Shark researchers move closer to Jacksonville beaches

by: Jenna Bourne Updated:

After a record year for shark attacks, Action News Jax got exclusive access on board a local shark research boat.

A University of North Florida team is investigating just how close sharks are coming to the beaches, what they do while they’re here and just how many there are.

Last year there was a record of 98 shark attacks reported around the world, according to the International Shark Attack File.

Florida had the most attacks in the U.S. -- 51 percent. The Sunshine State had nearly 31 percent of the world total last year.

A shark bit 11-year-old Kaley Szarmack at Jacksonville Beach last year.

“I looked down and I saw a shark on my leg,” said Kaley.

The wound has healed, but the memory is still fresh.

“I was terrified but I kind of was in crazy shock to where I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t really happening.’ Like, ‘This is just a dream,’” said Kaley.

University Of North Florida Shark Biology Program Director Dr. Jim Gelsleichter moved his annual shark survey’s focus closer to the beach this year.

“Right now we’re off of Mayport Beach,” said Gelsleichter, as three of his graduate students plunked a 100-foot line baited with mackerel into the water.

Once those researchers get a shark on board, they have just minutes to measure it, snip a fin sample, extract a blood sample, tag it and put it back in the water.

“We can do things like measure their hormones and blood, use the ultrasound to assess whether they’re pregnant, so that we can get a handle on not just what sharks are here and how abundant are they, but what are they doing when they’re here?” said Gelsleichter.

Gelsleichter said he’s caught at least 15 species of shark off Jacksonville’s coast.

The federal government uses the data gathered by his team of UNF researchers for population management and conservation.

Gelsleichter said the rising number of Florida shark attacks has more to do with an increase of people in the water than an increase of sharks in the water.

“You see an increase for example on the weekends because that’s when people are out on the beach. You see an increase at dusk and dawn. That’s when the sharks are using those areas to feed, but it’s also a time when the surf is the best,” said Gelsleichter.

Kaley still surfs at the same beach where she was bitten last year. She said she refuses to let her close encounter keep her out of the water.

“It’s their natural habitat that you’re invading. I mean, you’ve got to respect that,” said Kaley.

See photos of Gelsleichter’s research ship here.


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