Of Sharks
and Plane Crashes
From the Abaco Forum:

My family, (myself, wife, kids ages 7 & 10) are preparing to visit Abaco for the first time. We were very excited, then we saw: (pick one)
·the picture of the shark, or
·the story about the shark attack, or,
·the story about the plane crash.
We found this rather unsettling, and we are now having second thoughts. Should we cancel our vacation?

Let’s start with sharks: Abaco is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, and the Sea of Abaco directly communicates with it. Virtually anything you’ve ever seen or heard of in the subtropical Atlantic potentially can show up in Abaco’s waters, and that includes sharks. What you really want to know is this: should I be afraid of being attacked by a shark if I come to Abaco for a week (or more) and my family and I swim and snorkel?

The short and very honest answer is: NO. I am aware of a number of divers who have sustained injuries from shark bites in Abaco, but they were all spear fishing, and most were in the upper Abacos, Spanish Cay and beyond. I have never heard of someone snorkeling in the Sea of Abaco or over the shallow offshore reefs who has been attacked, and I’ve spoken to a lot of veteran divers who agree. (Again, this excludes spear fisherman.)

This is not to say that you won’t occasionally see a shark. It’s their ocean, and they are around. It’s not unusual to see small sharks swimming under docks or in the shallows, especially at dawn or dusk. Divers occasionally see larger nurse sharks on the reefs. They are harmless as long as you don't try to "pet" or "ride" them; such actions have occasionally earned a foolish diver a nasty bite. Once in a while a reef shark will cruise through the reefs. If you see one, and it’s very unlikely, you don’t panic or make a fuss, you just get out of the water and wait a few minutes.

Sharks are opportunistic predators; they are looking for an easy meal, something dead, crippled, or small. In Abaco’s very clear waters they can see you quite well, and believe me, they are not interested in tangling with something as large as a human. I live near Ponce Inlet (New Smyrna/Daytona Beach, Florida), which in the past ten years or so has become the shark bite capital of the world. During the summer of 2004 there were almost twenty incidents of people being bitten by sharks. The common thread was that they all occurred in very murky water, and from the size of the bites, the sharks were all small. The thinking is that they were migrating and feeding on bait (small fish), got a hazy view of a foot or leg, thought it was bait, and tried to feed. No one died, and most of the injuries were relatively minor. The situation in Abaco is quite different: the water is very clear, and unless you are spear fishing, they just aren’t interested in humans.

While we’re talking about diving, we should mention that barracuda are very common throughout the Bahamas and the Caribbean. It is likely that you’ll see them while you’re diving. They won’t bother you, they’ll go on about their business, you do the same, and everyone gets along, as long as you don’t do something stupid like try to hand-feed them dead or wounded fish.

Nurse sharks have small eyes, wide heads, barbels extending downwward from their mouths, and typically lie on the bottom or in crevases.
About once each year we hear that a small plane flying between the Bahamas and Florida crashes, and that there are deaths and injuries. This always becomes big news, and it frightens a lot of people. There is the suspicion that small planes aren’t as safe as larger ones, or that “foreign” planes aren’t maintained as well as domestic ones. So you’ve just read about one of these, and now someone in your party is afraid. Again, what you want to know is: what is my chance of dying or sustaining serious injury in a plane crash while traveling to Abaco?

Let me ask you to consider a few other questions: when you got in your car this morning and drove to work, did you consider not going because you were afraid? Every day in the U.S., 125 people die in traffic accidents, and thousands are injured, often severely; but I’m betting you probably didn’t think about it. Consider that on any given day, maybe 100-200 small planes travel back and forth between the Bahamas and Florida; that’s a lot of planes over the course of a year, and only one or two go down. As far as the size of the planes, most are small because the airports they serve are small, or their customer base is relatively small. This isn’t like flying in a 767 from Kennedy to LAX, it’s a whole different deal.

When I discuss surgery with a patient, and they express their fear of dying, I always put the risk in perspective, comparing it to something we do frequently, such as driving in a car, smoking cigarettes, drinking liquor, eating sugar or fat, or even having unprotected sex with someone we really don’t know. These are all things that occur a jillion times each day, and nobody thinks about the risk, although it may be substantial. Keep in mind that the trip to the airport in your car is probably ten times as dangerous as your flight. If the thought of driving to the airport doesn’t bother you, then get on the plane, open your Dodge's Cruising Guide, read about your destination, try to identify the islands, and relax!

And is you're still scared, or your wife is threatening to mutiny, please email me.

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