Woman escapes shark by punching it on nose off Florida coast

A woman punched a 6ft shark in the face until it let go of her foot, which it bit while she snorkeled off the Dry Tortugas, islands off the coast of Florida.

Heather West, 42 and from Texas, told the Daily Mail the lemon shark “kept tugging and tugging, and I could feel its teeth in my ankle”.

Related: Emperors of the Deep by William McKeever review – how sharks are misunderstood

Lemon sharks can grow to 11ft and inhabit coastal waters, close to swimmers, surfers and divers. But they present little threat to humans.

According to the International Shark Attack File, at the University of Florida, before West’s encounter there had been only 10 unprovoked attacks by lemon sharks, all in Florida and the Caribbean, none fatal.

“Caution is still warranted as they are a large predatory species,” the ISAF says.

In any year, the US accounts for about half of unprovoked shark attacks worldwide. The vast majority are not fatal. Most bites are exploratory. Sharks eat seals, turtles and fish. Sustained attacks on humans resulting in fatalities, as in Sydney, Australia this week, are likely to be cases of mistaken identity.

In a recent book, Emperors of the Deep: Sharks, the Ocean’s Most Mysterious, Most Misunderstood and Most Important Guardians, George Burgess, a University of Florida professor and ISAF organiser, tells author William McKeever: “The major reason more attacks are in the United States is we’ve got a very large coastline … and of course lots of people.

“And we are also a nation of some wealth and means, and so we can afford to spend time at the beach. And of course many areas of the country are heavy tourist areas.”

West lives in a van, traveling the US and updating an Instagram account. She told the Mail she was heading back to shore when the lemon shark bit her.

“I was wearing flippers and my kick wasn’t doing much damage,” she said, “so I decided to lean forward and start punching it.

“I punched it in the face over and over again as hard as I possibly could, and after about 30 seconds it finally let go.

“For the next two minutes I was in complete shock and couldn’t swim, but by this point my friends had ran back in the water to help me.”

The Dry Tortugas are home to a 19th-century fort – where Samuel Mudd, a doctor who treated the man who killed Abraham Lincoln, was once imprisoned – but little else.

Fortunately for West, two park rangers were nearby, setting traps for rats. They helped apply tourniquets to her leg and get her to the mainland for treatment.

Related: Marine scientists call for calm after swimmer killed by shark in Sydney

West said: ‘When I got to the shore I just started screaming ‘I won, I won’, because I realised I still had my foot.

‘In the water I was convinced he’d bitten it off, so seeing it still there, even though it was completely mangled, was a huge relief.”

On Instagram, West shared footage of the bite and its aftermath and said doctors in Key West told her she would probably regain full use of her foot.

The shark, she said, might have been the same one sighted in similar waters earlier, trying to eat a pelican.

West said: “Despite all of this, I want the record to show that I love sharks, and don’t want to discourage people from getting in the water. As a matter of fact I’ll be right back in as soon as I heal up.”

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