Whether you’re planning on kayaking, standup paddle boarding, swimming, or participating in any of the other watersports the area is famous for, this article is here to answer your questions and concerns about sharks in Sarasota Bay.
Yes, Sarasota Bay hosts diverse species of sharks, including Blacktip, Blacknose, Atlantic Sharpnose, Bonnethead, Scalloped Hammerhead, Nurse, Lemon, and Bull sharks.
Fortunately, unprovoked interactions between sharks and people in the two counties surrounding Sarasota Bay (Sarasota and Manatee) are uncommon and have almost all happened in the open ocean.
In fact, there’s only one recorded shark bite incident (non-fatal) inside Sarasota Bay itself, EVER!
So, let’s take a complete look at the sharks of Sarasota Bay, and when we’re through, you’ll realize there’s nothing to worry about.
Sarasota Bay hosts several species of shark, including Blacktip, Blacknose, Atlantic Sharpnose, Bonnethead, Scalloped Hammerhead, Nurse, Lemon, and Bull sharks.
Sarasota Bay has an excellent safety record when it comes to shark attacks
It is safe to swim in Sarasota Bay if one takes sensible precautions.
What Types of Sharks Can You Find in Sarasota Bay, Florida?
The coastal lagoon of Sarasota Bay, Florida, is connected to the Gulf of Mexico and its large and diverse native shark population by three wide inlets (known as passes).
Theoretically, many of the 49 species of shark found in the Gulf of Mexico could enter Sarasota Bay, but we’ll focus on the most frequently seen ones.
It’s worth remembering that many species will stay away as they prefer deeper water or because all the human activity puts them off.
Marine scientists have also discovered that several species come into the bay to give birth, meaning that many sharks in Sarasota Bay are juveniles.
Blacktip Shark (Carcharhinus limbatus)
Adult Blacktip sharks are found around Florida in winter when the ocean is at its coolest, although they’re most commonly seen on the east coast.
Until quite recently, it wasn’t thought that blacktips usually entered Sarasota Bay itself.
However, scientists studying the local populations have found young sharks in the bay, leading them to believe the lagoon is a blacktip nursery.
Pregnant females will repeatedly return to the same area each spring to give birth, and youngsters will stay in their nursery ground until the fall.
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Blacktip sharks, in particular juveniles, are not considered aggressive to people.
However, as they get older, they may hunt inside baitfish schools quite aggressively, so it’s wise to stay away to prevent an accidental bite.
Blacknose Shark (Carcharhinus acronotus)
Adult blacknose sharks like warm temperate and tropical waters and are seen reasonably often around the Sarasota coast, often when caught by anglers.
While there aren’t any fishing restrictions in Florida, the species is becoming rarer and is rated as endangered globally with a decreasing population.
Like the blacktip, the blacknose uses the shallow bays and, in particular, the mangroves of Sarasota Bay as a place to give birth in late spring or early summer.
The female is thought to leave the area when she’s given birth and typically returns back to the open ocean for another year.
Adult blacknose sharks reach a maximum of about 1.2 meters (4 feet) in length and are not considered dangerous.
Atlantic Sharpnose Shark (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae)
The Atlantic sharpnose is found year-round in Florida waters but is usually a deeper water species.
Once again, this shark migrates from coastal and offshore areas to give birth inside Sarasota Bay’s shallower waters, and marine scientists have found juveniles living happily there.
The sharpnose isn’t considered especially dangerous and hasn’t ever been involved in a bite incident in Florida.
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Bonnethead Shark (Sphyrna tiburo)
If there’s a wishlist for sharks to spot in Sarasota Bay, the bonnethead should be right at the top.
They’re a cute-looking hammerhead that only reaches about 1.2 meters (4 feet) when fully grown.
Bonnetheads like warm water, so they’re seen in Sarasota Bay during spring, summer, and fall. They’ll leave the area and travel south as the temperature cools.
Both adults and juveniles can be found inside the bay. They tend to stick to areas where there’s seagrass (which, uniquely for a shark, they can eat) or over mud or sand where they can hunt for crustaceans and small fish.
Pups are born in late summer or early fall and are only about 30 centimeters (1 foot) long.
Bonnetheads are generally shy and will avoid people when possible.
They are not considered dangerous in any way.
Scalloped Hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini)
The other hammerhead shark, which may be found in Sarasota Bay, is the somewhat larger and critically endangered scalloped species.
It’s usually only pregnant females or juveniles seen inside the bay, as, like several other sharks, the scalloped visits only to give birth.
Youngsters may stay amongst the mangroves for up to three years before departing for deeper coastal waters.
Scalloped hammerheads are usually too timid to be dangerous.
However, in August 1996, a 2.1 meter (7 foot) long hammerhead caused some alarm at Bayshore Garden when it grabbed the stringer of fish tied around the waist of a wading angler and pulled him off into the water.
Fortunately, other than the surprise, the victim was unharmed.
Nurse Shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum)
Nurse sharks are more common in south Florida and the Florida Keys. Still, they are occasionally spotted in Sarasota Bay lazing on the seabed during the summer, particularly around the remaining mangroves.
No incidents have been recorded in Sarasota Bay, but the International Shark Attack File records nurse sharks as being responsible for 2% of bites in all of Florida’s waters.
