A funny thing about Florida is that people talk about sharks a lot. What they say about them depends largely on how “Floridian” they are.
Visitors and newcomers often exhibit keen interest that falls somewhere along the fear/fascination spectrum, while long-time residents and natives are a bit blasé about the matter. The dialogue goes something like this:
Visitor/Newcomer: “So... are there a lot of sharks at this beach?” or, “Have ever seen any sharks close to shore?” Resident/Native: “Sharks live in the ocean.” It is understandable, the disparity between perception and reality, thanks to Steven Spielberg. Holding the title of the most iconic shark story for more than 51 years, the 1975 blockbuster film JAWS stirred a primal fear that has lived on for generations, forever changing the way the world perceives some of the most amazing creatures on the planet. But much like the photo on the cover, which is an AI-generated piece of digital art entitled “Dangerous Shark in the Ocean,” JAWS is a fantastical fiction, as much a figment of the imagination as is its sensational opening scene. Summertime is shark time in Florida, including the Treasure Coast. They are everywhere but an overwhelming majority of encounters involving humans happen mostly indoors as The Discovery Channel and National Geographic serve up a solid month of sharkiness on TV while other channels ramp up reruns of just about every shark flick ever made. However, local angler and diver Paul Dabill prefers the real deal. As a licensed drone operator and professional photographer, he’s been getting up close and personal, both over and under water, with a glorious array of South Florida marine life for around 15 years. So, naturally, he is astutely familiar with the local shark population and its usual haunts and habits.
Paul Dabill with a beautiful custom print ready for a client.
“When I'm flying my drone along the beach, I frequently see blacktip, nurse, lemon and bull sharks. Occasionally I see hammerheads. When I'm diving on the reefs and ledges in deeper water I see reef, bull, lemon, sandbar, silky, dusky and hammerhead sharks. We are fortunate to have so many different shark species in our area.” Paul’s spectacular work, including mesmerizing drone video, has attracted more than 130 thousand followers on social media as well as the attention of Discovery Channel and National Geographic producers. His footage has appeared on both Shark Week and SharkFest, and has also been used by multiple science and research organizations. His experience with these predators is noteworthy as he describes what it’s like to be in their presence:
“When I'm freediving I'm usually spearfishing. We almost always see sharks on every trip, so it becomes very normal to encounter sharks. The sharks never cause any problems unless a fish has just been shot. When that happens, they can become aggressive and create a dangerous environment. It is important to get the shot fish out of the water as quickly as possible.” He goes on to add “It seems that bull sharks can become aggressive pretty quickly, so we take extra caution around them.”
Bull sharks are considered an aggressive species and are quite common in our area. The Indian River Lagoon is regarded as the most significant bull shark nursery along the U.S. Atlantic coast. Bulls are unique both in their ability to tolerate fresh water, and their tendency toward rivers and estuarine environments as pupping grounds. But these sharks pose little threat to humans, as evidenced by the frequency with which people like Paul Dabill encounter them, even while spearfishing, yet manage to come out with limbs intact, returning home safely for dinner. The fact that bull sharks are the fourth most abundant species in a state with millions of people safely enjoying the water every day demonstrates that these animals have little interest in humans.
While black tip, bull, lemon, and nurse sharks are ubiquitous in local waters, a less frequently observed but common presence is the hammerhead. “I love to see hammerheads. Their unique heads are unlike any other species, and they are interesting to watch” Dabill says of what he identifies to be his favorite shark. Great hammerheads can grow to 18 feet long and almost always “go viral” on the internet when observed close to shore. Scalloped hammerheads are more common and can grow to 12 feet. Two distinct population segments of the scalloped hammerhead shark are listed as endangered and two more are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
While oceanic shark and ray populations have declined over the last 50 years, Florida populations are tougher to assess since so many of its species are highly migratory. Paul says he may be seeing a trend.
“I've been diving and fishing off Palm Beach and Jupiter for 15 years. If anything, there seem to be more sharks than ever. In fact, they are quite a nuisance for fishermen because often the sharks will eat the catch before it is able to be brought into the boat.”
Shark activity in Florida peaks during the summer months yet shark bites remain exceedingly rare, and the three counties of the Treasure Coast have the lowest recorded unprovoked bites along the east coast since 1882. Humans are 30 times more likely to be struck by lightning in Florida than to be bitten by a shark. Fatalities are also extremely low. Only one percent of shark bites in Florida are fatal compared to 10 percent worldwide. Even provoked attacks are rare, but they are tantalizing fodder for summertime news.
Paul Dabill isn’t out to provoke sharks but spearfishing falls outside the official definition of unprovoked interactions, so it makes perfect sense that what he describes as his most memorable experience with a shark wound up on TV!
“When I first started spearfishing, I swam out from the beach and shot a sheepshead. A blacktip shark immediately approached and tried to get the fish. I didn't have a boat to put the fish on, so the situation got a little hairy. I filmed the encounter with my speargun mounted camera, and the Discovery channel ended up using the story on Shark Week.”
Marine life enthusiasts won't want to miss Paul Dabill's exciting social media photos and videos. His information is below but in the meantime, enjoy some of his fabulous posts and comments here:
Paul Dabill is a licensed drone operator and underwater photographer based in Jupiter, Florida. He loves south Florida for the diversity of life that can be found in the Intracoastal waterway, inlets, near the beach and offshore. Paul takes pictures and videos while flying his drone as well as while freediving.
His work has been featured in multiple magazine publications including Florida Sportsman, Florida Sport Fishing and Angler’s Journal. His videography has been featured on Discovery Channel and the National Geographic channel. Multiple science and research organizations have also used his work.
Paul’s photos and videos can be seen on the "Paul Dabill Photography" Facebook page as well as Instagram @PaulDabill and Twitter @DabillPaul.
While on the surface, I spotted this bull shark about 50' below. I wanted to photograph this one so I quickly dove down trying to catch up. As I was getting close he turned and began swimming straight towards my camera, turning at the last second before bumping into my lens.