(PNJ.com) - There's seems to be sharkmania gripping the Gulf Coast.
On Monday there were more reports circulating on news and social media sites of a so-called rare gathering of a large number of sharks in the Gulf near Pensacola Pass, which isn't unusual at all.
While the report is unconfirmed and an aerial photographer could not find any on Tuesday, shark behavior expert Erich Ritter said shark clusters close to shore are a common phenomena.
"But often not seen since they aggregate at night," said Ritter, who will be presenting findings on his latest research project about shark and human interaction at University of West Florida on Friday. "The common denominator is food, and migration to some extent, so nothing unusual."
The Pensacola Pass report from a helicopter tour pilot comes one week after Orange Beach, Ala, closed a 1-mile stretch of its beach for about four days after some 20 sharks swarmed in shallow swimming areas around Perdido Pass.
Even if the Pensacola Pass report is true, there's no cause for alarm, public safety and marine experts say.
Despite the bad reputation 1975's thriller "Jaws" gave sharks as man-eaters, humans are not shark prey.
"There's sharks in the water all the time," said Bob West, Pensacola Beach public safety supervisor. "There's only been five shark (related) fatalities since 1988 in Florida. There's a lot more to worry about than sharks, like rip currents, lightning and drunk drivers."
Black tips commonly congregate in large numbers off of Pensacola Gulf Pier every Labor Day Weekend, he pointed out.
West is skeptical about the reports, especially since one of the photos posted on a Mobile, Ala., TV news website reporting there's a huge proliferation of sharks off our coast may not have been taken recently.
"If you look at those photos, there's one that clearly looks like it was from last year," he said of one showing a stripped down, center console boat sitting on the beach. "That's a target boat from Eglin (Air Force Base) that washed up last year."
Aerial photographer Amy Hartsfield, with Amy & Company, often flies over our local beaches and said seeing large and small sharks cruising up and down the coast is a common site, though she's not witnessed them congregating.
"It's not unusual to see one or two cruising 25 to 50 feet offshore," she said. "My son's a surfer, and surfers will tell you they see them all time."
Robert Turpin, Escambia County marine resource manager, who this year will log his 3,000th scuba dive trip — mostly on reefs and sunken boats in the Gulf off of Pensacola Beach — said it's no secret the Gulf is home is to a large number of sharks.
"I see them relatively frequently when I'm diving," he said.
In the 50 years he's been fishing and diving in local waters, he's seen congregations of sharks at different times of the year, much in the same way other marine life such as manta or sting rays school close to shore seasonally.
"I've counted hundreds of sharks between the pass and just five miles east and west," he said. "It's infrequent, but just an aggregation of a larger number of sharks."
Instead of being alarmed, Turpin is in awe of watching these majestic creatures that are top predators of the sea who really have no interest in humans as their prey, he said.
"I saw a dozen large 6- and 7-footers swimming around the USS Massachusetts one early morning," he said of the popular diving spot 1.5 nautical miles south-southwest of Pensacola Pass. "The sun barely popped the horizon, and I just floated there and watched them."
While diving, some sharks nudge so close to him, he said he could reach out and touch them, but he knows better than to that.
Just like any wild animal, you must have a healthy respect for them and abide by certain rules, Turpin said, something that may have helped prevent one of our area's most notable shark attacks in 2001. A 200-pound bull shark bit off the arm of 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast, a vacationer who was swimming in the Gulf in the National Seashore's Fort Pickens area at dusk, which is feeding time for sharks.
Turpin offered the following shark safety tips:
• First rule for any waterway safety, be aware of your surroundings.
• Don't get into the water at sunrise or sunset.
• Don't swim when there are large schools of bait fish or if the water is murky.
"When the water is murky, the shark cannot see their natural prey," Turpin said. "When they're feeding and something touches their snout, they'll bite. It's a reflex, just like if someone touches your eye, you blink."
That's not to say accidental shark bites don't happen when people do seem to be following the rules.
Last September, a sailor from Pensacola Naval Air Station, was bitten on the foot by what experts believe was a bull shark, while swimming at Casino Beach in the early afternoon.
Want to learn more about sharks?
Erich Ritter will be talking about his latest shark-human interaction research "Watch your back: A shark knows what direction you're facing" at UWF Leisure Learning Society 12:30 p.m. on Friday.
Space is limited.
To register, call 474-3491. Cost is $12 per person.
We need a bigger Gulf
Shark mania seems to be gripping the masses.
A social media sensation is Katherine, a young, 14 foot great white who is being tracked by OCEARCH scientists cruising through the Gulf of Mexico, no too far from Pensacola Beach, about due south of Port St. Joe.
Yes, great whites are not just found off of the East Coast, Australia and South Africa.
Katharine is just one shark OCEARCH, a non-profit organization, has tagged for an unprecedented research on great white sharks and other large apex predators, according to its Facebook page.
Weighing in at 2,300 pounds, Katharine was tagged off Cape Cod, Mass., on Aug. 19, 2013 and since that time she's traveled more than 4,846 miles to Gulf.
www.ocearch.org/profile/katharine and click on social media for the latest tracking map.