Courtesy Heidi Ernst
(NEW YORK) — An experienced scuba diver from Iowa is recovering in the hospital after having her leg amputated following a shark attack in the Bahamas.
“I didn’t even see him approach me. He came from below. It was just like a truck hit me,” Heidi Ernst recalled in an interview with ABC News.
Ernst, 73, had just finished a dive in Grand Bahama earlier this month and was climbing up the ladder of the dive boat when the incident occurred.
“I have been diving for 11 years,” she said. “I never had a shark even threaten me in any form or shape. I saw that he — or she probably — had my leg in its mouth starting to shake its head side to side.”
In the middle of the attack, Ernst said she knew she had to fight back in order to survive, so she hit the shark with her hand.
Ernst remembered hearing one of the crew members yell to “get in the boat” repeatedly, so she “got up the ladder and jumped into the back of the boat” once free from the shark’s grasp, she said.
“I could have easily bled to death had it not been for my friend who put the tourniquet on my leg,” she added.
The incident came amid a spate of other reports of shark bites or attacks off the coast of Florida.
Earlier in May, a 13-year-old was attacked and bitten in the stomach, knee, arm and finger by a probable bull shark along a Florida beach, but was able to escape after punching the shark repeatedly.
That same month, a 20-year-old man survived a shark attack off the Florida Keys. The man was spearfishing in 70 feet of water when he was bitten on the leg by a bull shark, causing him to lose blood rapidly. The man was able to get to his boat with help from his friends where he used his weight belt as a tourniquet to stem the bleeding until paramedics arrived.
According to research from the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File, the number of unprovoked shark attacks worldwide dropped last year, “tying with 2020 for the fewest number of reported incidents in the last 10 years,” though authorities reported a spike in localized incidents. In total there were 57 unprovoked bites in 2022, in the U.S. and Australia. Florida had more reported bites than anywhere on earth last year with 16 cases.
While chances of getting bitten by a shark are slim, experts say there appear to be more sharks along U.S. coastlines now following years of conservation efforts, which could mean more human and shark interactions.
“Our East and West Coasts are returning to abundance at levels we haven’t seen since the ’40s and ’50s,” Chris Fischer, founder of Ocearch, a nonprofit marine biology research organization that helps scientists collect data related to tracking and studies of sharks, told ABC News.
As ABC News previously reported, though global shark populations are still considered critical, marine biologists are indeed starting to notice the effects of effective fisheries management, which according to Mike Heithaus, a marine biologist at Florida International University, has led to an increase in the number of species that serve as food for sharks.
As the ocean gets warmer, sharks, fish and other marine life will also move closer to the shore. According to Heithaus, sharks may end up mistaking human hands and feet for the fish they typically feed on.
“They’re not mindless killing machines,” he told ABC News in July last year.
For beachgoers this summer, experts urge swimmers to always go out with a buddy and not venture too far out. Additionally, if swimmers see anything that sharks prey on, they’re encouraged to get out of the water to be safe.
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