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

But just moments before our captain's speech, Scot had told me he'd never fed a shark prior to getting the job six months ago. Before this gig he worked as an insurance estimator for a Ford dealership. He moved to South Florida about a year ago, after he closed his biker shop in New Mexico. An avid motorcycle road-racer, Scot is drawn to danger. "I'm devoted to speed," he told me. Serving chum to sharks is something that just came his way. "I never thought I'd be feeding sharks for a living," he chuckles. "I used to think what others think -- that sharks are mean. Then I went on a dive and I realized, they're just big fish." While shark feeding is a new experience for Scot, it is not altogether foreign to him. He used to train attack dogs. He tells me what fascinates him most about feeding the sharks is their keen ability to associate behaviors. "They're like a dog," he mused. "They know when they hear the boat they're going to get food."


So that's a SHARK! -- I tell myself in the waters off Pompano Beach. I dive down to try to get some close-up pictures for my story and freeze in my flippers. Scot is leading a gang of nurse sharks to the surface as I descend. In a turn I find myself face to face with what looks like a seven-footer. "ARRGGHHH!" the voice in my head screams -- and I backtrack to the surface, my eyes glued down below. Soon the chum is gone, and Scot returns to the boat. We snorkelers and scuba divers are left to roam the reef on our own.

I keep my mask in the water, staying close to other divers. Drawn, yet nervous, I remain vigilant for stray sharks that keep cruising by. Even though it's been pounded into my head that these creatures are relatively harmless, I can't get too comfortable swimming just a few feet away from something bigger and heavier than I am -- I don't care if it's wearing a tag that reads, "Pet me, I'm friendly." That fucker could make a meal out of me with just a quarter-millimeter twist in its pattern, and a widening of its jaws ... When one of the captain's giant "catfish" swims by, my pulse quickens and I curl up and reverse my motion. At one point I explore the reef after the feeding is done and see a smart-looking shark tail sticking out from beneath a ledge. Chumless, I quickly maneuver my flippers in the opposite direction. On my way to the boat, I keep looking behind me.

Back onboard, as a plastic tub of salty chocolate-chip cookies is passed around, Captain John asks us to freeze while the crew does a body count. That task happily completed, we chug back to the Intracoastal Waterway and home. I ask the Goodyears from Stuart's Draft, Virginia, what they thought of their experience. Bashful eleven-year-old Zachary simply calls the experience "fun," and then with a little prodding he adds, "I learned a lot." His mom Kira, a customer-service rep for a department store, tells of enjoying the experience once she got over her initial fear for herself and her children. As we talk, I notice that, Jim, a large-framed hydraulic mechanic at a nuclear plant, is fiendishly smoking his Benson & Hedges 100s. "I touched the bottom and a big six-foot shark came up behind me at arm's length," he says. "After that I made a beeline for the boat, and went and had a smoke."

He was still smoking when we tied up at the dock.

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