It’s true Sharks fill the waters of the Florida Keys

I thought I should tell you about some of the Sharks that you may encounter while visiting the Florida Keys. Not all of them are man eaters. But all of them are here. I’ll give you a little information on each of the more likely ones you’ll see.

The Nurse Shark is no doubt the most numerous species here. I can tell you first hand about their numbers. I see this guy every time I’m diving. They populate the nearshore waters on both sides of the Florida Keys and all the way out to the reef . I watch them laying motionless under the overhangs at the reef , under ledges and coral heads in the backcountry and around mangrove islands.

They eat lobster , crab , shrimp, mollusks, squid, octopus, sea urchin, and fish. While diving a few years ago one of them took my catch bag with a grouper in it that I had shot. He jammed it under a small ledge, bit thru the bag and the grouper and began to shake his head back and forth violently. Then he left. I swam down and grabbed the bag and swam to the boat as fast as I could. When I got onboard the boat I discovered that the shark had gutted the grouper for me. He had bit right into the stomach and took all the guts out and swam away with them, leaving me with two very nice fillets.

Nurse shark give live birth to a litter between 10-20 pups. They measure about one foot in length. I’ve seen these guys mating in the bay on the ocean side of Summerland Key. It’s very violent. The male bites onto the females pectoral fin, he’s trying to roll her over onto her back. They thrash around on the flat for hours. Sometimes another male will try to get the female away from the first male. It’s quite an interesting show. This happens in the spring time here in the Florida Keys.

Anatomy of a Shark

This species grows to twelve feet long. And I can take you right out to where some of these big guys are parked. They mature when they reach seven feet in length. They can life to be more than 24 years old.

In parts of the Caribbean they’re targeted commercially for their high quality skins. In the Florida Keys they’re more of a nuisance species. They adjust well to aquariums and are very popular there.

Nurse sharks have been known to attack man. I have had them charge at me during four different lobster seasons. I had to kick them repeatedly on the shout with the bottoms of my fins to get them to leave me alone. There’s been several divers during Sport Lobster Mini Season attacked by these sharks. In each case they were provoked by the diver. The interesting part is that when a Nurse shark attacks you it sucks onto you. I remember two different years when the person attacked had to be taken to the hospital to have the shark surgically removed from his body. In both cases the shark had sucked onto the chest of the diver. The diver had to get to the surface and then to his boat with the shark attached. To remove it the spinal cord is cut and the suction lets go. The shark is killed. Moral to the story don’t mess with these guys.

Lemon shark is a common species found in the shallow waters on both sides of the Florida keys. It gets its name from the yellowish color of the skin. It seems to me they like to hang out in the same places that lobster do. This species heads south to deeper waters for the winter months.

They eat other sharks, lobster, crabs, mollusks, rays and fish and an occasional sea bird.

Lemons give live birth to pups about two feet long. They usually have 4-16 in the litter. They swim into shallow bays and coastal waters for the birthing. They can grow to a length of 10 feet. They mature at ages 11-12 and are eight feet long at this time. They live to be more than 27 years of age.

They are fished commercially but not to a great degree. Lemons do well in aquariums. They are a danger to man especially when you’re catching lobster or spearing fish.

Bonnethead sharks are in the Hammerhead family. They’re the smallest of the Hammerheads. They're lots of this species in the Florida Keys. They live in the shallow waters with a mud and grass bottom. During the winter they move off into deeper, warmer water.

shark offshore

They like to eat small fish, crabs, mollusks and shrimp. They give birth to live young about a foot in length. They usually birth from 4-16 puts in spring. They mature at about two years old, they’re about 2 ½ feet long at this age. They can grow to a length of 3 ½ feet and are thought to live more than seven years.

Some people eat them, although they aren’t targeted as a food source commercially. They’re used as crab bait. This is a good sport fish for light tackle anglers. They can be hooked easily using shrimp or cut bait. This species is harmless to man.

The Bull Shark is the species I’m most afraid of here in the Keys. They’re down right mean. They’re the apex predator in the Florida Keys. They’re found in nearshore and offshore waters on both sides of the Florida Keys and like to hang out under the bridges. They ambush Tarpon and other fish as they swim near. This guy likes shallow water especially if it’s murky. They can live in freshwater. They’ve been found hundreds of miles up the Mississippi River.

