Manfred Gerber isn’t letting one stinkin’ shark stop him from his daily routine. He’s 89 and for the past three decades he’s been walking the beach daily and swimming in the ocean at Haulover Park — naked as a jay bird.
“It’s how I stay healthy, live so long,” Gerber said, before slowly descending back into the mild surf, the small white caps first enveloping his calves, then covering his exposed buttocks, and finally, the rest of his bronzed and fit body.
Just days after a swimmer at Haulover was bitten by a shark, life has returned to normal at the most popular beach in the U.S. for nude sun worshipers. Normal, as in nobody on this stretch of sand is wearing a stitch.
Even as storm clouds gathered and threatened late Thursday afternoon, dozens of people lay in the sand, strolled along its shoreline, frolicked in the water and drank beer under tiki huts.
Gerber said he was in the water last weekend when Elvin Lanza, 44, took nasty bites to both his lower legs. Other swimmers, he said, were back in almost as soon as rescue workers bandaged Lanza’s gashes and took him to Aventura Hospital, where his mother said he was expected to fully recover.
Gerber believes the attack was just random bad luck.
“It’s really the first time in 25 years that I have witnessed such an incident,’’ he said. “It happens, you know.”
Shark attacks are rare in Miami-Dade waters, with only 15 known on record. Experts say nudity could, at least potentially, make some swimmers more appetizing to a wandering shark — especially those with a stark contrast between tanned and untanned parts, the contrast an attractant, much like a splash or flash of jewelry. But the same experts also said that the attack on Lanza was more likely provoked by a lifeguard on a waterbike, who was trying to herd the four- to five-foot shark while trying to warn swimmers to get out of the surf.
It also was the first ever documented at Haulover but it placed a destination for nudists well known to locals in the national spotlight — sharks and naked people being a combination that tends to attract media attention.
Haulover Park, a mile-long stretch of oceanfront along Collins Avenue and set between North Beach and Bal Harbor, has been the center of multiple controversies over the decades. It was known as Ocean Beach before Miami-Dade swooped it up with the proceeds of a $2 million municipal bond in 1940. Park construction began the next year, but was halted because of World War II.
It gained national notoriety in 1945 when a group of seven blacks waded into the water there, one of the first major acts of civil disobedience for blacks in the entire South, say some historians. The early protest before the civil rights movement took hold led to the opening of beaches in Miami-Dade for blacks and to decades of sit-ins and demonstrations during the fight for integration.
The battles over swimming in the buff would not begin until almost a half century later. In recent decades, the practice has survived several, um, cover-up attempts.
It was 1991 when activists from a group called South Florida Free Beaches began showing up at Haulover, sans swimsuits. That didn’t go over well. A few months later in April 1992, Miami-Dade police arrested five people for nude sunbathing, charging them with public indecency. The case was dismissed two months later.
The state of Florida took a crack at closing down Haulover’s naked beach in 1994. The Legislature outlawed full nudity at Florida beaches. But Miami-Dade commissioners successfully argued that its public beaches fell under Home Rule Charter and the county was left to regulate Haulover on its own. In 2002, at the urging of County Commissioner Sally Heyman, Miami-Dade approved a master plan concept for Haulover Park that included a clothing optional provision in the wording.
“My only request was that we had enough landscaping,” Heyman said. “It’s part of the beach. It’s something that serves a purpose. It co-exists and it doesn’t create any problems.”
Since then, an estimated 1.3 million visitors flock tvo Haulover’s nude beach each year. In the past 25 years parking revenue is up almost 500 percent. Tourists make up a sizable chunk of the visitors.
On Thursday, Michael Burnett and Brenson Knight, in town from Columbus, Ohio, were sunning and jumping in and out of the water at Haulover. That changed when they were informed of Lanza’s unfortunate encounter with the shark.
“I knew it,” Knight said.
“That was his fear since the time we planned the trip,” said his partner Burnett. “He’s been in the water.”
Retorted Knight: “I’ll get back in. I’m just not going far.”
Crouched under a tiki hut a few yards away as a rain squall passed through were Jim and Stacey Brown, both 43. They were visiting from a town just outside Chicago, and the married couple said a shark bite isn’t going to frighten them away.
“I’m not scared and I don’t care,” Jim said. “It’s their water. Just keep an eye open. I mean, did the guy die or lose any limbs?”
As of Friday, all of Lanza’s body parts were reported to be intact.