Coast Guard Member Bitten by Shark While Spearfishing in Florida Keys

Written by Mike Edmisten
Updated: June 30, 2023
© Havoc/
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A 22-year-old man is recovering after being bitten by a shark while spearfishing the Florida Keys. Ethan Wilder was spearfishing near Davis Reef off Islamorada on Friday when a shark bit his leg.

Spear fisherman targeting amberjack in the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico near Anna Maria Island, Florida.
A man was bitten by a shark while spearfishing off the Florida Keys.

©Danita Delimont/

In an interview with WSVN, Wilder said, “Me and my buddy were out spearfishing, and I just speared a fish, and I swam back up to the surface with [the fish] in my left hand…I was about to swim back to the boat, and then a shark came from behind me and got my leg.”

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Wilder said his partner saw the shark from the boat but thought the shark had targeted the fish. He didn’t realize that Wilder had been bitten until he reached the boat.

The two men kept calm as they planned their course of action. Wilder said, “We were pretty cool. I told him to pull the anchor, and he went up there and grabbed the anchor, and he helped me climb up on the boat… I just grabbed my phone, called the Coast Guard, and then started hauling tail back towards the station.” Wilder has been a member of the Coast Guard himself for two years.

A Coast Guard crew helped Wilder to the shore, where an ambulance transported him to Founders Park. From there, he was airlifted to Jackson South Medical Center in Miami, where he underwent surgery. He has since been released from the hospital and is expected to make a full recovery.

Sharks of Key West

There has been no word on the size or species of the shark that bit Wilder’s leg. There are a number of potential culprits since the Florida Keys are home to several different species of sharks.

The nurse shark is the most common shark in the Keys. These sharks are generally docile and non-aggressive. They are often spotted by divers who are exploring the beautiful waters of the Keys.

Sandbar sharks also populate these waters, but they, too, are typically non-aggressive toward humans.

Nurse shark
The nurse shark is the most common shark in the Florida Keys.

©Stevelaycock21 / CC BY-SA 4.0 – License

Lemon sharks also swim in these waters. While they are another fairly non-aggressive species, there have been a small handful of lemon shark bites in the Keys.

Reef sharks, such as the Caribbean reef shark, are drawn to the coral reefs of the Keys. These sharks are also less inclined to bite a human.

The more aggressive sharks in the Florida Keys include species such as blacktip sharks, tiger sharks, bull sharks, hammerhead sharks, spinner sharks, and great white sharks. These would seem to be some of the more likely candidates for inflicting the bite on Wilder’s leg, but it’s important to note that any of the sharks listed above can bite a human. 

Reef shark close-up
Blacktip sharks are among the most aggressive sharks in the Florida Keys.


Why Do Sharks Bite Humans?

Sharks are wild, predatory fish. It is impossible to predict what they will do at all times, but we do know that a sizable majority of shark bites result from mistaken identification.

Generally speaking, sharks do not target humans. Rather, a shark bite is usually because the shark mistook the person for a prey animal. This probably explains why many sharks release the bite victim fairly quickly, as was the case in Wilder’s encounter.

The shark that bit Wilder may have been drawn to the scent of the fish he had speared. Some shark species can smell blood up to a quarter of a mile away. But, whatever drew the shark to Wilder, it is clear that it was not interested in a protracted confrontation since it quickly released him and swam off.

This is not to say that sharks do not bite humans for reasons other than mistaken identity. Again, it’s impossible to make blanket categorizations for these wild, unpredictable predators.

dorsal fin of great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias, off Mossel Bay, South Africa
Sharks bite humans most often due to mistaken identification.

© De Maddalena

Florida Shark Bites

Florida is not only the top state for shark bites in the United States, but the state also has the highest number of shark bites of any place in the world. Volusia County, on the Atlantic coast of Florida’s peninsula, is known as the world’s shark bite capital.

However, there has never been a fatal shark attack in Key West. While shark bites can and obviously do happen in the Keys, the Key West Aquarium reminds everyone that we are 45,000 times more likely to die from a car accident than from a shark attack.

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bull shark
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About the Author

A freelance writer in Cincinnati, OH, Mike is passionate about the natural world. He, his wife, and their two sons love the outdoors, especially camping and exploring US National Parks. A former pastor, he also writes faith-based content to encourage and inspire. And, for reasons inexplicable, Mike allows Cincinnati sports teams to break his heart every year.

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