BETHUNE BEACH -- As Judy Fischman swam in the Atlantic Ocean here Thursday, she suddenly found herself lifted above the water on the back of a large dark animal.
"My first thought was 'I hope this is a manatee,' " Fischman said Friday. "Then I saw the black tail."
"Shark," she thought. "Then I saw other sharks and I thought, 'My God, how am I going to escape a whole group of sharks?' "
From her vantage point on the street overlooking the scene, Martha Williams wondered the same thing.
Williams and her husband Ron had stepped out of their car to look out at the ocean. They first noticed a woman swimming alone, a couple hundred feet off shore. It was about 7:15 p.m.
Then, as they watched, she said sharks appeared in the water, swimming parallel to the shore between the beach and the lone swimmer.
"I said to Ron, 'Oh my God, I hope they totally ignore her, just don't even see her.' Then all of a sudden they all veer off and they're all heading to her," Williams said Friday. "I about screamed and said, 'Oh my God, oh my God, they're heading right to her, right to her.' "
As they watched, the ocean surface around Fischman erupted in churning water and the swimmer was suddenly lifted above the surface of the wave, arms and legs flailing, she said. "It was just so frightening."
Back in the water, Fischman said she realized she "was on the back of a huge shark. There was another shark next to me."
"I screamed," she said, "but I don't remember what I screamed."
Fischman said she remembered advice she'd seen on television for fighting off sharks -- giving them "a good punch and let them know you could hurt them." She started punching the animal.
As it seemed to roll on its side, she said it seemed to sort of wrap its tail around her.
"Then a wave came. All of a sudden they were gone," she said. "They probably realized I'm not food and let go."
"Maybe they thought I was a seal," she said. "I had on a black bathing suit."
Ron Williams ran down to the beach expecting to find the swimmer in need of medical attention, but instead she walked back to shore.
"It was really something," Martha Williams said.
Fischman told her story to a Beach Patrol officer Thursday night, and on Friday afternoon, Fischman and Martha Williams spoke with George Burgess, director of the shark attack file at the University of Florida. Burgess isn't yet sure what kind of animal surfaced under Fischman. He said it could have been a shark, or it could have been some kind of dolphin or small whale.
Williams and Fischman agreed to fill out witness statements for Burgess and he'll try to figure out whether it was a shark encounter.
"It was possible it was a shark attack," he said. "It's also possible it was an encounter with a marine mammal."
Sharks were spotted elsewhere in Volusia and Brevard counties on Thursday.Volusia's Fischman swims regularly for exercise and said she often sees sharks. She likes to swim far enough out to get past the breakers, in water not quite 6 feet deep.
She's also had some close encounters with manatees during the past couple of years. "It's very startling," she said. "You can get lifted out of the water."
Fischman, a Bethune Beach resident since 2002, figured maybe a guardian angel was watching out for her. She emerged from the encounter with nothing but scrapes on her legs. And, she headed right back into the water on Friday afternoon.