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Florida is great white shark’s winter stomping grounds

Dive instructor Corey Embree was on a routine descent, slipping into the vast blue wilderness 3 miles off Juno Beach.

He hoped the lemon sharks would appear on the gin-clear New Year’s Day — and he had just joked on the ship that maybe the group he shepherded would see a white pointer, another name for a great white shark. Someone had mimicked the “da-duh, da-duh, da-duh” soundtrack from the movie Jaws.

Then he looked down and saw the sea floor move.

That Embree’s group would spend the next three minutes marveling as an estimated 14-foot great white circled curiously, harmlessly, was a shock to the 20-year diving veteran, who had never seen a white shark while diving.

Read: South Florida man bit by shark catches shark, says he’ll eat it

But experts said it shouldn’t be a surprise.

“I call them my snowbirds,” said Gregory Skomal, a scientist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. “Many of the sharks leave the Cape and go down to Florida in the winter.”

Florida is a wintertime stomping grounds for the great white, and as their numbers grow from two decades of conservation efforts, more encounters are likely, researchers said.

Since Dec. 19, three great white sightings were reported off Florida’s coast — two from boats off Port Canaveral and the Jan. 1 encounter off Juno Beach captured on video by Embree.

“Of course, I didn’t believe them about the shark. It’s practically a myth,” said Luis Roman, owner of the Lake Park-based Calypso Charter, which had taken the New Year’s Day group to the site off Juno.

Romano, of West Palm Beach, was captaining the ship — Miss Jackie — that day and didn’t dive.

“We’ve conducted thousands of hours of dives and never seen a great white,” Romano said. “I thought they were joking.”

Read: South Florida man survives shark attack that shreds hand

In 2014, Katherine the white shark made headlines when a satellite tracker pinned to her dorsal fin pinged all along the Florida coast — Sebastian Inlet, Stuart and Boynton Beach. It turns out she was no rogue.

A study that same year led by National Marine Fisheries shark expert Tobey Curtis compiled a database of 649 confirmed white shark sightings back to the 1800 and found a clear pattern of white sharks wintering off both Florida coasts and through the Carolinas. Summers are spent in New England waters.

The study also found that white sharks were most often sighted in waters over the continental shelf. More than 90 percent of the sightings were in waters 330 feet deep or less, with the median depth of about 100 feet.

Because the continental shelf doesn’t extend far off Palm Beach County’s coast, white sharks may be funneled between the coast and the shelf’s edge, said Dean Grubbs, associate director of research at the Florida State Coastal and Marine Lab.

“If you are in Jacksonville, it’s 50 miles to the edge of the continental shelf, but down in Jupiter, it’s only a few miles,” Grubbs said. “If animals want to stay in that shallow zone, they are going to come closer to shore.”

Warmer waters in the Gulf Stream could increase the funnel effect, acting as a thermal barrier.

Curtis found that sharks were most often seen in water temperatures between 57 and 73 degrees. The warmer Gulf Stream varies in distance from Palm Beach County’s coast but can have its western edge move in as close as one mile.

“But realize, a lot of this is conjecture,” said Skomal, who worked with Curtis on the study. “If most fishing occurs on the shelf, that’s where the sightings are going to be. That’s why tagging is so important.”

Casual beach bathers and surfers shouldn’t be overly concerned, Skomal said.

No one has been bitten by a white shark in Florida, according to the International Shark Attack File, and there’s nothing to bring them near shore. They are more likely to come close to the beaches of Cape Cod, where seals pile up along the coast, said Skomal, who spent time last year in the waters off Palm Beach County trying to solve a white shark secret — what are they feasting on here.

He said the assumption is they are eating larger fish, such as snapper, or other sharks and dolphins. They are also known to target right whales. Turtles are most likely off the menu because white sharks’ teeth are too pointy and would break off on the shell.

“It’s a big mystery as to what they are actually consuming,” Skomal said.

While a search of news clips finds multiple white shark sightings from vessels, there aren’t as many organic Florida encounters caught on film by divers in the water.

Embree, who organizes dives for Deep Six Dive and Watersports in Vero Beach, said he has been on more than 1,000 dives in the Gulf of Mexico and off Florida’s east coast and never came across a great white until Sunday.

It was an awe-inspiring moment.

“They see them from the fishing boats, but to be up next to them … I can only hope that I am so lucky again,” Embree said.

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