Shark Bait

Treasure hunter, diving extremist, and aspiring filmmaker Ron McManmon launches the ultimate party barge and introduces the gentleman's sport of shark riding

Some minutes later the creature without fur or scales returns, knife in hand. With a single thrust, the blade passes through the fish's brain.

Until the advent of a PBS television series called Blue Water Hunters, even the most grizzled professional fishermen were mostly unaware of a strange activity going on beneath them. Like surfing, the pursuit of big-game fish in deep ocean without scuba gear has its roots in California, South Africa, and Hawaii. And as with surfing, the unique hardships, perils, and rewards attendant to blue-water hunting bind its practitioners into a tight brotherhood.

Ron McManmon, de facto local cult leader, estimates there are no more than a dozen practicing blue-water hunters in South Florida. The sport is profoundly dangerous. With the possible exception of grizzly bear hunting, it is the only activity in modern civilian life wherein the hunter routinely becomes the hunted. The amazing size of the record game fish taken by blue-water divers - 398-pound bluefin tuna, 533-pound marlin, 102-pound wahoo, 70-pound dolphin -- is overshadowed by the amazing frequency with which the fish are eaten by sharks, the hunters' competitors.

"Basically, you're one big bait," McManmon notes.
Drowning is another common threat. At some point most blue-water hunters brush up against a phenomenon known as shallow-water blackout. An expert diver such as McManmon, holding his breath for up to three minutes and descending to 100 feet or more, can develop a false sense of comfort. The air in his lungs is compressed by the weight of the water above him, and the lungs readily provide the body and brain with oxygen. But coming back up, the diver's lungs expand, and the concentration of oxygen drops to critical levels. At ten to fifteen feet beneath the surface, where the most marked lung expansion occurs, the diver loses consciousness instantaneously, without warning, and never wakes up.

There are other dangers, such as getting tangled in a float line and suddenly finding oneself tethered to a wounded marauder who's heading for the bottom of the sea. Local blue-water hunters haunt the Gulf Stream as much as ten miles from shore, where it is far too deep to anchor. On several occasions McManmon and his partners have ascended from the briny deep to find their boat blown miles away by the wind. Even when all goes well, the sport is difficult in the extreme. Breath-hold diving burns more energy than any other activity except fast wood-chopping with an ax. McManmon says he typically makes 100 breath-hold dives during a blue-water hunting trip, but only one in every 20 to 30 outings results in a big game fish.

So why do it?
"Ron's an animal. A wild card. He does what he does," explains Michael Aruta, an occasional companion on McManmon's underwater safaris.

McManmon, a nominal Buddhist, says: "I've hunted all over the world, hunted things I would never hunt any more. From a spiritual standpoint, this is the end of the progression. It's the ultimate hunting."

"Diving has many worlds," points out Brenda Ritter, a Miami location scout who once worked for McManmon. "The bulk of sport diving is for people who go two or three times a year. You have to keep safety standards pretty high. Ron is way out at the other end of the spectrum. He's what we call an underwater cowboy."

In discussing McManmon's temperament, more than one friend cites recent media reports of a "danger gene" said to be responsible for the impulse, in a minority of humans, toward parachutes and fast cars. McManmon never knew his genetic forebears; he was adopted in 1958, shortly after his birth in Seattle. When Ron was age seven, his adoptive father, James McManmon, moved the family to Taiwan. A year later, in January 1966, the family moved again, to Laos.

It was in Laos that Ron's penchant for going to extremes began to be noticed. At age nine he roamed the streets of the capital, Vientiane, and the nearby countryside on his "primary means of transportation," a three-year-old white stallion named Misty. Around him a civil war was raging between Laotian rebels and government forces. It was a war in which his father was intimately involved.

James McManmon had come to Laos as the civilian director of operations for Air America, an integral part of the Central Intelligence Agency's five-billion-dollar covert war in Southeast Asia. While Ron's father kept the airline's planes and helicopters flying, the CIA used them to ferry refugees and Laotian hill people recruits around the country in an effort to crush the nation's communist insurgency. The airline also transported arms, ammunition, and grenades, and, to fund its efforts, smuggled tons of opium.

While his father put in long hours, Ron was roaming farther and farther afield on his horse, drawn by the sounds of battle on the outskirts of town. His mother had forbidden him to pass the city's three-kilometer limit. One day, out beyond twelve kilometers, and hiding in the jungle amid the thunder of bombs and smoke, he witnessed the destruction of an entire platoon of Laotian government soldiers. Soon after that the American compound at Vientiane -- and the entire city -- was overrun by rebels. The McManmons lived on the edge of town and managed to escape unscathed.

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