Justin Stuller was looking forward to relaxing in the Florida Keys, fishing, lobstering and swimming with his wife, kids, extended family and friends.
Until a shark bit him.
Stuller, 38, who along with his brothers and wife owns Estero River Outfitters kayak and canoe livery, is now sporting two dozen stitches and a small limp after he tangled with an eight-foot lemon shark Wednesday off Snipes Point in the Keys.
An experienced diver — certified since age 12 — Stuller had spotted an injured fish in the rocks under water and went to retrieve it.
“It was too small, not a keeper,” he said Sunday from Estero River Outfitters on U.S. 41. He went to put it back into the rocks and away from his wife and kids who were swimming nearby.
“I put it in a hole, and right before I surfaced, wham,” he said of the attack. “I felt the skin more than the shark. It rolled me over and I saw it swimming away.”
Stuller said nobody noticed anything at first he until he surfaced and started yelling.
Friend and coworker Jake Dorn, 24, was swimming nearby.
“I was about 50 feet away and I heard him yelling,” Dorn said.
Stuller’s first thought was for his family and friends. “My wife and kids were swimming,” he said. “So they got them out of the water.”
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On the boat, Stuller, his wife and friends got a look at the five- to six-inch bite just below his knee as well as a few other puncture marks above the knee and on the back of his leg.
He said his wife, Kristen, was looking over his shoulder when he took his hands away from the wound and let out a gasp when she saw the damage.
“We’re going to the hospital,” he said her first words were.
Until that point, Stuller said, they had been having a fantastic time, limiting out during the mini spiny lobster season.
The Estero resident said he makes sure he keeps a complete medical/first-aid kit on board and had plenty of gauze and pressure bandages to stem the bleeding.
“I tied it off and actually lost very little blood,” he said. “It was pretty deep, but no bone. I was very lucky, no tendons.”
Everyone stayed calm, he said, even his 4-month-old, 2-year-old and 10-year-old children.
“I was thinking, ‘I’ve got three kids on the boat, I have to stay calm,'” his wife said. Nobody panicked. In fact, the kids thought it was kind of cool to see a shark.
“My 2-year-old said, ‘Dad-da, boo-boo,'” Justin Stuller said. “My 10-year old said, ‘Good thing you didn’t get bit on the head, Dad, then you couldn’t wear your hat.'”
After getting stitched up at Florida Keys Memorial Hospital on Stock Island, for which Justin Stuller had nothing but kind words, he said they went back out the next day, with him as captain, not a diver.
“He was ‘Mr. Grumpy Pants’ the second day,” his wife laughed.
Stuller said he has encountered sharks before on similar trips. Some have even snatched fish he speared as he swam back to the boat, but he’s never been bit before. At least, not by a shark.
“I did get bit by an alligator,” he said. And a spider, he said, showing the scars of both on his leg.
Co-worker Dorn said they are not usually worried about the presence of a shark.
“I’ve been lobstering here for years,” he said. “You see sharks and they usually swim around you.”
Stuller said he thinks the shark was just interested in the fish he had just stowed on the seabed.
“I’ve got nothing against the shark, no ill will,” he said. “Right place, wrong time. I was more angry I couldn’t go in the water the next day.”
Stuller was back at Estero River Outfitters on Sunday, helping in the bait shack portion of the operation his parents started in 1977.
Stuller looks at the encounter with the lemon shark as just another Florida experience. “It was the best way to have a bad experience,” he concluded.
Connect with breaking news reporter Michael Braun: MichaelBraunNP (Facebook), @MichaelBraunNP (Twitter) or [email protected]
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