The Boater Versus the Beast

It is the fabled river made famous by a song, but in northern Florida the Suwannee River is becoming famous for something else.

Large, jumping sturgeon -- very big fish.

"All of a sudden, I see the head of this big fish coming out of the water and I thought 'Oh my gosh, I've got to turn,'" said Sharon Touchton, who watched a sturgeon leap in her path in March during a trip to the Suwannee with her Jet Ski club.

It is a bizarre spectacle watching the fish jump in the path of boats and Jet Skis. In fact, it's hard not to laugh, until you discover that these fish have become a serious hazard.

Nick Touchton saw his wife lying motionless in the water next to her Jet Ski.

"Once I got there I saw that she was totally unconscious. I really thought she was dead," he said.

Sharon was airlifted to Gainesville for emergency surgery after colliding with an airborne jumping sturgeon. Her tongue was sliced and four fingers were severed. Only three were reattached.

Watch the story Monday on "World News" at 6:30 p.m. EDT

"I've got plates and pins in and the orthopedic surgeon here said I'm lucky to still have this finger," said Sharon, pointing to her fourth finger. Then she points to the stub of her missing little finger. "I didn't realize how much you use a little finger."

"She drops a lot of things," her husband interrupted.

Just two weeks ago, Taylor Owens was boating with her family when without warning a jumping sturgeon landed on her leg.

"It shattered her bone and it tore her main artery in her leg," said Owens' mother, Wendy Gordon. "So they had to go in and it was three hours of surgery." For the next six months Taylor will have four giant pins in her leg as the bone heals.

Searching for Sturgeon

In an effort to see firsthand what is causing these calamities, we enlisted Karen Parker of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

She took us to the spot where the Santa Fe and Suwannee Rivers meet. It is a hot spot for jumping sturgeon.

At times it feels like the waters of the Suwannee are boiling as the giant sturgeon rise from the deep, one after another.

These are big fish. Up to 8 feet long and 300 pounds. The species -- the Gulf sturgeon -- winters in the Gulf of Mexico and swims up river in the spring to spawn. The Gulf sturgeon used to be in many of the rivers around the region, but now it is only in the Suwannee.

"The Suwannee's the last wild river left in Florida," said Parker. "We've got no man-made obstructions on the river. We've got no dams or locks. And the fish can still come up out of the gulf, into the Suwannee."

Scientists estimate there are between 5,000 and 7,000 sturgeon here -- numbers that justify declaring it a threatened species.

Although there is other threatening wildlife -- including alligators -- in the Suwannee, they're rare. It is the sturgeon people need to be wary of. They've been there for millions of years, but it is only in the last few years that boaters have arrived in large numbers.

The Science of the Sturgeon

The Lathrop and the Hill families are regular boaters on the Suwannee. We found them floating downriver on their pontoon boat, marveling at the jumping fish.

"We had one about a foot off the front of the pontoon boat… I probably could have touched it," said Bobbie Lathrop.

And Donna Lathrop is incensed at people who think there should be a cull of the sturgeon.

"No! This is their river!" she said.

At the University of Florida, in nearby Gainesville, biologist Frank Chapman spends his life studying sturgeon.

"These are very docile fish," said Chapman, as he held up a four foot long fish with a very ugly face. "This fish is not attacking anybody. People are just running into them."

The Gulf sturgeon is one of the oldest fish species on the planet. It swam in the oceans when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

Chapman shows us the very odd-looking mouth that works like a vacuum. "It's a patrusable mouth, they don't have any teeth. Look. They just suck in and they suck worms, clams, shrimps."

Chapman explains that one reason people are being hurt so severely is that these ancient fish have their bones on the outside, there are no scales. "Knock, knock," he taps on the fish. It sounds like a steel plate, it gives the sturgeon protection like a medieval suit of armor.

"That's one of the reasons he's been around for 150 million years," he said. "These guys were swimming with the dinosaurs. Just keep that in mind, dinosaurs are extinct. These guys are still swimming."

'They Jump Because They Can'

But that doesn't explain why they're jumping.

"We really don't know [why]," explained Chapman. "There's a lot of speculation why they jump. None of the theories that are out there, really make any sense whatsoever."

Parker is also baffled.

"We have no idea. Everybody's got their own personal theory," Parker said. "I think they jump because they can. I've heard that they jump because they're clearing parasites out of their gills. I've heard it's some kind of weird reproductive dance. I've heard they're communicating with one another. There's all kinds of theories out there, but nobody knows for sure."

What we do know is that the Suwannee River has become awfully crowded.

After having the river to themselves for millions of years, the sturgeon are quite literally colliding with humans who want it, too. It is hard to see how boater and beast can share these waters.

"It's totally out of the realm of reality," said Nick Touchton. "You don't think about it. You just think about this nice peaceful run down the Suwannee River that we've all sung about for so many years. We'll never go back."

Click here to read Jeffrey Kofman's blog about the exotic and challenging shoot on the Suwannee River.