Lifeguard tried to chase a shark away from a nude beach. That made it attack instead

Something rare happened this weekend at Haulover Beach — so rare that it has only occurred 15 times in recorded history in Miami-Dade coastal waters. A shark bit a swimmer.

And, though nobody seems to be counting, it also appears to be the first recorded shark attack on a nude beach in South Florida.

Elvin Lanza, 44, was taken to Aventura Hospital for surgery Sunday after nasty bites to both legs but is expected to recover.

The attack by the shark — identified as a bull by some observers but impossible to confirm without examining bite marks — might have been provoked in part by a lifeguard trailing the meandering shark on a water bike while trying to warn bathers, said one of the state’s foremost shark authorities.

“The animal was being harassed — not necessarily intentionally — but trying to be herded out of the area,” said George Burgess, director of Florida Natural Museum of History’s International Shark Attack File. “An animal being cornered will lash out. It’s a potential contributing factor that should be addressed.”

All the naked bodies in the water, on the other hand, probably played no role, he said. Sharks can see contrast well and are attracted to it — contrast like those between the sun-kissed and paler parts of a person’s body, which is why experts recommend wearing more neutral-colored bathing suits to reduce the chances of being attacked. But sharks are also attracted to flash and splashes, and Lanza, who was swimming nude, was bitten in the lower legs as he tried to swim to shore.

Video footage shows a Sunny Isles lifeguard puttering on a water bike near a shark estimated at four to five feet long while surrounding swimmers began making for shore. The water bike had been trailing the shark down the beach, according to Rob Boyte, who was sun bathing with a friend near a lifeguard stand. Boyte said he heard someone say “Shark!” Then, he heard the lifeguard blowing the whistle alerting people to get out of the water.

“I don’t know if they couldn’t hear it or were just moving slow,” Boyte said.

Lanza’s mother, in an interview in Spanish with NBC6 News, said that her son had tried to kick the shark to get it to release him.

“He’s recovering, thank God, it was very scary but he’s now under God’s control and that’s what’s important,” she said.

Erika Benitez, spokeswoman for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, said what appeared to be a four- to five-foot bull shark got to Lanza as he was exiting the water. He made it out, she said, and “MDFR Ocean Rescue lifeguards immediately rendered assistance.”

Burgess, who has been studying sharks for decades, said it is difficult to confirm the species of the shark without examining the wounds and interviewing the victim. He also speculated that the water bike could have provoked a reaction if the shark felt cornered but said it can be difficult to pinpoint the cause of an attack.

Bull shark or otherwise, shark attacks are extremely rare in Miami-Dade. They are more common in counties to the north of Miami-Dade and Broward counties — particularly in the surfer havens of Volusia and Brevard, where there have been 290 and 134 reported attacks since 1882. The most common shark attacks are by blacktip and spinner sharks, according to Burgess. They are typically “hit-and-run” attacks, where sharks bite and let go, and result in minor injuries such as tooth impressions, lacerations and other smaller wounds.

Bull sharks are still one of the most worrisome sharks for beachgoers along the coastlines of Florida. Their serrated teeth and aggressive behavior means their wounds can do a lot more damage. Not to mention, they can grow up to 11.5 feet.

They swim near the shore from Virginia down to Brazil and across the Atlantic Ocean near Madagascar. Bull sharks are nearby more often than swimmers realize.

“Most of those encounters people never know about because you can’t see what goes on underwater pretty commonly,” said Neil Hammerschlag, a marine ecologist at the University of Miami. “Bull sharks occur in the water, and if we go in the water, we are entering their environment. But at the same time, it’s that sharks generally try to avoid humans.

“We’re not on their menu, because if we were, we just couldn’t even enter the water.”

Shoreline fish, snappers, mullets and small sharks and rays are among some of the bull shark’s prey. They are “generalists,” according to Hammerschlag, and opportunistic in their food choices. They can tolerate low salinity, and oftentimes, females will give birth in estuaries to keep the pups safe from larger sharks that can’t survive in fresher water.

Swimmers can avoid dangerous encounters with all species of sharks by not swimming when the water is murky, turbulent or dark — like during dawn or dusk. During those times, sharks are more likely to mistake a swimmer’s body as a fish or other type of prey, said Hammerschlag. He also recommends swimming with other people and avoiding places where there have been shark sightings.

“And then lastly, follow your gut,” Hammerschlag said. Many victims feel uneasy or get a weird feeling and shrug it off shortly before being bit.

“If you feel uneasy, get out of the water and generally follow your gut instincts.”

@sydneyp1234; Miami Herald staff writer Monique Madan contributed to this story.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer