STUART, Florida — A man kite surfing off a Florida beach died Wednesday after being surrounded and attacked by sharks.
The Martin County Sheriff's Office said a lifeguard first saw the man in distress at 4:15 p.m. about 500 yards from shore near Stuart, on the Atlantic coast.
Lifeguard Daniel Lund said he first spotted the man, later identified as Howard Schafer, 38, from his tower and he could tell the kiteboarder was in trouble. He said Schafer was lying on the large sail he was using to pull himself across the water.
Lund grabbed his long surfboard and paddled 20 minutes through rough seas, fighting 4- to 6-feet-high waves, to reach Schafer about a quarter-mile offshore.
"I get to him, I'm probably within 20 yards or so from him, and there's just a lot of blood in the water," Lund said.
He could see several sharks circling nearby. He pulled the injured Schafer onto his board and began paddling back.
Lund declined to describe Schafer's injuries, but said he was conscious and speaking when they got to the beach and paramedics began treating him. Paramedics took Schafer to a hospital, where he later died.
'Bitten several times'
Daniel Wouters, of Martin County Fire Rescue, told ABC-affiliate WPBF that when he was spotted Schafer was "just hanging onto his board... not normal activity for a kite surfer."
"When (lifeguards) got there, they found a number of sharks in the water and they found the victim had been bitten several times," Wouters said, according to a report on WPBF's Web site.
"They were able to maneuver him onto the kite to basically somewhat protect him and bring him on shore."
Jim Smith, who witnessed the rescue, told WPBF that the rescuers had done all they could. "I can't emphasize enough — they did their best. The guy just wasn't moving," he said.
Friends said Schafer always followed the buddy system while surfing and were surprised he was in the water alone.
"We always know that (sharks) are out there. You see them this time of the year," said Teague Taylor, a childhood friend who says Schafer taught him to surf. "It's hard to believed that such an experienced waterman would make that one mistake."
Schafer, a gifted artist and graphic designer, was drawn to the water as a child. He surfed competitively and later started sailing, windsurfing and kiteboarding. Kiteboarders surf across the water on boards strapped to their feet, using large curved sails to pull them along.
"He had to be around the water," said Taylor, who manages a local surf shop.
"I've never heard of multiple sharks in this area surrounding someone and fatally wounding him," Taylor told The Palm Beach Post.
Jordan Schwartz told the paper that Schafer was a very experienced kiteboard surfer and "a super nice guy, always mellow."
Global average: 4 deaths a year
Shark attacks, especially fatal ones, are extremely rare, said George Burgess, a leading shark expert who directs the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History. The file lists 1,032 attacks in the U.S. documented since 1690. Only 50 of them were fatal.
"Internationally, we've been averaging four fatalities per year, despite the fact that there are billions and billions of human hours spent in the sea every year," Burgess said. "Your chances of dying in the mouth of a shark are close to infinitesimal."
The last fatal shark attack in the state was in 2005 off the Florida Panhandle, where a 14-year-old Louisiana girl was attacked while swimming on a body board about 100 yards off shore.
"Florida as a geographic entity has more than any other place in the world," Burgess said, noting that most attacks are minor, "the equivalent of a dog bite."
However, Burgess noted that this time of year there are typically fewer shark attacks in Florida because temperatures are cooler and not as many people are in the water.
He said sharks are lining "up in South Florida getting ready to move north" as temperatures begin to warm.
"The sharks gradually move their way northward and disperse," Burgess said. "The message to take home is this is a rare and unusual event. It should put the antennae up for people, in terms of, 'Yeah, we need to be careful when we enter the sea, but we need to do that every time because we're never guaranteed safety 100 percent of the time when we enter a wild world.'"
He added it should be possible to tell which sharks were responsible from the bite marks.
Gilmore said of the four species known to attack humans in the area, great hammerheads, bulls and tigers all prefer warm water and leave or go deep in winter. "The only other species that gathers in abundance out there in the winter are the juvenile great white sharks," Gilmore told The Palm Peach Post.
Beaches remained open Thursday.
The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.