High tide: are there really “cocaine sharks” off the coast of Miami?

by | Jul 21, 2023

  • A PR-savvy scientist named Tom Hird, known as “The Blowfish,” is promoting his work by investigating reports of sharks potentially ingesting cocaine off Florida’s coast.
  • Despite a feeding frenzy of media attention, there is no actual evidence of sharks ingesting cocaine or getting high off the drug.
  • The investigation aims to raise awareness about the impact of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and illicit drugs on ocean ecosystems.
  • The team conducted experiments using pseudo cocaine bales and observed sharks taking exploratory bites, but the observations do not definitively prove that sharks have actually been consuming cocaine.

A media feeding frenzy has ensued thanks to a clever public relations pitch by a shark scientist looking to garner attention for his work. In what sounds like the plot of a Floridian-themed spin-off of the “Sharknado” movies, marine biologists have gained international attention for their work investigating reports of sharks potentially ingesting cocaine off Florida’s coast. But whether you’re a long-time resident, or an out-of-state beachgoer, don’t worry. It’s highly unlikely we’ll be dealing with a Scarface inspired great white taunting surfers with, “Say hello to my little fin!”

The story, which feels more like the punchline of a cheeky Jimmy Fallon joke, began gaining traction after Fox News published the story of marine biologist Tom Hird’s investigation into whether local sharks off the coast of Miami have come into contact with the illicit drug. The fact that Hird is playfully known as “The Blowfish” should tell readers all they need to know: Hird aims to use this wild, only-in-Florida tale to spotlight a much deeper issue: the impact of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and illicit drugs on our precious ocean ecosystems.

For those not up on their narco-trafficking history, cocaine smuggling often involves large bales of the drug being dumped at sea from South and Central America, some of which occasionally washes up on Florida’s picturesque shores. For those capitol press corps veterans itching to make another lame Twitter joke, no, the 2011 closure of the state’s Office of Drug Control is not to blame for cocaine sharks.

But like the cocaine bales jokes made popular in Tallahassee for years, the social media value of coining the term “cocaine sharks” attracted Hird and his team to the Florida Keys, where fishermen have spun tales of sharks going to town on the sea-borne snow snacks.

The team conducted an experiment, creating pseudo cocaine bales and observing as curious sharks took exploratory bites. In a scene that sounds more like a deleted sequence from “Finding Nemo 3: The Coral Cartel,” one brave shark even made off with an entire bale of the faux-snow.

In a “Scarface” inspired plot twist, the team also created a “bait ball” from highly concentrated fish powder, simulating the dopamine rush a shark might experience from cocaine. Sharks, it turns out, party just as hard as any South Beach club-goer when the right bait is dropped:

“I think we have got a potential scenario of what it may look like if you gave sharks cocaine,” Hird says in the film. “We gave them what I think is the next best thing. [It] set [their] brains aflame. It was crazy.”

Despite the rollicking, Discovery Channel-worthy anecdotes, Hird was quick to emphasize that their observations don’t definitively prove our toothy friends have actually been snorting the marine version of white powder. Several factors need consideration, and their experiments would need to be replicated multiple times to make any solid conclusions.

So, fellow beachgoers, there’s no need to invest in cocaine shark repellent or worry about getting caught in the middle of a Jaws-meets-“Breaking Bad scenario. As of now, the chance of encountering a drug-induced frenzy of sharks off Florida’s coast is about as likely as spotting Spongebob SquarePants snorkeling alongside you. Enjoy the sun, the surf, and the sand, and leave the “cocaine sharks” to the realm of media-savvy scientists who know how to get attention for their work.


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