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

Despite the image of sharks as bloodthirsty predators, shark-feed tours are becoming increasingly popular in Florida and throughout the world. Television programs such as Inside Edition and the Discovery Channel have broadcast segments about the feeding dives that have aroused attention, be it negative or not. "Every time CNN does a segment, my phone rings off the hook," Jeff Torode chortles. "The business really started to grow once it became a controversy." He reports sold-out boats since Arbogast.

In the Bahamas and the Caymans, the shark tours are big business. Thousands of divers from around the world arrive in the chain of islands about 100 miles east of Miami to swim with bull sharks, Caribbean reef sharks, and hammerheads. One group on Grand Bahama offers a four-day "program" where for $2500, participants get to hand-feed pointy-nosed Caribbean reef sharks while being videotaped and photographed for their gushing friends and family back home. "If you like heart-pounding adventure and are really into sharks, this program is for you!" exhorts their Website. (A Wall Street broker's leg was severed there August 4.)

According to the FWCC, four shark-feeding outfits are in business in Florida: Capt. Spencer Slate's Atlantis Dive Center in Key Largo; South Florida Diving Headquarters in Pompano Beach (Torode's outfit); Capt. Jim Abernethy's Riviera Beach dive operation, and Deerfield Beach's Dixie Divers. While no dive boats advertise excursions out of Miami-Dade County, local dive shops happily refer clients to Torode and the others, and so, over the course of a year, thousands of locals and tourists shark-feed from here. But they aren't the only operators who feed marine wildlife. If you want to swim with the sharks, be it the cuddly nurse or the grimmer makos or hammerheads, there is Marathon Key, where a bevy of dive operators conduct regular shark operations. "We all do it," admits Bob Brayman, owner of Hall's Diving Center at Mile Marker 48. "When we go out on a reef, there are usually a lot of nurse sharks hanging out."

Aboard the Aqua View, we set out on our precarious journey, from Pompano Beach
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Aboard the Aqua View, we set out on our precarious journey, from Pompano Beach

But what the advertisements don't say, and what dive operators are eager to downplay, is the fact that there are no barriers to prevent more aggressive sharks from entering areas where divers are chumming the "good-guy" sharks. As the Pensacola attack shows, bull sharks are a reality in Florida waters. Hammerheads cruise the Keys, and though Caribbean reef sharks, another regular in our waters, are known to be sweeties if you rub their bellies, they also are capable of treating you like a slice from Domino's.

Still, the Florida dive-boat outfits assure scuba divers and snorkelers that the sharks they are likely to encounter are the puppy-tempered nurses. Occasionally a Caribbean reef shark, bull shark, or hammerhead will swim by, they say, but those are rare. Yet, while the species is "passive," the nurse shark is not entirely harmless. During the recent two-day lobster season, a 34-year-old Melbourne woman was twice bitten by a nurse off Duck Key. And last summer, while snorkeling the waters off Big Pine Key, Coral Springs housewife Andrea Nani was attacked by a five-foot nurse shark while the boat operator she was touring with threw chunks of fish into the water. "I literally felt that animal suck the flesh out of my body," Nani told the press. "I shook my leg. I couldn't get him off my body." Nani and her lawyer, Michael Joseph, are suing the operator, Strike Zone Charters, and urging the FWCC to ban swimming with the sharks altogether. They were ubiquitous on TV this past May, when prime time blanketed the decision to seek "guidelines" instead of a ban.

I was thinking of Nani while we anchored at the spot for our shark dive. Our tall, good-looking navigator, Capt. John Moren, gave us a little pep talk, which made me think twice about jumping in. In a bright tone he explained what was going to happen and gave us pointers on how to behave around the sharks. First he instructed the certified divers to hit the ocean floor and form a semicircle around Scot as he chummed the water. Then, as if to quell our anxieties, he described the teeth of the nurse shark. Rather than the sharp jagged rows of enameled blades we imagine, Captain John explained the species we'd be swimming with has "slats" for teeth that do not tear flesh as easily. (Thanks for small favors.) Still, he warned us frankly, they can cause damage as the surface of the tooth plate is as coarse as a sanding belt. Nurse sharks, he added, grab on and suck their prey instead of shearing bite-sized chunks from your body, as, say, a famished blue shark might. "Make sure to keep your hands close to your sides," he warned. "Don't make sudden movements."

Then Captain John dropped a doozy. In a cheerful and reassuring voice, like that of a 747 captain during turbulence, he told us not to worry about the possibility of the bloody chum sparking a feeding frenzy, because the nurse sharks we'd be facing were docile. "They're like giant catfish," he soothed us. "Besides, your shark feeder Scot has years of experience."

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