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Shark attacks spook surfers

Spate of incidents, including two deaths, hit site popular with Southern Californians near Ixtapa.

June 19, 2008|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

ZIHUATANEJO, Mexico -- Bruce Grimes gingerly clenches his stitched right hand, asserting as best he can that he was accompanied by angels the morning a large bull shark chomped "softly" on his arm as he paddled his surfboard.

"I could feel the inside of its mouth with my hand," he says while sitting on a small wooden stool inside his downtown surf shop. "It was steely, all hard inside, like a bear trap."

Grimes was sitting with his legs in the water when the predator nudged his board. He could feel its rough skin with both feet, so he knew it was large. He shot to an "L" position, his body prone, bent legs in the air, arms outstretched.

But the shark bumped the board again, harder. It was clear it wanted what was on the board, so Grimes began to paddle. The shark bit his slender arm once, then left him alone.

Grimes, 49, a transplant from Florida who owns a downtown surf shop, hobbled ashore with his right side drenched in blood. He drove himself to a hospital, where doctors closed his arm and hand with more than 50 stitches.

The attack, which occurred May 24, was the third on a surfer in less than a month off beaches north of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo.

The other victims, from San Francisco and Mexico, were bitten in the thigh and buttocks areas and bled to death soon after reaching the beach.

In the aftermath, following a ceremonial shark massacre and community panic one expert described as "everything you saw with the movie 'Jaws,' only in Spanish," mania still flares.

Sharks teem in imaginations. Nothing like this had ever happened in this region, a newly discovered surfers' paradise popular among Southern California wave riders.

Experts cite colder La Nina conditions and the associated nutrient boost for possibly luring the sharks. There was a similar phenomenon near Acapulco, 140 miles to the south, in the early 1970s -- four fatal attacks in succession.

Such spates, which have occurred in Hawaii, Florida, Australia and elsewhere, are anomalies. The global average is 3.8 fatal shark attacks annually despite thousands more people entering the ocean each year.

But reasoning is lost on local commercial divers, who are afraid to enter the water, and on commercial fishermen, who are illegally hunting sharks they say jeopardize their livelihoods.

Two local captains nodded in agreement when a third, Jaime Cortez, suggested that bull sharks -- alleged culprits in the three recent attacks -- have developed a taste "for the sweet blood of humans." Conservation groups and scientists call the notion absurd.

Shark populations are severely depleted in Mexico, yet wide-scale fishing for sharks continues nationwide, under a regulated permit system.

"More than likely there are far fewer sharks in the region than there used to be, due to over-fishing for the shark-fin market in Asia," says Serge Dedina, executive director of Wildcoast, which helped persuade government agencies to ban "revenge" killings after the initial attack April 28.

Tourism in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, predominantly supported by wealthy Mexican families, has not suffered, municipal tourism director Guillermo Catalan Martinez says.

But the number of surfers visiting coastal hamlets to the north has declined.

Meanwhile, newly stationed lifeguards claim to be spotting large sharks cruising in waves. Non-surfing tourists also are misidentifying dolphins and rays.

George Burgess, a shark specialist with the University of Florida, referred to "the perfect storm" of unusual circumstance and human emotion after a regional tour.

Burgess also noted that two attacks -- including the bite to Grimes at Playa Linda, 10 minutes outside Ixtapa -- occurred near river mouths in areas he described as "great places to be a shark."

Such spots will be even more appealing when summer rains blow out sandbars and generate a steady "chum line" of sewage, cattle feces and other debris.

A reporter's tour, with longtime Zihuatanejo resident Ed Kunze as guide, revealed a slow but steady healing process inching forward within the community.

Recovering at about the same rate is Grimes' right hand.

Warnings on the beach

The Ranch is an idyllic playa 37 miles north of Ixtapa.

There have been no attacks there, but a helicopter crew had reported several large sharks massed just to the south.

About 20 people share the surfing lineup. Rich Morris, 28, a Floridian here for a bachelor party, is the first in his group to come ashore.

He says Floridians are used to shark-mania, but confessed that some in his group are reluctant to make this trip -- including two who are trailing experimental electrical strips designed to repel sharks within a 30-foot radius from their surfboards.

Javier Mesas, 42, who owns a small beachfront restaurant, says more surfers were bypassing Troncones, Pantla and Playa Linda -- to the south, where the attacks occurred -- to come here.

But Mesas now has to drive to Zihuatanejo and pay more for fresh seafood because the local cooperative has stopped sending divers after octopus, oysters and lobster.

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