Focus: Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water

Yes, shark attacks are rare. But hold on, three in one week in Florida? Exactly 30 years after the release of 'Jaws'? And it's the Fourth of July weekend! David Usborne reports from Destin, Florida
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The Independent US

Ronnie Mapes wouldn't disagree. "I don't go in the water ever. I've seen Jaws."

They know what they're talking about. Phyllis, 31, greets first-time visitors at the cutesy tourist booth that sits beside Route 98 as you drive into Destin from the west, while Ronnie, 27, has his own parasailing business, Sky Pirates, on one of its beaches.

Given how they earn their living you would think they would be more circumspect, especially now. Three shark attacks in a week are bad for business.

Destin is one of a string of communities along the Gulf Coast, newly booming thanks to the lure of its blinding white beaches and gentle surf. The tourist numbers along what they call the Emerald Coast have doubled in two years.

Why mention the Spielberg horror flick about panic in the fictional New England resort town of Amity when a giant shark cruised into its waters? And please forget that it came out exactly 30 years ago and was set during the Fourth of July weekend - this weekend.

Forgetting is no longer an option in this town, however. Destin lost its sun-splashed innocence just eight days ago, when a 14-year-old girl from Louisiana, Jamie Marie Daigle, and a young friend ventured with their boogie boards about 100 yards out to sea off Miramar Beach here, where Mapes hawks his parasailing rides. It was not a mechanical shark that lunged out of the deep and gnashed into Daigle's upper thigh on that bright afternoon but the real thing - a bull shark, between 6ft and 7ft long.

In spite of the heroism of a nearby surfer, Tom Dicus, 54, who swam into the blood pool and tried to fight off the fish and get Daigle to shore, she was soon dead. It was the first fatality from a shark attack along this stretch of coastline for more than 100 years.

The shock to the community was tremendous, but worse was to come. Only two days later, on Monday, a second shark mauled a teenage boy from Tennessee who was fishing in waters 60 miles east. He survived, but only just, and remains in a serious condition after doctors had to amputate one leg at the thigh.

And then on Friday, a 19-year-old Austrian tourist was airlifted to hospital after being bitten on the ankle by a shark in Boca Grande, also on Florida's Gulf Coast, albeit several hundred miles further south.

Spielberg's film was a sensation back in 1975 because it played on a primal fear shared by almost all of us at the beach - that beneath the shimmering surface lurks mortal danger. Most of us try to suppress such instincts at holidaytime. When our children ask about sharks or jellyfish, we laugh them off. The water is just fine, we protest.

In Destin and all along this coast, the children should stop listening. Yes, there are sharks, lots of them. Worse, they are bull sharks, which, with great whites and tiger sharks, are considered the most aggressive when joined in the water by humans.

"They've always been very common in this area, so it's not a surprise," said George Burgess, an expert with the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, who is helping to investigate last week's second attack. He says tiger sharks come to the northern waters of the Gulf of Mexico to pup at this time of year and often swim in very shallow water. He bluntly predicts that there will more such attacks before the season - and perhaps even this weekend - is out.

Before the number of attacks and the anxiety they cause reach new heights, it is perhaps worth recording the official Florida shark attack statistics. Last year, when four hurricanes kept many visitors and residents away from waterfronts and ocean, there were 12 attacks. In a more typical year, such as 2003, there were 30. Most of them left lives and limbs intact, inflictinginjuries on the feet or ankles. The bizarre statistic that far more Americans are killed by falling television sets than by man-eating sharks is often deployed as a public tranquilliser.

But to listen to some of the locals here, the ocean is positively teeming with bull sharks. "Our waters have been infested with sharks," insists David Glow, who lives in nearby Navarre Beach. Some fishermen report spotting more than ever before. Indeed, there was a moment of panic on Wednesday, when another shark was spied off Miramar Beach.

Residents relaxing at one of the splashy new condominium buildings across the road spotted its fast-moving shadow from their balconies and screamed to swimmers to get out of the water, which, of course, all of them did, at enormous speed.

According to Burgess and other experts, it is not an increase in the shark population that is the problem, but rather the ever-increasing numbers of people coming to the area to take their holidays. As the Emerald Coast explodes with new visitors, all dancing happily into the surf, so the chances of more attacks grow.

What are Destin and the neighbouring resort towns to do? In Jaws, the mayor of Amity resists calls by his police chief (Roy Scheider) to close its beaches when the monster shark first strikes. Greed conquers caution. Here, the beaches were closed last Saturday - but only for one day. Otherwise this Fourth of July weekend will look much like any other. Only the odd run by a county helicopter along the shoreline, with shark-spotters on board, betrays the anxiety now gripping the authorities.

