Jessica Vaughn hesitated to get into the water because it was “dark and murky.”
“I didn’t like that I couldn’t see what was in there,” the 22-year-old said Monday as she clutched a toy stuffed dolphin.
But she wanted to go tubing, so she jumped from her friend’s 22-foot Mako boat and swam on her back toward the yellow and blue tubes.
That’s when she felt something hit her right leg.
“It felt like a punch,” said Vaughn as she recounted her run-in with what is believed to have been a shark in the Intracoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale.
It turned out to be more than a punch. The shark ripped into her leg with such force that it left deep teeth marks.
In good spirits Monday, sporting an Ace bandage cast up to her knee and using a wheelchair, Vaughn described Sunday’s encounter as “scary.” She is recovering at Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale.
“I can’t believe it happened,” she said, through an occasional chuckle. “It’s definitely something you wouldn’t expect.”
In fact, attacks by sharks in the brackish Intracoastal and not the salty ocean are extremely rare, said John Carlson, a shark expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“I can’t remember the last time there was a shark attack in an Intracoastal Waterway,” he said. “It was quite surprising to me when I heard about it.”
The attack came as a shock to everyone — especially Peter Hogge, captain of the boat named Pie Rat.
“We’ve seen them, but you never think someone would get bitten,” said Hogge, who frequently takes his boat out on the Intracoastal.
On Sunday, the group of five got the boat ready about 11:30 a.m. for a long day of water and sun. They headed to the ocean, but couldn’t go tubing because the tide was too high. So they headed back to the Intracoastal, where there is a short speed zone.
They were about 150 feet from his grandparents’ condo at Bayshore Towers. He tied the tubes to the boat and idled while Vaughn and Kyle Branston swam out.
After Vaughn was bitten, Branston scooped her up and swam back to the boat.
“If I panicked, they probably freak out some more,” Vaughn said about her reaction to the bite. “I thought there was a lot of blood.”
Once at the dock, Hogge and some other friends used the boat’s first aid kit to apply a bandage above the wound to stop the bleeding.
Fort Lauderdale Deputy Fire Chief Timothy Heiser said the department received a call about 1:30 p.m. Vaughn was already off the boat when rescuers arrived.
“She was very well-bandaged,” Heiser said.
While the boaters could not say what kind of shark it was, Carlson said it probably was a bull shark. The group described it as being about four feet long. “Bull sharks have a good tolerance” for conditions in an estuary like the Intracoastal, he said.
Such attacks are rarely fatal, he said. “It bites the individual mistakenly and then leaves the vicinity.”
Florida led the United States in shark attacks in 2013, according to the University of Florida.
In October, a 6-year-old boy from Alabama survived a shark attack in Miami Beach. Logan Hamby was playing in the shallow waters off of the Deauville Beach Resort at 67th Street and the ocean when his family witnessed the attack.
Logan had been playing in the water for only a couple of minutes when his stepmother, Donna, saw Logan being pulled underwater, screaming. Then she saw the fin.
Donna’s husband, Ken, was the first to get to Logan. When he grabbed Logan to get him out of the water, the shark would not let go. Two men rushed to help Ken by punching the shark to get it to let go of Logan’s leg. The boy suffered deep puncture wounds.
“When we go back to Miami, I'm only swimming in the swimming pool,” Logan said.
Derek Burkholder, a research scientist at Nova Southeastern University’s Guy Harvey Research Institute, said “infection is one of the big issues with a shark bite.”
“It's is an open wound,” Burkholder said. “They do have a lot of bacteria in their mouth.”
Vaughn’s surgeon, Dr. Zoran Potparic, said Monday that Vaughn was lucky.
“It was probably the largest shark bite that I have seen,” Potparic said. He said most of the damage was to the skin and blood vessels, although some of the leg muscles were affected by the “crush” of the shark’s jaws.
Although Vaughn was rescued and is on the mend, Potparic said she is not out of danger. For the next few days, doctors plan to monitor her for infection. Her recovery, they estimated, will take three to four months.
Meanwhile, Vaughn, who grew up in South Florida, said she is just happy it wasn’t worse. As a server at Bru’s Room in Sunrise, she does not have insurance. An account has been set up at www.gofundme.com/9rujd0 to help pay her medical expenses. By Monday evening, more than $5,700 had been raised toward a goal of $45,000.
Vaughn said she loves the water and plans to go back in.
“It’s a one in a million chance,” she said. “My luck, it happened.”