Bull Shark

Bull’s will eat anything. Researchers have found fish, other sharks, dolphin , Swordfish , rays, sea turtles, sea birds, bottles, cans and plastic in their stomach.

They give birth to live pups about 2 ½ feet long. They can birth as many as a dozen pups at one time. They swim into shallow bays and lagoons for the birthing. They mature between ages 14-18 and are 6-7 feet long at this age. They can grow to a size of 12 feet and live to more than 24 years of age.

Bull’s aren’t sought after commercially. They’re a tough species and do well in aquariums. This is one of the most dangerous species in the world. They account for one third of the attacks on man.

Blacktip sharks are very active and fast swimming. They’re in the coastal waters and bays on both sides of the Florida Keys. During migrations they can be seen in large schools. They migrate south to deeper waters during the cold winter months.

Blacktip Shark

During spring and summer smaller ones can be found on the flats out back. Many light tackle anglers target them as a sport fish. When hooked they’ll leap out of the water and spin like a Spinner shark before splashing back into the water. They eat small sharks, rays, skates, fish, squid, crab, lobster and octopus.

They give birth to live pups about 2 feet long. They’ll have as many as 10 in the litter. Females give birth in the spring and early summer in shallow water bays. They mature at about five feet when they’re 6-7 years old. They can live to be more than 10 years old.

Blacktip are fished commercially for their meat, skin, fins and liver. More Blacktips are caught commercially than any other species. And yes, Blacktips have been known to bite man.

shark with divers

The Greater Hammerhead Shark is found on both sides of the Florida Keys. They’re in the open ocean and in shallow waters. They hand out in the channels or under bridges just waiting on someone to hook up on a Tarpon so they can have an easy meal. The Greater Hammerhead can and does swallow 200 pound Tarpon whole, in one Gulp!

They routinely feed on many other species of fish, rays, other sharks, squid and crab. They’re sometimes confused with the Scalloped Hammerhead. They give birth to live pups as many as 40 in a litter. They’re about two feet long at birth. They use shallow bays and coastal waters to birth the young. They mature at 7-8 feet in length and can grow to a size of 18 feet. Their life span is more than 20 years.

Commercially they’re caught on longlines. The only part used is the fin, it’s sought after because it's a very high quality fin. This is a dangerous shark. It’s rated number seven in unprovoked attacks on man.

Last spring Becky and I were Tarpon fishing in Johnston Channel out back with live bait. All of a sudden we heard this swishing noise. We looked toward the side of the boat and a Greater Hammerhead was charging straight toward the console of the boat. Her eyes were as big as golf balls. She started reeling in frantically and backing up. The whole fin and back of this Hammerhead was out of the water. He charged right up to the boat and turned to the side and down so quickly that he splashed water all over us. He swam under the boat and away. We didn’t see him again that day.

The Tiger shark is found in any ocean that has warm water. The Tiger will eat anything and feeds most all the time. Researchers have found fish, marine birds, turtles, other sharks, rays, skates, dolphin, conch, crab, rocks, wood, plastic, beer cans and bottles and human parts in their stomach. They give live birth to anywhere from 10-80 pups that measure 2-3 feet in length. Tigers grow to a length of 20 feet and can weigh a ton. They mature at 10 feet at the age of 7-10 years old. They can live to more than 16 years of age.

Whale shark Tigers are valuable commercially. The entire shark is used. The meat, skin, liver and fin are all valuable.

Tiger Shark are a real danger to man. It ranks second only to the Great White Shark for attacks on man worldwide.

One last species I had to write about is more elusive. It’s the Whale Shark. If you’re out near the wall off the Lower Keys fishing enough, you could be lucky enough to see one of these guys. It’s the largest shark here and in all the oceans. They are filter feeders. They sieve enormous amounts of plankton thru their gills as they swim. They grow to a length of 50 feet. I believe they migrate offshore the Florida Keys in the spring and early summer months. I would love to be out there and see one of these guys up front and personal.

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