STUART, Fla. — A man who died in a shark attack while kiteboarding off South Florida's Atlantic coast was experienced on the water and usually went out with a buddy, his friend said Thursday.
Stephen Howard Schafer, 38, was the first person killed in a shark attack in Florida in five years, experts said.
A lifeguard spotted Schafer in distress about 500 yards off the beach Wednesday about 100 miles north of Miami. When the lifeguard paddled out on a large surfboard, he found Schafer bleeding and surrounded by several sharks. The lifeguard put Schafer on his board and paddled him back to the beach.
Schafer was taken to a hospital and died a short time later. Authorities are investigating what types of sharks were involved and whether multiple sharks bit Schafer. Beaches remained open Thursday.
Shark attacks, especially fatal ones, are extremely rare, said George Burgess, a leading shark expert who directs the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History.
The attack on Schafer was the 14th deadly one in the state since 1896.
"Internationally, we've been averaging four fatalities per year, despite the fact that there are billions and billions of human hours spent in the sea every year," Burgess said Thursday. "Your chances of dying in the mouth of a shark are close to infinitesimal."
Friends said Schafer always followed the buddy system while surfing and were surprised he was in the water alone.
"We always know that (sharks) are out there. You see them this time of the year," said Teague Taylor, a childhood friend who says Schafer taught him to surf. "It's hard to believed that such an experienced waterman would make that one mistake."
Schafer, a gifted artist and graphic designer, was drawn to the water as a child. He surfed competitively and later started sailing, windsurfing and kiteboarding. Kiteboarders surf across the water on boards strapped to their feet, using large curved sails to pull them along.
"He had to be around the water," said Taylor, who manages a local surf store.
The U.S. leads the world in the number of unprovoked shark attacks, some deadly, some not, with about 1,032 documented since 1670, according to the International Shark Attack File. Of those, 50 were fatal. Florida leads the world with more than 600 attacks.
The last fatal shark attack in the state was in 2005 off the Florida Panhandle, where a 14-year-old Louisiana girl was attacked while swimming on a body board about 100 yards off shore.
"Florida as a geographic entity has more than any other place in the world," Burgess said, noting that most attacks are minor, "the equivalent of a dog bite."
While attacks are rare, Burgess said, people still need to be careful in the ocean.
"We need to respect it. When we enter the sea, there are certain risks that we should expect," he said.
However, Burgess noted that this time of year there are typically fewer shark attacks in Florida because temperatures are cooler and not as many people are in the water.
He said sharks are lining "up in South Florida getting ready to move north" as temperatures begin to warm.
"The sharks gradually move their way northward and disperse," Burgess said. "The message to take home is this is a rare and unusual event. It should put the antennae up for people, in terms of, 'Yeah, we need to be careful when we enter the sea, but we need to do that every time because we're never guaranteed safety 100 percent of the time when we enter a wild world.'"
Associated Press Writer Kelli Kennedy contributed to this report from Fort Lauderdale.