FORT PIERCE, Fla. - Forget needing a bigger boat. For one Florida diver, it was more important to think and move quickly.
The rash of great white shark encounters in the Pacific Ocean has reached the Atlantic Ocean off the state's Treasure Coast. Over the weekend, four free divers competing in the Fort Pierce Open spearfishing tournament had a rare close encounter of their own with a great white shark -- perhaps the sea's most feared predator.
At 6:30 a.m. Saturday, Steve Maldonado, 32, of Palm Bay, and three of his friends aboard his boat, Boaty Call, were about to enter the water some 15 miles northeast of Fort Pierce Inlet in 130 feet of water.
Maldonado said diver Eros Morales, of Palm Bay, jumped in first and began untangling the float he attaches to his spear gun. Suddenly, Maldonado noticed Morales was swimming backward to the boat while he had his spear gun pointed back toward something he was swimming away from.
"Eros is screaming, 'There's a big (expletive) shark!'" Maldonado said. "I could see behind him coming at him was about 6 inches of the top of the dorsal fin sticking out of the water and a big shadow underneath."
"I called it a great white, but probably prematurely, while another guy said it was a tiger shark," he said. "When Eros got in the boat, it swam close and we could see it looked a lot like a great white."
Morales, 31, was surprised when he first realized a shark was eyeballing him. He stayed pretty calm, even though it was only about 30 feet away and it turned to swim toward him.
"The water was very clear, and I could easily see it was a big shark, but I wasn't too concerned with trying to identify it," he said. "I just focused on the task at hand -- kick toward the boat and keep the gun pointed at the shark."
Jeremy Reed was cutting sardines and tossing them overboard as chum, but had only tossed over a few cuttings when the shark arrived.
Maldonado noticed the large shark would not leave. The crew then tossed in a large chunk of snapper carcass from a previous catch to keep the shark close to the boat. That gave him the opportunity to get his video camera on a pole to capture the shark as it swam close.
They estimated the toothy critter to be about 12 to 14 feet in length.
Great white sharks are considered rare in Florida waters, but there have been occasional sightings and one to two catches per year between Miami and Cape Canaveral. They are more common off New England and southern Canada where they feed on seals and sea lions.
Last year in late June, a Sebastian commercial spearfishing diver shooting amberjacks in 170 feet of water observed one and captured it on video.
"That shark seemed as scared of the diver as he was of it, and it left right away," said Maldonado, who saw the other video. "Our shark was determined to hang around. What I read about sharks after watching our video is it seemed to have its fins pointed down, like in an aggressive manner. He didn't eat the snapper carcass.
"I think he wanted to try some mammal that day."
In Florida, great white sharks are among 22 species of sharks that are prohibited from harvest in state waters. They are also protected from harvest in U.S. federal waters of the Atlantic.
Maldonado posted video and screen capture of his encounter on Spearboard.com in the Eastern Florida section of the forum and on his Facebook page. He said the appearance of the shark greatly affected his team's ability to compete Saturday.
"The rest of the day, we ended up diving in water much shallower than we planned and we really weren't focused on spearing, but instead on what was coming up around us," he said.
Maldonado said that as spearfishermen, they are used to wrestling their catches away from hungry bull sharks and other sharks, but that the great white really rattled them.
Despite the scary encounter, Morales and Maldonado expect to be back in the water this weekend for more spearfishing and next week for Florida's two-day lobster mini-season.
GREAT WHITE SHARKS
Scientific name: Carcharodon carcharias
Distribution: Off the Atlantic coast of the United States white sharks are found from Newfoundland, Canada, to Florida and rarely in the Gulf of Mexico. Off the Pacific coast white sharks are found off the Hawaiian Islands in the central Pacific (relatively rare) and from southeast Alaska to California (rare in Alaskan and Canadian waters) in the eastern Pacific.
Habitat: This species can be found in coastal waters, along the continental shelf and islands (especially near seal or sea lion colonies), and offshore in the open ocean.
Life history: Female white sharks are believed to mature when they are about 13-14 feet and the smallest known free-swimming white shark measured approximately 4 feet. White sharks can reach sizes up to about 21 feet in length.
Management: In the Atlantic, white sharks are a prohibited species and if a white shark is caught, it must released with a minimum amount of injury
and without taking the animal out of the water. In the Pacific, California state regulations prohibit the taking of white sharks. Finning is prohibited.