Sheriffs' Shark Hunt Takes to the Air

Deputies on board police helicopters are searching the Florida Panhandle for cold-blooded killers. However, it's not criminals they seek, but sharks off the coast of Pensacola.

"There's a shark right down there," exclaimed Escambia County Deputy Todd Tolbert to his partner, Deputy Pete Keeling, on a recent assignment. Only after Keeling, the pilot, swung the chopper into a sharp bank to the left did Tolbert realize his suspect was a sand shark, swimming in waters too far from swimmers to pose any threat.

"If there were a lot of people in the water, we would get on our external PA system and tell them we had spotted a shark and ask them to clear the water," Tolbert explained.

Tolbert and Keeling are part of the Escambia County Sheriff's Office shark patrol. Deputies search coastal waters from the sky to give swimmers advance warning of any dangers that lurk below. The aerial surveillance effort was launched this month in hopes of preventing incidents like the July 6, 2001, bull shark attack that left 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast seriously injured.

Shark experts point out the odds of being attacked are miniscule. In Florida, people are six times more likely to be injured by lightning than by a shark bite.

But the Arbogast incident and other highly publicized attacks throughout the Southeast and Caribbean last summer left many beachgoers nervous. Many Pensacola residents and tourists said the shark patrol gives them a sense of added security.

"Where you have families and small children in the water, it's a good idea you have something to alert them to keep them safe," said Catherine Starr, a tourist visiting from Massachusetts.

April Donoval of Pensacola agreed. "When we bring our babies out here, we don't want them being ate up by sharks."

In addition to spotting sharks, the aerial patrols look for stranded swimmers and dangerous currents.

"The mission out there is to serve and protect the people who are out on the beach," Keeling said. "We don't want any harm to come to them."