Shark Huggers

Tourists can't wait to get next to them — even if they are eating machines.

Pacific islanders built shrines to shark gods, whom they believed to be guardians of the sea. The deities were said to have saved Hawaiians from calamities such as shipwrecks, and, on occasion, the shark gods took human form to dance with a man or make love to a woman. Sailor lore also speaks of sharks ravaging the dead and dying bodies of humans, apparently even learning which vessels might provide a meal. The beasts are said to have regularly trailed overloaded slave ships en route to the Western Hemisphere so they could catch the lifeless Africans who got tossed overboard.

Most modern landlubbers, though, gave little thought to sharks until 1974, when Peter Benchley's best-selling novel Jaws — followed the next year by Steven Spielberg's haunting film adaptation — drove panicky swimmers out of the ocean. The sight of a fin slicing through the water's surface, accompanied by one of the creepiest instrumental tracks ever, made a vast swath of the American public damn near afraid to get into the bathtub, to say nothing of the open sea.

Jaws would inspire a whole new generation of shark hunters, including South Florida's notorious Mark Quartiano. After he became a charter boat captain, Quartiano dubbed himself "Mark the Shark." His website claims he has caught "more sharks on rod and reel than any human being on the planet!" For his zealous decimation of the shark population, Quartiano has become a well-known and widely despised figure among environmentalists and animal rights activists. No one better embodies the old, largely discredited notion of sharks as ruthless enemies that can, and maybe should, be destroyed at every opportunity.

Renowned shark researcher Samuel "Sonny" Gruber demonstrates how to be kind to animals by kissing a shark in Bimini.
Courtesy of Samuel Gruber
Renowned shark researcher Samuel "Sonny" Gruber demonstrates how to be kind to animals by kissing a shark in Bimini.
Cristina Zenato, a professional shark diving guide, poses with a reef shark off Freeport, Grand Bahama Island.
Courtesy of Kent Bonde
Cristina Zenato, a professional shark diving guide, poses with a reef shark off Freeport, Grand Bahama Island.

Why kill sharks? "Because they're mean," Quartiano says. "I'm a hunter, not a conservationist." Besides, he argues, injured, traumatized animals who have been forcibly pulled from the ocean on fishermen's hooks wouldn't survive anyway if they were released back into the water (an assertion with which most marine biologists heatedly disagree). Of course, there's money in the hunt too. Full-day charters run $1,200 a pop, and Quartiano earns a commission if a customer wants to have his prize mounted. The trophy shops, however, can use only the shark's jaws because the animal's hide is almost impossible to preserve. So the mount is essentially a fiberglass replica.

For Mark the Shark, there's a thrill in the hunt as well as the kill. When a beast gets close enough to the deck of Striker-1, Quartiano's 50-foot Hatteras yacht, he stabs it with a harpoon; then, with the help of long hooks, he and his mate, Tim O'Hare, yank the beast onto the boat by its gills. Sensing they're in for the battle of their lives, the sharks thrash frantically from side to side. The odds are strongly against them: Out of water, sharks have little mobility or momentum. Blood spurts from their puncture wounds as they slowly suffocate on the deck. And the unholy smell of ammonia-tinged death overwhelms the sea air.

On a recent Monday, Quartiano is scouring the waters a mile off South Beach. Just the sight of a tug on the line gets him hootin' and hollerin'. "Ay-yi-yi! Nice fish, that one. Battle stations, baby!" At that, the charter customer of the day, a middle-age man from Ohio, passes his can of Miller Lite to his wife and lumbers into a fishing chair suspended over the open water. Several dull minutes tick by as the client cranks the reel until, finally, it's time to wrestle a shark into the boat.

It's a seven-foot-long sandbar shark. "You wouldn't want to go swimming with that, trust me," Quartiano says. Quartiano himself never goes into the ocean. "If I'm gonna swim, it's gonna be in a pool, because I'm a firm believer in karma, if you will. Poetic justice for the sharks. They're waiting for me to make that one plunge in the water for a couple of minutes. I'm deathly afraid of the ocean, I really am. I've got a phobia of the water.

"I know so much about sharks. I respect them, but I also fear them. I'm afraid of them because I think that eventually, you know, karma or whatever. Look at Steve Irwin and how he died ... some stupid little thing."

After the Ohio man hooks another sandbar, Quartiano idles the Striker-1 near Fisher Island as O'Hare wraps a thick rope around the tail of the creature and suspends it in the air. The shark writhes and gnashes. For good measure, O'Hare strings up the other, now-dead sandbar. It's picture time.

Carnage draws a crowd. A man behind the wheel of a red speedboat pulls in for a closer look. "Holy moley!" he shouts. "Where'd you catch that?" The live sandbar wriggles, as if on cue. "Kill that sucker!" the boater yells. Around the same time, a Coast Guard cutter cruises by; spotting the sharks, the men on deck cheer and pump their fists.

But the days of big shark catches are drawing to a close. "Half the sharks you could be able to kill five years ago, you can't kill now," Quartiano grumbles. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will soon prohibit recreational anglers from landing sandbar sharks. In the Atlantic, the NOAA Fisheries Service also considers blacktips, bulls, tigers, and hammerheads to be overfished.

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