Most incidents have happened when accidental contact is made with a resting shark, or their docile appearance is taken as an invitation to touch inappropriately.
If you see a nurse shark, as with all wild animals, remember to look from a respectful distance, as they’re more than capable of defending themselves if you make them feel nervous.
Lemon Shark (Negaprion brevirostris)
Lemon sharks may occasionally enter Sarasota Bay to feed. However, they are not seen frequently and are generally found further south.
The shark is known to give birth in shallow nursery waters. However, scientists haven’t yet recorded lemon sharks giving birth in Sarasota Bay, unlike other species.
If you are lucky enough to spot one, you’ll identify it thanks to the yellowish coloring they use as camouflage against sandy seabeds.
Lemon sharks have got formidable teeth. Fortunately, though, they’re not considered aggressive in any way unless severely provoked.
Bull Shark (Carcharhinus leucas)
The last shark on our list is the only one that is generally considered potentially hazardous.
In fact, bull sharks are known as the shark that is the second most potentially dangerous to humans worldwide.
However, before you worry, you should know that bull shark sightings inside Sarasota Bay and in the open ocean off Sarasota are incredibly rare.
Although the species can tolerate a wide range of water depths and even survive in freshwater, it doesn’t seem to enter the bay frequently.
That said, the only shark attack ever recorded inside Sarasota Bay was blamed on a bull shark.
In August 2007, a student and her friends had taken to going out into the bay at night to observe the incredible bioluminescence displays from microorganisms within the water.
Unfortunately, at about 10:30 p.m. on the 15th of August, Andrea Lynch was bitten as she floated at the surface by what was reported to be a 1.8 meter (6 foot) long bull shark.
Although Andrea required more than 100 stitches in the hospital, fortunately, she fully recovered.
Is It Safe To Swim in Sarasota Bay?
While millions of people enjoy the water safely every year, there’s only ever been one Sarasota Bay shark attack.
So, in the context of sharks, particularly as most found inside the bay are juveniles, the area can be considered safe to swim in.
Of course, just like you would respect lions living naturally in the jungle, we should still be aware that we are entering the shark’s environment and act sensibly and respectfully.
Avoid swimming at night or after dawn or before dusk as these are the times that bigger sharks may be more active.
Don’t wear jewelry in the water as a shark may mistake it for the reflections from fish scales.
Never swim alone and avoid areas where fishing or spearfishing is taking place.
Take special care to stay away from piers and fishing boats as chumming is allowed here to attract sharks.
The Red Tide and Water Pollution
Algae blooms, known locally as red tide, and other water pollution are more potentially dangerous to swimmers than sharks.
As well as being hazardous or even deadly to fish, and pets, the algae can cause respiratory problems for humans.
Water pollution from sewage runoff or industrial activity is also a growing problem inside Sarasota Bay.
You should check for warnings and avoid swimming anywhere the red tide or water pollution has been recorded.
Frequent “safe to swim” and beach safety tips are issued locally to help make your choice easier.
The red tide has been found responsible for increased shark numbers inside the more remote regions of Sarasota Bay, where they were never customarily seen.
As the tide spread in their regular habitat in July 2021, blacktip, bonnethead, lemon, and nurse sharks were spotted taking refuge in the long boat canals.
Are there Great White Sharks in Sarasota Bay?
Great white sharks are found in the Gulf of Mexico as they naturally migrate through the area.
However, they are always recorded far out at sea, and there has never been a confirmed sighting inside Sarasota Bay.
The closest record we could find was from April 2019, when a tagged great white named Miss Costa was detected about 100 miles off the coast of Sarasota County.
Where Can You Find Sharks in Sarasota Bay, Florida?
There are numerous opportunities to enjoy nature in Sarasota, but if you want to see sharks, the best way is to head toward the mangroves by kayak or paddle board.
Boat trips in the bay can provide stunning views of dolphins and manatees, but to have a chance to spot a shark in the wild, you need to get closer to the grounds where the juveniles live.
Check the latest information locally, but expect to head to Bird Key, Lido Key, Longboat Key, or Little Sarasota Bay.
Unfortunately, as development in the area has increased, much of the Sarasota Bay shoreline has been altered.
Seawalls have replaced large areas of mangroves, removing the shark’s traditional pupping areas, meaning that sightings may become less common.
Alternatively, for a guaranteed chance, you could visit the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium and even have breakfast with the sharks that live there.
What Time of Year Are Sharks Most Active in Sarasota Bay?
Sharks of different species are present in the Gulf of Mexico all year round.
However, as we’ve mentioned, most activity and sightings in Sarasota Bay happen when females deliver their pups in the shallows around the mangroves.
Depending on the species, this is typically during the spring, summer, or fall months.
The sharks found in Sarasota Bay are some of the most interesting in Florida.
Because the coastal lagoon is a natural area for females of many species to give birth, Sarasota Bay can be a great place to see young sharks in their natural habitat.
Luckily, Sarasota Bay has an excellent record for safety when it comes to sharks. Only one unprovoked bite has ever happened inside the bay.
Taking sensible precautions allows you to swim safely in Sarasota Bay.
Just make sure you check for local warnings about the red tide!
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British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.