With one hand already mangled and the ocean turning Kool-Aid red with blood, Chucky Luciano braced for another assault.
He punched out with his right fist, striking the shark, but getting bit on the hand nonetheless. The other surfers were dozens of yards away, staring at him in shock.
“I realized no one was coming to help me,” Luciano said about the shark attack that occurred Sunday morning at New Smyrna Beach.
Luciano, 36, knew the risks when he entered the wilderness ruled by the apex predator last weekend.
But the Miami resident had an added strike against him as soon as he hit the surf. He was swimming with baitfish.
“I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Luciano, who owns South Beach Surf Club and is a surf instructor. “I never thought I would be part of the food chain.”
The annual mullet run is underway along Florida’s east coast — a fall migration undertaken to spawn in the open ocean. Luciano was one of three people bitten by sharks Sunday in New Smyrna Beach.
One Palm Beach County lifeguard said he pulls people out of the water when dark schools of mullet hug the coastline.
Good idea, said University of Florida shark expert George Burgess.
“We see a jump in incidents around this time of year from Matanzas Inlet through the Palm Beaches,” Burgess said. “You put people in the soup with mullet and predators, and there are going to be bites.”
Burgess said fall is the time of year when mullet leave the lagoons and estuaries along the coast, massing along the beaches in huge schools or “bait balls” in anticipation of moving offshore to spawn.
“It’s like clockwork,” Burgess said. “Totally predictable. While they are there hanging along the shoreline, they become perfectly eligible for predators. It’s feeding time — it’s free McDonald’s for two weeks or so.”
Brian McManus, a lieutenant with Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue and a 30-year veteran lifeguard, said the mullet — more so than cooler temperatures — are one of the first signs of fall on the beach.
Recently, he’s pulled people out of the water when big schools go by. It’s not just sharks that follow the mullet, but tarpon and barracuda as well.
“People can get freaked out,” McManus said.
The mullet run usually lasts a few weeks.
Luciano said he’ll be back in the water, but might be more inclined to get out if there is bait around. When he was bitten, he was in an area of water churned up by a rip current and had seen mullet jumping nearby.
“I had a real bad feeling,” he said. “As soon as I saw the mullets running, I laid on my stomach and got my hands and feet out of the water.”
But then he felt the shark hitting under his surfboard and it popped up next to him.
Luciano managed to paddle to shore with his less injured right hand. Surfline’s beach cam captured him stumbling out of the water onto the beach.
The encounter Luciano describes — not your typical case of mistaken identity where the shark bites and releases — is characteristic of some species of sharks, such as the aggressive and territorial bull shark, Burgess said.
That’s what Luciano believes it was. And it was about the same length as the 5-feet-8-inch board he was surfing.
“The second time he attacked, I was aware, ‘OK, this is an attack,’ and I got to defend myself a little better,” Luciano said. “He was doing that aggressive, shark-twitching thing. I got to punch him right before he got too close to me but he still bit my right hand.”
Luciano said he could see the shark following him, but he managed to belly-in on a wave. Once he got to the beach and people realized he was hurt, help came pretty quickly.
“I thought I was going to die,” he said.
Luciano had reconstructive surgery on his left hand and doctors stitched up his right hand. A GoFundMe account has been set up online to help pay for his medical bills.