By BRIAN SKOLOFF
The Associated Press
Thursday, February 4, 2010; 11:05 AM
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Sharks killed a kiteboarder off South Florida’s Atlantic coast in the state’s first deadly shark attack in five years, authorities said.
A lifeguard spotted Stephen Howard Schafer, 38, in distress about 500 yards off the beach Wednesday. When he paddled out, he found Schafer bleeding and surrounded by several sharks. Schafer was taken to a hospital and died a short time later, according to Rhonda Irons, public information officer for the Martin County Sheriff’s Office.
Authorities are investigating what types of sharks may have been involved.
Meanwhile, beaches remained open Thursday in the area about 100 miles north of Miami.
Shark attacks, especially fatal ones, are extremely rare, said George Burgess, a leading shark expert who directs the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History.
The attack on Schafer was the 14th deadly one in the state since 1896.
"Internationally, we’ve been averaging four fatalities per year, despite the fact that there are billions and billions of human hours spent in the sea every year," Burgess said Thursday. "Your chances of dying in the mouth of a shark are close to infinitesimal."
The U.S. leads the world in the number of unprovoked shark attacks, some deadly, some not, with about 1,032 documented since 1670, according to the International Shark Attack File. Of those, 50 were fatal. Florida leads the world with more than 600 attacks.
The last fatal shark attack in the state was in 2005 off the Florida Panhandle, where a 14-year-old Louisiana girl was attacked while swimming on a boogie board about 100 yards off shore.
"Florida as a geographic entity has more than any other place in the world," Burgess said, noting that most attacks are minor, "the equivalent of a dog bite."
While attacks are rare, Burgess said, people still need to be careful in the ocean.
"We need to respect it. When we enter the sea, there are certain risks that we should expect," he said.
However, Burgess noted that this time of year there are typically fewer shark attacks in Florida because temperatures are cooler and not as many people are in the water.
He said sharks are lining "up in South Florida getting ready to move north" as temperatures begin to warm.
"The sharks gradually move their way northward and disperse," Burgess said. "The message to take home is this is a rare and unusual event. It should put the antennae up for people, in terms of, ‘Yeah, we need to be careful when we enter the sea, but we need to do that every time because we’re never guaranteed safety 100 percent of the time when we enter a wild world.’"