By Michael E. Miller
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But what we're participating in this balmy Friday, as an afternoon storm front forms to the east, is one of the most controversial issues to hit Florida's waters this season. Dive-boat operators who claim that swimming with carnivorous fish is safer than bowling, are lobbying the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) to keep the tours -- known as interactive dives -- unregulated. Their task is made tougher in the wake of bull shark attacks off Pensacola Beach July 6 and July 16 that left eight-year-old Jessie Arbogast, a visitor from Mississippi, struggling to survive after surgeons reattached his right arm, and Michael Waters, age forty-eight, with a mean bite on his foot. Arbogast, who also lost a chunk of his right thigh, was nearly drained of blood by the time he made it to the hospital and is still badly traumatized. The attack occurred about a mile from the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier, where fishermen regularly chum the waters for sharks. After Jessie, all the reassurances and rationalizations from the shark-feeding lobby seemed callous.
The boat I go out on is owned by Jeff Torode, the man at the center of the Florida shark-feeding conflict. Torode, co-owner of South Florida Diving Headquarters, and a coalition of dive operators, say the shark-feeding trips are educational and serve to dispel the monstrous image Hollywood has bestowed on the poor creatures. He also says the trips heighten the public's awareness of the dwindling shark population around the world. If people can see for themselves that all sharks are not killers, he reasons, they might be inclined to help save them. "We get a lot of people that are just Joe Blow off-the-street that have preconceived notions of sharks," Torode points out. "Once we get them on the boat and show them a different species, even if I don't say anything, they've done a couple things. They've educated themselves and overcome their own fears."
When I ask him what there is to learn from watching a shark while it feeds, Torode repeats that people can grasp that sharks are not bloodthirsty predators hell bent on eating human flesh. We are not normally a part of "the shark food chain," Torode observes reasonably, because quantitatively, there just isn't that much man meat out there to compete with all the tastier fish, squid, and plankton floating by. Interactive dive proponents insist on the common sense of sharks. They're an opportunistic species, like lions. What a shark really wants is a nice sailfish, dolphin, or up north, a fat seal ...
But the greatest lesson, he says, is a personal one -- a sort of going beyond self-imposed boundaries and "breaking down your fears." He uses some of the same rhetoric that a wormy New York EST recruiter once used while trying to get me to join his New-Age cult. If the great lesson is to realize that one can swim with a predator, I wonder why we must feed them. "Can't we just swim alongside?" I ask. "We feed them to attract them and to gain their trust," Torode answers. "Otherwise sharks won't come to man."
Torode and company are at war with a group of divers -- the Marine Safety Group (MSG) -- who are urging the FWCC to ban open-sea feeds of all marine life -- especially sharks. They say Torode and his pals are not only profiting from the public's morbid fascination with fear, but are training sharks to be increasingly aggressive toward humans. As a result, they claim, the shark feeders are endangering beach swimmers and scuba divers because sharks, normally creatures who ignore humans, are now equating people with food. Moray eels and barracuda, and other underwater carnivores, they charge, are also becoming increasingly aggressive because of the interactive tours.
Torode maintains that the Marine Safety Group formed only after he spoke out in support of designating marine preservation areas, making it illegal for spearfishermen and others to take marine wildlife out of the underwater ecosystems along Palm Beach and Broward counties. He said the MSG threatened to take the shark-feeding issue before the FWCC in retaliation, and thus the issue has inflated. MSG members say they took the issue before the commission after they were continually attacked by sharks, eels, and barracuda in areas where interactive dives occurred.
As I wallow in the chummed water, I look for signs of pissed-off sharks. Erratic movement, frenzied figure eights, arched backs -- I even try to spot the sharks' diminutive pectoral fins to determine if they are turned downward. (University of Florida shark expert George Burgess gave me pointers on how to recognize sharks going into attack mode.) But all I see this Friday afternoon is a half dozen nurses that cruise by like underwater Cadillacs, undisturbed by all the humans in the water, but clearly craving a nip of Scot's chum. I think of the statistics Burgess keeps in the International Shark Attack File. Of the 79 confirmed shark attacks worldwide last year, 34 occurred in Florida. Australia ranks second, with just seven attacks. He further attributes 23 attacks in ten years to interactive dives. None of the Florida attacks was fatal. But that's not because all Florida sharks are nurses.