EXPLAINER: Why are Florida waters so dangerous for migrants?

Jan 26, 2022, 1:01 PM | Updated: 1:35 pm

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The turbulent ocean waters around Florida can be treacherous even on a calm, sunny day. Throw in an overloaded boat, inexperienced mariners, stormy weather and the dark of night, and they can become deadly.

The U.S. Coast Guard searched on Wednesday for any possible survivors after a 25-foot (7-meter) boat was found capsized off the coast of Fort Pierce, Florida, well north of its start in Bimini, Bahamas. A good Samaritan found one man atop the overturned vessel on Tuesday; the man said he and and 39 others had left Bimini three days earlier. Authorities reported that they had found one body, while 38 other people are still missing. Homeland Security Investigations has launched a human smuggling investigation.

Authorities say it is extremely difficult to find people who may be floating in the vast waters of the powerful Gulf Stream current.

Migrants who try to get to the U.S. by sea “put their lives at incredible risk,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas remarked last summer during an uptick in Haitian migration. “The time is never right to attempt migration by sea.”

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WHY ARE THE WATERS SO DANGEROUS?

The Gulf Stream current curves around the tip of Florida, flows right next to Bimini, Bahamas — where the capsized boat apparently started its journey — and skirts the Florida coastline going north. Any disabled vessel will be pushed far to the north by that current if it has no power and no one comes to the rescue. Two 14-year-old boys from Palm Beach County disappeared on a stormy fishing trip in 2015; their boat was eventually found near Bermuda. Their bodies were never recovered.

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WHAT ABOUT SHARKS?

Florida is the shark bite capital of the world. Researchers with the International Shark Attack File said in a new report that Florida has led the U.S. and the rest of the world in unprovoked shark bites for decades, and the trend continued in 2021. Florida had 28 unprovoked bites last year, compared to 19 in the rest of the U.S. and 26 total outside the U.S. None of the Florida bites were recorded as fatal last year.

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WHY IS FINDING PEOPLE IN THE OCEAN SO DIFFICULT?

It’s a really big ocean. The Coast Guard said Wednesday that it had searched an area the size of New Jersey, both by air and sea, for survivors of the capsized boat. A person floating in the ocean is a tiny speck in that huge area. The Coast Guard recommends people wear life vests, first of all, but also consider bright colors such as orange or purple — and reflective materials — to help rescuers spot them. But the ocean is unforgiving: In October 2015, the 791-foot (241-meter) El Faro freighter with 33 crew members aboard sank off the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin. No bodies were ever recovered, although one was spotted from the air.

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WHY DO MIGRANTS KEEP TRYING?

Cubans have been making the trip from their island to the U.S. by sea since Fidel Castro’s communist takeover in 1959. Many hundreds have died in an effort to escape the communist regime that still runs the island several years after Castro’s death. Haitians who leave are fleeing poverty, natural disasters and ineffective governments. Even migrants from China and elsewhere make the voyage. They often pay smugglers thousands of dollars each for the attempt; some are forced to swim the last laps of the journey to reach their final destination.

“You’re dealing with criminal organizations that have no regard for human life,” said Anthony Salisbury, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Miami. “It’s just about the money.”

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HEMINGWAY’S BIMINI

Ernest Hemingway’s novel “Islands in the Stream,” published in 1970 after his death, is based on the writer’s experiences fishing in the Gulf Stream off Bimini. The islands are just a short boat trip or flight from Miami.

Part of the story involves the hunt for German U-boats during World War II, which is something Hemingway actually did aboard his own boat, the Pilar. Bimini, and the Bahamas in general, have long been a stopover point for both human and drug smugglers. Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar once even had an airstrip for drug flights elsewhere in the Bahamas.

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EXPLAINER: Why are Florida waters so dangerous for migrants?