Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at at time.

Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at a time.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Summertime in Texas means sharks, jellyfish, sunburns

If you’re planning a trip to the Texas Gulf Coast this summer, be aware that we do have sharks in the Gulf of Mexico. Counting shark attacks in 2014 has just gotten started. Mikaela Amezaga, was in waist high water in Galveston when she felt something bump into her back. She didn’t feel any pain or see the shark, but judging from the half-moon, mirror skin breaks on her back, it resembled a shark bite. She was swimming on the West End of Galveston Island near Isla Del Sol Community around 6:30 p.m. when the shark attack happened.

In June 2014, Katherine the Great White Shark was headed our way. Katherine, a 14-foot shark weighing in at 2,300 pounds, was one of a dozen great white sharks tagged last year off the shore of Cape Cod and researchers have been tracking her movements ever since to learn about the breeding practices of the mysterious animals. I don't know that Katherine got up to Texas. I'm told we're too hot for her so she probably didn't come up this way. I'm still researching that one.

Texas college student Kori Robertson was bitten on her thigh by what was believed to be a 5-foot-long bull shark near Surfside over the Memorial Day weekend of 2011. I watched the news story on the KHOU (that’s Houston, y’all) website and just about freaked out.

I don’t swim in the ocean and now you know why.

I don’t swim in lakes, creeks or rivers for similar reasons. Heck, I don’t even jump in mud puddles anymore. If I can’t see what’s swimming around me, I’m not swimming around either.

Robertson’s just fine, save for a nasty scar that looks like she tangled with a giant zipper. I, however, am mortified.

The sharks are swimming in the Gulf of Mexico as they do every year. It just seems they’re a bit more active near the beaches of the Lone Star State this year.

In March 2011, Jason Kresse of Freeport wasn’t even fishing for shark when a 375-pound, 8-foot mako shark jumped onto his boat. He and his crew tried to get to the shark to roll it back in the water since they didn’t have fishing permits for sharks, but it was thrashing around too much and died on the deck. Kresse got to keep the shark since its death was an accident.

I don’t mean to scare you. In fact, in the last hundred years, there have been less than 40 shark attacks off the Texas coast, and of that number, only two were fatal, according to the International Shark Attack File. That’s pretty good if you think about it. Still, the Gulf is home to sharks. It’s THEIR home. And if you go traipsing into shark territory, you are setting yourself up for a meeting and probably not a nice one.

Robertson said she was “in waist-deep water” when the bull shark got her. That’s probably about 3-4 feet of water, depending on her height. Sharks can get you in less than that. So if you’re wading around in the ocean, keep an eye out for what’s around you. Don’t get in the water with an open wound. Sharks are drawn by the smell of blood in the water and it doesn’t take very much. When the mako jumped in Kresse’s boat, he and his crew had been chumming, which means they were tossing fish blood and entrails into the water, trying to lure red snapper.

I didn’t know you had to chum for red snapper. Kind of makes me view the fish in a whole new light and gives me yet another reason to spend my leisure time on land.

The sharks that swim just off the coast of Texas include: Atlantic angel, Atlantic sharpnose, Basking, Bigeye sand tiger, Bigeye sixgill, Bigeye thresher, Bignose, Blacktip, Bonnethead (that’s a type of hammerhead shark), Caribbean reef, Caribbean sharpnose, Dusky, Galapagos, Longfin mako, Narrowtooth, Night, Sandbar, Sand tiger, Sevengill, Silky, Sixgill, Smalltail, Whale, and White. That’s a lot of sharks.

Truthfully, sharks get more bad press than they deserve. They really aren’t prone to bothering people unless the people get in their way. Off the Texas coast, the real worry is the Portuguese man-of-war, a jellyfish that isn’t actually a jellyfish. Brace yourselves, folks. I’m about to get all natural-science-nerdy on you.

The Portuguese man-of-war, also known as the Portuguese Man o' War, man-of-war, or bluebottle, is an obscene-looking, jelly-like marine invertebrate of the family Physaliidae (Physalia physalis). The name “man-of-war” is taken from the man-of-war, a 16th century English armed sailing ship. The man-of-war is a “colonial organism” meaning that it’s made up of a bunch of different critters called zooids that are connected through common tissue. These animals are highly-specialized and, although structurally similar to other single animals, are attached to each other and so dependent on each other for life that they are incapable of independent survival.

Think of this pseudo-jellyfish as a floating family of hungry pirates.

The man-of-war stings to capture its prey, and when I say “sting,” I’m talking about bright, red welts on your skin that last 2-3 days and hurt like Hades for at least an hour after initial contact. Some folks are allergic to its venom, so much so that they die, though this seldom happens. It’s more common to merely want to die after having been stung. And the venom is so potent that even though the man-of-war might be dead, its venom continues to be dangerous. Be warned: if you see a blue balloon floating toward you in the ocean, head for shore as fast as you can.

I hope I haven’t turned you off from a visit to our Texas beaches; you really should go and I think you’ll enjoy the trip. Frankly, the biggest concern on the Texas Gulf Coast is tourists not wearing enough sunscreen. More than the sharks or the man-of-war critters, people should be worrying about getting sunburned and setting themselves up for skin cancer, because that kills more people every year than anything out of a Peter Benchley novel.

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