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Florida beach reopens after being shut down following shark bite incidents

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Beaches reopened in Florida's Walton County over the weekend after being closed on Friday because of shark attacks. Three people were injured, two critically, in separate incidents on beaches just 4 miles apart on Florida's panhandle. NPR's Greg Allen reports that the main factor driving the rise in shark attacks is that more people are in the water.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The beaches on Florida's panhandle are some of the most beautiful and pristine in the state, with white powdery sand and a growing number of visitors. On Friday, several miles of those beaches were temporarily closed. Walton County's fire chief, Ryan Crawford, spoke at a news conference.

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RYAN CRAWFORD: We had a 45-year-old female patient, was reportedly swimming just past the first sandbar with her husband. She received significant trauma to the midsection and pelvic area, as well as amputation of her left lower arm.

ALLEN: An hour and a half later, two teenage girls were in waist-deep water with a group of friends inside the sandbar on a beach a few miles away. One received relatively minor injuries to her foot. The other lost her left hand and received a severe bite to her right leg, requiring amputation. Both critically injured women received quick medical attention and were taken by helicopter to nearby hospitals.

In the U.S. last year, there were just 36 reported shark bites, with two fatalities. But reports about shark attacks always draw a lot of attention. And two shark attacks in one day on beaches just a few miles apart raised concerns about a threat to unsuspecting beachgoers from a roving man-eater, a la "Jaws." Gavin Naylor, who directs shark research at the University of Florida, says, no.

GAVIN NAYLOR: The chance of being bitten by a shark, you know, is very small. The chance of being bitten by two sharks in the same place at the same time is the square of being bitten by one. And so it's like getting the lotto, you know, twice.

ALLEN: You're more likely to be struck by lightning than bitten by a shark. But in coastal waters like Florida's, the odds rise at certain times - when a lot of people are in the water and sharks come close to shore in search of small fish. Here's Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson.

MIKE ADKINSON: I mean, obviously, this time of year, baitfish are running - we know that - between the sandbars. That's something we're aware of. Doesn't mean that's the cause. We're going to wait and see if we get some input from other experts, but that is certainly a consideration for us as well, too.

ALLEN: In recent decades, the populations of certain species, like bull and blacktip sharks, have rebounded because of conservation efforts. On Florida's Gulf Coast, Naylor says, on any given day, hundreds of bull sharks are just offshore.

NAYLOR: They're lingering out there. They're minding their own business. And there's people splashing around in the shallows, and it's not a problem. It's only a problem when the baitfish come close in, and they're weaving in and out of people, and the sharks follow them, and they're feeding on them, and then, you know, mistakes happen.

ALLEN: Almost all shark bites, Naylor says, are the result of a mistake. The shark bites once and leaves. But 15-year-old Lulu Gribbin was bitten twice, first on her hand and then on her leg. Naylor says that would be unusual, but not unheard of, especially if, as he suspects, the attacks came from bull sharks. In Walton County, Fire Chief Ryan Crawford, who oversees beach safety, says he's not sure what authorities can do to protect people from sharks, other than to post purple flags warning of dangerous marine life.

CRAWFORD: We typically deal with marine pest from, you know, stingrays and jellyfish and things of that nature - sea lice. But, you know, this is a pretty isolated type of incident. So I don't know what you could really do, intuitively, to prevent that kind of thing from happening.

ALLEN: The same day as the attacks in Florida, in Hawaii, a woman suffered serious injuries from a shark in the waters off Oahu. With more people and sharks sharing the water, attacks are expected to keep rising in the U.S., with Florida having by far the most incidents. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORIOL SIRINATHSINGH'S "OPEN SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.