American Times: Sharks hardly ever attack swimmers. Unless...

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The Independent Online
FOR A nine-year-old, Willie Tellasmon was a decent swimmer. But he should never have ventured 40 yards offshore on a recent Saturday picnic here, reaching a water depth of 10 feet before his stepfather realised something was wrong.

The boy could have been caught by one of the local "rip tides," currents that strong adult swimmers often find impossible to fight He could have had his neck twisted by a big wave. He wasn't.

Willie was dragged underwater and torn to death by a tiger shark. That made him the first shark fatality near an American beach in 22 years.

His stepfather, Sonny Wilson, sensed that something was wrong when he saw the boy's arms flailing. "When I got to him, he was looking at me, but not saying anything. Maybe he was in shock," Mr Wilson said. "I reached for his fingers. I touched them. He was pulling me, too. I didn't realise it was a shark. I thought it was a wave."

Not until the following day did they find the boy's body, missing his head and arms. Officials in this popular Atlantic resort, a short drive from Disneyworld, sought to play down the tragedy, billing it as a chance in a million.

They criticised Willie's family for letting him swim in an area not under the surveillance of lifeguards and for allowing him to go out too far alone. Beaches here are regularly closed to swimmers if lifeguards see shark, barracuda or other predators.

"Always stay in groups since sharks are more likely to attack a solitary individual," says the first of a dozen "commandments" issued by the Florida- based International Shark Attack File (ISAF), a body that collates information on shark attacks worldwide. Its director, Professor George Burgess, is something of a shark maniac who first got the bug when he saw the film Jaws. But his aim is not to kill sharks. It is to save them.

"The real story is not Shark Bites Man. It is Man Bites Shark," he says. "They are extremely susceptible to over-fishing. The real story is shark conservation." ISAF's investigations are aimed at working out why and how sharks attack, with the aim not only of preventing attacks but of shedding light on sharks' habits to conserve them.

ISAF is a joint project involving the University of Florida and the American Elasmobranch (sharks and related species) Society. It often works with the Shark Trust, which was set up in Britain last year. ISAF asks victims' families to fill in questionnaires, describing such things as the swimmers' clothes, the water temperature and the tide.

In his office at the Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Florida, Professor Burgess is surrounded by shark memorabilia. There are pictures, posters, toys, real shark's jaws, sweets shaped like sharks. He has a collection of shark-related beer, such as Hammerhead Red from Canada and Razor's Edge from Australia, as well as boxes of shark cartilage powder sold in health stores as a supposed treatment for advanced cancer.

His files begin with reports of shark attacks in Roman times and go up to the case of Willie Tellasmon.

"Fatalities are extremely rare in Florida but, of course, what was disturbing this time was that it was a child.

"If he was flailing his arms, the shark may have been attracted by the movements. They use the standard predatory strategy of any animal, going after the weak or infirm.

"People are fascinated by sharks," said Professor Burgess, 48. "We probably fear shark attack more than hurricanes or earthquakes. Tigers or elephants can usually be controlled with a well-placed shot. But sharks are something we can't control, they have the upper hand in a one-on-one encounter."

The last time a shark killed anyone in the United States was off the Florida panhandle in 1988 but that was a deep water swimmer who had dived off a boat. The last American shoreline swimmer killed in a shark attack was in 1976, the year after Jaws was made.

"You have a much better chance of winning the Florida lottery than of encountering a shark on our coastline," Professor Burgess likes to say.

From his two-ceiling-high filing cabinets, he also produces statistics showing that more people in Florida were killed by alligators than by sharks over the past 50 years and that Americans are 30 times more likely to be killed by lightning than by a shark.

"Take 1987, when there were only 13 sharkbite injuries in the US," he says. "In New York City alone that year, there were 8,064 cases of dog bites human, 1,587 cases of human bites human and 95 cases of squirrel bites human."