I've lived in Florida since 1967, and if there is one thing I have learned about existing here, it is the following:
Stay the hell out of the water.
The Gulf. The Atlantic. Lakes. Rivers. Most public swimming pools. Any of it.
Terra firma, that's the ticket.
I know this runs contrary to conventional wisdom and the tourism bureau. What is Florida, after all, without the water, the sun and the fun? Our beaches lure people from all over the world who spend mad cash to stay at resorts and drink cocktails with little paper umbrellas at tiki huts while they slather aloe vera gel onto their fried epidermis to ease the pain from first-degree burns. And there's nothing wrong with that.
But keep your toes and ankles and legs and torsos and arms and heads out of the water. Because death awaits there.
I'm being alarmist, you say? Let's go to the instant replay:
So the other day, the family of the triathlete who was chomped to death by a white shark in San Diego was on the Today show, mourning their loss and saying how glad they were at least that their dad went surrounded by people he adored, doing what he loved, quick and "relatively painless."
Relatively painless?!? Relative to what?
The man was nearly torn in two by a set of serrated teeth that is a marvel of evolution (unless you are a member of the Florida Legislature, in which case, the great white shark's choppers are a God-given attribute). He bled to death.
That same week, over in Ormond Beach, F-L-A, the "shark bite capital of America," two people were bitten by (thankfully) smaller sharks within reach of the beach.
The water doesn't kill people; sharks kill people.
Now, scientists and shark lovers will tell you this is hogwash. A University of Florida scientist earlier this year proclaimed shark-bite deaths at a 20-year low.
"It's quite spectacular that for the hundreds of millions of people worldwide spending hundreds of millions of hours in the water in activities that are often very provocative to sharks, such as surfing, there is only one incident resulting in a fatality," said George Burgess of the Florida Museum of Natural History. "The danger of a shark attack stays in the forefront of our psyches because of it being drilled into our brain for the last 30 years by the popular media, movies, books and television, but in reality the chances of dying from one are infinitesimal."
Truth is, though, you have to go back to 1985 to find one year without a shark-related death.
Burgess runs what is called the International Shark Attack File at the museum. Yum. It tells us that from 1882-2007, there were 577 confirmed shark attacks and 13 fatalities in Florida waters. (That's more than California, which makes up for having fewer attacks by hosting the great white shark.) The most common attack time was in September from 2 to 3 p.m. (also known as Shark Happy Hour). The most recent death occurred in 2005. The last one in Tampa Bay was in 2000. So we're due.
(Also noteworthy is the dearth of shark attacks and deaths in inland counties where people STAY THE HELL OUT OF THE WATER!! I'm just saying.)
OK, you are much more likely to be killed by a car or a lightning strike or lung cancer than a shark. But that is little solace, quite honestly, as you envision your best Robert Shaw-being-half-devoured-in-Jaws imitation should you be the unlucky one whose number comes up "Fins and Teeth."
The nasty reptiles are freaking everywhere in this state. Even in some lady's kitchen, earning the gator a trip to the death chamber and the lady a free trip to NYC and a spot on the aforementioned Today show.
Alligators are mostly ornery and have lots and lots of teeth they use to bite onto things and drag them down in a death spiral under the water, drowning them. They then tuck the animal's corpse away, under a log or such, so that it can rot nice and soft for dinner. What a lovely way to go. (Makes me want to rethink the whole shark-bite death; at least you go quickly.)
Florida has seen 18 deaths in alligator attacks since the end of WWII. While scientists read that stat as remarkably low given our population and how many people swim in areas with gators, I look at it this way: The gator is outperforming the shark by a mile.
Just two weeks ago, an alligator chomped down on the arm of a diver who was retrieving errant golf balls at the Tampa Palms Golf and Country Club. He got away by gouging the alligator's eye. (Good safety tip, and it apparently works for shark attacks as well. Better safety tip for those not real up on the finer points of predator eye-gouging while under attack: Stay the hell out of the water.)
In 2006, three people were killed in alligator attacks in Florida in one week alone! It earns us a nice headline in Time magazine: "Death by Alligator." Clever.
State officials log about seven gator attacks a year. And not all happen in the water; some occur near the water's edge.
So stay away from that, too.
Not everything unpleasant or deadly in the sea has large white teeth. Take our good friend, karenia brevis, aka Red Tide.
Red tide is downright deadly to fish, killing them by the scads so their stinky, rotting corpses wash up on our beaches. (Another reason to stay away from water's edge; see entry on "Alligator" above.) It's not the only "harmful algal bloom" (HAB's to the scientists at the Florida Department of Health where I got this stuff) we experience in Florida; there's also cyanobacteria, saxitoxin-associated blooms and ciguatera-associated blooms. But red tide gets star billing.
If you swim with this stuff when it is blooming, usually in the late summer, or breathe it as it gets blown onshore (that whole water's edge thing again), you can develop the following symptoms: coughing, sneezing and teary eyes. The symptoms can be worse if you have asthma or other lung problems.
Nobody has died from red tide as far as I can tell.
I remember growing up and going to the beach in Fort Lauderdale and finding it covered with translucent purple balloons with long strands of blue Silly String attached to them. Or at least that's what they looked like. In fact, they were Portuguese Man of War, a very nasty sea beast that can sting the crap out of you with those trailing tentacles, which they use to catch, string and kill fish. (The man of war is not technically a jellyfish but a siphonophore, but jellyfish makes a more interesting subhead for this section. And hey, there are poisonous jellyfish out there, too!)
The sting from the man of war is "excruciating," according to most accounts I have read. It has proven deadly in rare cases. Loggerhead turtles are immune from the sting and actually eat these floating death factories, so saving the loggerhead is key. And how do we save the loggerhead? By staying away from the water's edge where they lay their eggs in sandy nests. (See "Alligator" and "Red Tide" entries above for further info about staying away from water's edge.)
You can find those little nasty barbed grassy spurs just about anywhere throughout Florida, but how come I never get them in my bare feet anywhere but at the beach? Hate 'em. Just hate 'em.
Over the past decade, Florida has led the nation in the number of drowning deaths among children ages 1-4 and is third in overall drowning deaths. And "Death by Drowning" (take that, Time magazine copy editors!!) is on the rise since 2004, according to the Florida Department of Health's Division of Keeping Track of Hellish Water-Related Deaths.
According to the intriguingly titled "Epidemiology of Unintentional Drownings in Florida, 2001-2005" (coming to a theater near you soon as Epidemiology!, starring Jodie Foster), Florida averages 465 drowning deaths a year, twice the national average.
The state has started a "Drowning Prevention Awareness Campaign" and has brochures and PSA's and kid's activity books made for the effort. Nowhere, however, do they give the one piece of advice that would stop the carnage:
Just stay the hell out of the water.