The rest is up to the tourists and, to judge by the scenes on the beach last week, they may not be as cautious as they should be. As a bright sun pierced afternoon rain showers on Thursday afternoon, hundreds succumbed to the pull of the water, even if only a few were willing to go beyond waist-deep.

There, for example, was Ricky Dahm, 36, from Ohio, diving in and out of the surf on Miramar Beach, waving from time to time to his wife and three children on the sand. He is trusting his life to the precautions being taken by the town, even though he was among those who saw Wednesday's shark from his balcony. "The helicopters are patrolling all the time and I reckon they can see pretty well what's out there because the water is so clear. If they spotted anything they would get the word out quick," he said with a grin.

Watching the scene from his fire-engine-red all-terrain vehicle nearby is lifeguard Felix Romero. Like Phyllis Hart and Ronnie Mapes, he does not hide his anxiety and frankly wishes everyone would just stay out of the water, period. "But we can't stop them from going in. They just want to go in and have fun. But the sharks are everywhere out there and it's just a fact of life.

"People don't under- stand how often they have actually come into contact with sharks in the water and they don't even know it." Romero, 23, is crossing his fingers that this 4th of July is rainy, to keep away the great crowds that are expected.

Holiday-makers who are still willing to throw caution to the sea-spray should talk to Romero first or, preferably, to Mapes, sitting at his collapsible table on the beach, selling parasail tickets. Looking out at the rippling waves, he bluntly concludes: "I know you enter the food chain when you get he water."

The surfer: 'Its teeth cut through my bone and board like tissue paper'

On Hallowe'en two years ago, Bethany Hamilton, a 13-year-old surfing prodigy, was on her board, dangling her arm in the water off the coast of her home island of Kauai, in Hawaii. She still has nightmares about what happened next.

Suddenly she was aware of a large grey object closing in on her left side. Then she felt pressure and a kind of "jiggle-jiggle" tug on her arm. It turned out to be the teeth of a 15ft tiger shark.

"They have serrated edges like a steak knife and they sawed through the board and my bones as if they were tissue paper," she says.

The water around her turned red and she saw to her horror that her arm had been bitten off almost to the shoulder. "You would think having your arm bitten off would really hurt. But there was no pain at the time."

She yelled to her friend Alana, who was a few feet away, "I just got attacked by a shark," and started to paddle back to shore with her remaining arm. "Once a shark gets a taste of you, it's been known to come back for more. But this didn't occur to me," she says. Alana's father, also in the water, helped her to shore. It was during those 15 minutes that fear set in and Bethany realised she could die.

Once ashore, sheslipped in and out of consciousness and started to feel pain in her stump. By the time she got to hospital she had lost nearly half her blood. Yet three weeks later, the girl who rode 10ft waves at 80mph was competing again.

She went on to beat the world champion and was picked for the US team. Last weekend she won the United States national surfing championships.

"I had to continue surfing. It's my life, my nature and my calling," she says. "My mother surfed when she was pregnant and I've surfed all my life, every day. Sharks are scary, but when I surf I try not to think about them."

The teenager, who is deeply religious, believes her life was saved because God had a purpose for her. Her life has now changed dramatically. In the past, her parents had to scrape the money together to fly her to competitions, and the family often had to share a motel room. With the help of a manager, who is a family friend, she has secured lucrative advertising deals with Volvo, Proctor & Gamble (as the face of Sunny Delight), Ralph's, an American supermarket chain, and Rip Curl, the surfwear brand.

She has also written a book about her ordeal, Soul Surfer, and a film is currently in production.

Bethany has been praying for Craig Hutto, the 16-year-old whose leg was amputated after a shark attack in Florida while fishing last week in waist-deep water. There are also "some encouraging Bible verses" on Bethany's website for the friends and family of Jamie Daigle, the 14-year-old who died after being dragged under water as she swam off the Florida coast last week.

"There is really nothing you can do about shark attacks," Bethany said. "Just try to stay close to shore and if you do go out be careful.

"Sharks usually don't attack very often and if they do it's because they think you're a turtle or a seal or something. You should stay with groups of people and try not to go out alone.

"The shark that attacked me definitely got me mad and I did want him killed. He was a crazy shark and I was happy when they caught him, but I don't think they should all be killed ... it's against ancient Hawaiian history because sharks are known to be our ancestors."

Julia Stuart

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