay off-shore and sightings of them in that area are rare but not unheard of. He also added that any large shark is a potential threat to humans but we aren't on their typical menu plan. He did caution though, that if you see sharks in the surroiunding water, you should head for the beach and listen to local officials. The last known shark related death in New England was in 1936.

The number of shark attacks worldwide has been consistanly dropping, from 79 attacks and 11 fatalities in 2000 to 62 attacks and only four fatalities in 2006. Much of the decrease has been attributed to fewer sharks swimming near shore, as more sharks and their prey are killed each year, people becoming more informed about swimming and many Third World countries making strides in medical care and beach safety.

"It really is quite remarkable when you have only four people die in the mouth of a shark and it puts in perspective how small shark attack is as a phenomenon," stated George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File.

The United States is the world leader in shark attacks and Florida leads all the states with it's numbers. Of the 62 attacks worldwide in 2006, 32 were in the U S and Florida was home to 23 of them. The balence of the states with attacks were four in South Carolina, three each in Hawaii and Oregon, two in California and one each in North Carolina, New Jersey and Texas. Australia was a distant second with seven attacks and South Africa was third with only four in the year.

John Mandelman stated that sightings of great white sharks are very, very rare in New England and the recent sighting doesn't mean that there are more sharks in the waters, on the prowl. He did caution though, that people should always swim a partner, avoid swimming at night or dawn and dusk, when sharks are most active amd to always be cautious.

If sharks were not enough to have you thinking next time you step into the water, the Australian spotted jellyfish may. Though they are harmless to humans, the creatures that were first spotted in the Gulf of Mexico in 2000 have what is termed a "vigorous reappearance." That would be a more scientific phrase I believe for, "they are all over the place."

The spotted jellyfish is not known for getting much bigger than fist-sized in their native Australia but in the waters of the Gulf, with plenty to eat, they can reach 25 pounds. While they are not dangerous to humans in the water, they could be dangerous to the fishing and shrimping industries by fouling nets and eating the larvae and eggs of other fish. They had bee restricted to the Gulf, in small numbers since 2000 but they have been seen as far north as North Carolina this year.

Once again, shipping traffic may to be the blame for them hitching a ride over here and many scientists view jellyfish as opportunists. Studies have shown that jellyfish will move in and take over areas that have been overfished by humans.

I'm not so sure I would really enjoy a day at the beach having to dodge 25-lb jellyfish, even if they won't hurt me. I am also not going to be out in the waters pretending to be a seal, just to increase the great white attack numbers. Besides, who really does swim in the "frozen" waters off of Cape Cod anyways, shark or no shark?

Of note: Officials ask that spotted jellyfish sightings be reported on the Dauphin Island Sea Lab's website.

Special thanks to the Globe for the file photo.

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