Swimming with the Sharks

An eight-year-old's severed arm and a broker's chewed-off leg aren't enough to convince Florida to ban interactive diving

There are plenty of sharks in state waters that could rub you out if they wanted to. Chief among the underwater bad boys is the chunky-torsoed, snout-nosed bull shark -- it looks something like John Gotti, Jr. -- which Burgess describes as being one of the most lethal. "Their teeth are designed for shearing food," he warns me. "They have serrations, like knives, that can bite through sea turtles and easily take chunks out of dolphins." Worse, bulls like shallow water, and even seek freshwater pools for spawning, so your chances of swimming into one are greater than they are of encountering the bigger and more predatory tiger shark, which normally keeps to itself but ranks among the most fearsome when provoked. The tiger is second only to the terrifying JAWS prototype, the mostly northern Great White. Whites, tigers, and bulls account for 62.6 percent of all attacks on humans. While Burgess describes the creatures, it is clear he is in awe of them. A shark can smell its prey a mile away; it can pick up electrical impulses from fish at the same distance, he adds with reverence. "In many ways, sharks are sensory machines," Burgess lauds.

Those opposed to shark-feeding tours say dive operators like Torode are capitalizing on a twisted form of ecotourism that may be the latest version of "extreme" sports -- like bungee jumping or ropeless cliff climbing -- or may signal a return to Roman-style decadence. "What they've done is create a circus down there," says commercial diver David Earp, a board member of the Marine Safety Group, which wants to ban the shark feeds. "It's become such a fad, it's now getting out of control." He repeats that since the trips have gained popularity, commercial and recreational divers are experiencing increased incidents of aggressive shark behavior. Earp and his group are lobbying the FWCC and coastal cities and counties to prohibit feeding sharks and other marine wildlife in their waters. "What has happened is that as a whole, our society is more and more into thrill-seeking sports," Earp says. "Now we have Johnny Tourist and his family from Ohio who come down here to get a once-in-a-lifetime picture with a shark. [Tourists] just don't realize the impact, that what they are doing is causing great danger."

But if the once-in-a-lifetime divers are putting themselves in danger, experienced ones like Boca Raton resident Lisa Schwab say the feeding tours put the pros in even greater peril. Schwab, PADI-certified for twenty years, has plunged into the depths of the world's great dive destinations. She's been in the waters off Micronesia, Palau, the Galapagos, and Belize. But it wasn't until she dove the Sea Empress, an underwater wreck near Pompano Beach, that she experienced really bad sea-life behavior. Schwab and her diving buddy were attacked by a moray eel that came after them from behind. She does not want to identify the boat operator, but she was participating in a feeding dive for stingrays. Although she was not holding bait, the eel bit into her left hand, leaving a trail of blood while nurse sharks began eerily appearing. "Any place in the world where I've been diving, I've never experienced eels being so aggressive to humans, unless they were provoked. They're usually afraid," Schwab says. "[But this time] I've experienced aggressive creatures in local waters. I was really spooked, and I've never [before] been scared in the water."

The docile nurse shark. Interactive feeders compare their bite to getting your fingers slammed in a car door. They suck rather than shear flesh
Karen Schroeder
The docile nurse shark. Interactive feeders compare their bite to getting your fingers slammed in a car door. They suck rather than shear flesh
Jeff Torode, owner of South Florida Diving Headquarters, wants to educate swimmers about the nice side of sharks. The more you know them, the more you'll love them, he says
Steve Satterwhite
Jeff Torode, owner of South Florida Diving Headquarters, wants to educate swimmers about the nice side of sharks. The more you know them, the more you'll love them, he says

The attack told her that eels and other fish were getting much too accustomed to interacting with humans. "Eels are not as intelligent as sharks, and they are teaching eels to look to humans for food," Schwab says. "Just think what it's teaching the intelligent sharks! Sharks are not killing machines, unless you teach them -- like a dog -- to kill." Schwab says she supports an all-out ban.

The dive-boat operators who organize interactive feeds, naturally, want the state to back off banning the practice and allow the industry to regulate itself. The shark-feeding issue came before the FWCC last fall after Earp and the MSG complained of increased aggressive shark behavior near waters where feeding tours occurred. The commission drafted a resolution to ban feeding all marine wildlife and put it to the public. Soon afterward the operators joined with lobbyists to form the Global Interactive Marine Experiences Council. They soon gained the upper hand.

GIMEC stormed the commission meetings starting last September and members attended workshops claiming there was no scientific proof that shark and marine life behavior is altered owing to human interaction. The group proposed guidelines in a sixteen-page document that outlines how operators could regulate themselves. It lays out a vague agenda for shark-tour operators to follow. In broad strokes it explains training procedures for dive masters, emergency plans, and what snorkelers and divers should do while swimming with sharks. It also dictates how to conserve reefs and how much food to feed the predators. GIMEC brought in experts to testify that swimming with sharks while they fed did not pose an imminent threat to humans. GIMEC scientist Robert Hueter, director of the Mote Marine Laboratory's Center for Shark Research, claims that while it is apparent the sharks could adapt their behavior because of the feedings, there is no scientific evidence that they have. The FWCC commissioners, who'd been leaning the other way, soon reconsidered their decision to ban.

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