Juvenile lemon shark in the shallows at Half Moon Bay Lagoon.
As is the case in any healthy Caribbean environment, sharks can be seen throughout the Turks and Caicos Islands. On our extensive barrier reef, grey reef sharks are common, and in the wetlands nurse sharks and lemon sharks (often juveniles) can be spotted.
There have been only 3 recorded shark attacks on humans in the Turks and Caicos, with no fatalities or loss of limb. Between 1749 and 2014, in the entire Caribbean Antilles region (which includes the Turks and Caicos and countries such as Jamaica, Cayman Islands, Dominican Republic, and many others), there have been 44 attacks and 16 fatalities recorded, according to research conducted by the University of Florida. This equates to only 17 attacks and 6 fatalities per century for the entire Antilles region.
Although the common perception of sharks has been changing over the last few decades, it’s important to understand the situations of shark attacks on humans.
In the vast majority of cases (especially if you do not count the admittedly dangerous waters off of certain parts of Australia and southern Africa) shark attacks on humans have been caused by mistaken identity.
A good example of this fact are the June 2015 shark attacks at North Carolina, United States, where three people were attacked over a matter of days. The ocean along much of this coastline has terrible visibility, often less than a foot. Sharks are apex predators (alpha predators at the top of the food chain), and have comparatively poor eyesight, so they may bite at anything that remotely resembles their typical dinner. Once their prey doesn’t respond normally, they release their bite.
Sharks are generally quite rare at the popular beaches of
Grace Bay, the
Leeward Beach, and
Long Bay Beach. When the occasional shark is sighted in these areas, it’s almost always a mid to small size nurse shark, which is a very docile shark.
Snorkelling with a nurse shark off Providenciales.
There have only been three Turks and Caicos shark attacks in recent recorded history here, and all victims survived (without loss of limb).
Although these three cases may make you nervous, keep in mind that the Turks and Caicos see over one million visitors per year, and the majority of these guests spend quite a bit of time splashing about in the ocean.
The 2002 French Cay Snorkelling Incident
The best known attack took place off of the isolated
French Cay in the southern Caicos Banks.
A group of experienced dive photographers from a large regional live-aboard boat was snorkelling after the morning’s first dive.
The victim, a 41 year old female visitor, was in the water taking photos. She was approached quite closely by a 6-7 foot grey reef shark, which brushed against her. As the shark began to turn away, it made a quick strike to the victims shoulder and upper arm. This resulted in a very serious injury and critical blood loss.
Fortunately for the victim, a surgeon, physician and ICU nurse were part of the dive group, and they had a decent selection of medical equipment and supplies. They were able to stop most of the bleeding in time.
Although unsubstantiated, rumours persist that the dive boat was attracting sharks with chum (fishing bait) in this event.
The 2011 Mudjin Harbour Attack
In what was definitely a case of mistaken identity, a snorkeler was struck by an unknown type of shark off of
Dragon Cay at
Mudjin Harbour, Middle Caicos.
This attack occurred close to the rocks, where breaking waves and bubbles in the water reduced visibility to about a foot. The victim, a 28 year old male visitor, was snorkelling in shallow water quite close to the rock and received a quick strike and laceration to his shoulder.
The tooth pattern suggests that the shark was about 5 to 6 foot (1.5 to 1.9 meter) and may have been a grey reef shark, but it’s certainly not definite. The victim received local medical attention and 18 stitches.
The 2011 Caicos Banks Spearfishing Attack
This incident happened between Providenciales and
French Cay. A local 35 year old fisherman was spearfishing (which is illegal in the Turks and Caicos, and which results in blood in the water and thrashing fish) in the relatively shallow waters of the Caicos Banks.
It’s not clear, but the fisherman may have had an intention of spearing a shark. At any rate, he received a bite from a 5 foot shark to his lower right leg.
He was treated locally.
Barracudas are common throughout the Turks and Caicos.
These toothy hunters are a common sight in most marine environments in the Turks and Caicos. Capable of lightning fast speeds, these animals thrive on a diet of small fish.
Although they give off quite a menacing appearance, they should not be considered dangerous. The very few barracuda attacks that have happened have always been the same scenario: a quick strike at something shiny (usually in poor visibility) followed by a rapid retreat after discovering that they didn’t bite a fish.
Barracudas are very curious fish. Although easily spooked, they will often follow snorkelers and divers. If the Barracuda happens to be Elvis, the five-foot long giant of Grace Bay, it can be a bit startling when you first notice him!
In many cases, Barracudas likely view humans as larger predators and are hoping to get scraps of a feast!
You’re probably a lot more likely to be in a serious car accident on your way to the airport than being a victim of a shark attack in the Turks and Caicos Islands, yet if you're looking to reduce shark attack risks, consider the the following:
Sharks tend to be more active in the evening and early morning, so if you’d like to reduce any possible risk, consider not swimming at these times, especially in areas of poor visibility.
Don’t wear shiny or flashy jewellery. This can appear to sharks and barracudas (which have poor eyesight) to be small silver fish and can (potentially) provoke an attack.
There have been no reported attacks in these areas, however, sharks are regularly spotted off the cliffs at
West Harbour Bluff and in
Leeward Channel between Providenciales and