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Palm Beach County students receive up-close education on sharks thanks to ANGARI Foundation

'We really are in this pivotal time where we're collecting as much data as we can about how these animals,' marine ecologist says
Posted at 10:57 AM, Aug 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-11 14:32:37-04

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — It's been an active summer with more headlines about shark sightings, encounters and victims who were bitten.

Florida has not been the only state gaining attention. The northeast United States has seen a number of incidents as well.

To understand their behavior — why they are here and where they are going — you need to analyze years of research.

That's what West Palm Beach-based ANGARI Foundation does best. They began in 2016 to help educate the public on sharks and our ocean.

Roosevelt Middle School learned how to bait lines to catch the sharks for the ANGARI Foundation's research.
Roosevelt Middle School learned how to bait lines to catch the sharks for the ANGARI Foundation's research.

They took WPTV offshore for a day of tagging sharks and discussed what those tags will do to help us understand and educate the public.

"I think a lot of people just don't really understand shark behavior, why they're here, why they're not here and that's all kind of what we're doing," Angela Rosenberg, president and founder of the ANGARI Foundation, said.

As the sun rose off Palm Beach, five Florida International University scientists and more than a dozen students from Roosevelt Middle School departed on a 65-foot research vessel. They call this expedition "Coastal Ocean Explorers," and it comes with one paramount goal.

Angela Rosenberg, president and founder of the ANGARI Foundation
Angela Rosenberg, president and founder of the ANGARI Foundation, speaks about her organization's mission.

"It's a lot of fun, but it's also really inspiring, you get to learn about the kids," FIU marine biologist Laura Barcia said.

A mile and a half off Singer Island — in 80 feet-deep water — the first line was dropped. Sixteen more lines would follow throughout the day.

Student after student helped bait and catch sharks, giving them perhaps the only encounter they may ever have, along with the best view to explore a potential career.

"All of these students are local to Florida," Barcia said. "This is their backyard, and if you want more locals to actually conserve and live among sharks, it is important they understand the sharks that are in the area."

FIU marine biologist Laura Barcia with WPTV anchor Jay Cashmere
Florida International University marine biologist Laura Barcia speaks with WPTV anchor Jay Cashmere about her work educating local students about the native shark population.

In our area and up the East Coast, there have been more encounters this summer triggering a wave of headlines. However, shark populations change yearly, according to these scientists.

"It's not necessarily that there are more sharks," Barcia said. "We don't have data on increasing sharks in Florida waters. However there is an increase in beachgoers, so the more people in the water statistically more encounters you're going to have."

Knowing what sharks are in the area, their behavior and their migration pattern can help us better understand how to act and react around them, according to these scientists. All of this critical information comes from every tag they place on a shark.

Once caught, fitted and released, the tags will study movement, behavior, growth and the effects of global warming.

Florida International University marine ecologist Erin Spencer
Florida International University marine ecologist Erin Spencer outlines the work she and her team are doing to learn about shark species in South Florida.

"We really are in this pivotal time where we're collecting as much data as we can about how these animals and ecosystems will be changed with warming waters," FIU marine ecologist Erin Spencer said.

It's an education lesson built to inspire excitement for the ocean, which will be handed to the next generation in order to protect it.

"Every time we're choosing to enter the water, we're entering someone else's habitat," Spencer said. "We're not designed to be in the ocean. It's a choice for us to go in the ocean, ... having a healthy respect for these animals knowing how to act."

No one knows that better than 23-year-old Addison Bethea. A 10-foot tiger shark attacked Bethea in the upper right leg on June 30 off Keaton Beach in Florida's Panhandle.

"All of a sudden I felt a bump on my calf. The shark pulled me underwater by my calf and then came back up, and I screamed," Bethea said. "It came around my left side and started biting my thigh."

She's one of 10 victims of shark attacks this year in Florida. Bethea recalled the life-threatening situation with her brother, Rhett Willingham, a first responder, who reacted instantly to save her life.

Addison Bethea, teen shark bite victim
A 17-year-old girl had part of her leg amputated after a shark attack in Florida. Addison Bethea was scalloping near Grassy Island, Florida, in water that is about five-foot deep when she was attacked.

"When I got to her, the (shark) had reattached to her thigh and wouldn't let go," Willingham said. "I had to grab her and grab him separately, then I had to knee him and hit him a couple of times."

The shark let go but didn't leave the area as Bethea was quickly losing blood.

"He was swimming literally all over us. I could feel his fins on my calf and on my butt just swimming," Willingham said.

Seconds later both were on a good Samaritan's boat and headed for the shore where she was airlifted to Tallahassee for treatment.

Reconstructive surgery to replace arteries and her thigh ended with her right leg amputated above the knee.

Five weeks in the hospital and rehab ended with a recent discharge and a determined new outlook on life thanks to an unexpected outpouring of love.

"Thank you for supporting me, by donating money and sending prayers," Bethea said. "It really does help a lot."

Visit the ANGARI Foundation website to learn more about their research.

Click here for more information on how to avoid a shark attack.