Shark Huggers

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

Some sharks are caught inadvertently on lines set for other, more commercially appealing fish. But demand for the big beasts' fins is still strong in Asia, where shark fin soup is a decadent dish that well-heeled ethnic Chinese serve at weddings and other special occasions. To satiate the demand for fins, fishermen frequently slice the valuable bits off sharks and release the rudderless creatures into the water to either starve or be eaten by other animals; finning is banned in U.S. waters.

Marine biologists such as Samuel "Sonny" Gruber warn that threats to sharks are threats to the entire marine ecosystem. "Take away the top predators and all their prey suffers," Gruber says. Without sharks, the entire system could collapse.

Gruber is a world-renowned researcher of shark behavior who loves to "debunk shark myths." In the late Fifties, during his junior year at the University of Miami, Gruber had a life-altering experience. He was spearfishing near Fowey Rocks Light, in Biscayne National Park, when a giant hammerhead began circling him, inspiring both terror and awe. To Gruber, the enormous fish was beautiful, more so because it didn't consume him. He knew then that he wanted to learn more about sharks.

Kent Bonde's calf after being bitten by a bull shark. Humans are not on the shark menu, Bonde insists.
Courtesy of Kent Bonde
Kent Bonde's calf after being bitten by a bull shark. Humans are not on the shark menu, Bonde insists.

Early on, Gruber sponsored shark fishing tournaments so he could get specimens to study. But lab work was boring, so Gruber took to the field. He monitored lemon shark populations in the Florida Keys. He discovered substances that can repel the creatures. And he noticed that, when flipped upside down, sharks enter a trancelike state that enables researchers to fiddle with them in relative safety.

In 1990, Gruber established a research station in Bimini, a cluster of small islands in the western Bahamas. There the station is known simply as "the shark lab." Gruber is now semiretired at age 70, but his little research base is still bustling with scientists, volunteers, students, and visitors — all of whom affectionately refer to him as "Doc." This year alone, the BBC, Discovery Channel's Myth Busters, and National Geographic — among others — have filmed segments at the station. Slaughtering sharks is a thing of the past for Gruber. "We don't kill sharks," he says firmly.

It's a recent day in May, and the Bimini Sands Resort has called on Gruber to entertain a group of 45 French tourists seeking an honest-to-goodness eco-adventure. Being a good neighbor, Gruber has organized a shark swim for the hotel guests. On the way there, he tells New Times: "You'll see that sharks are cute and cuddly."

A three-piece Calypso band plays a favorite local tune, "Lay Low in Bimini," on the white sand beach as Gruber outlines the basics of the shark encounter, via a translator, for the tourists. The French group is likely to get close to Caribbean reef sharks, he explains, which Gruber and his assistants have "trained" over the years by feeding them at the surface.

"Normally they're on the bottom," he says, "but these sharks know us. When we come with our boat, they know, Oh, — we're gonna get lunch. And it's not gonna be you that's the lunch. They're gonna get food. They don't want you. Of course, French food, maybe — I don't know."

The crowd laughs. A French woman pipes in, "Wait until they taste us!"

Gruber continues, "I want you to all stay close together. See, when the sharks see a large number of people close together, they see that as a wall, and they just stay away from it."

"If anyone gets bitten by a shark, we'll just go ahead and put a Band-Aid on it. Not to worry," he jokes.

Gruber quickly notes that "nobody has ever got bitten," and he recommends that every able body in the group take advantage of the opportunity because "it's very safe" and "once in a lifetime."

The French group asks one final question before heading offshore: Are sharks in danger? Gruber answers in the affirmative. "The Chinese have become very wealthy, and they cut off the fins because they think it makes them sexy."

Two shark lab boats motor out ahead of the tourists to prime the reef for sharks. They anchor at a location known in Bimini as triangle rocks, because of three formations that poke out of the water. The lab staffers call this spot "the arena." Here they conduct tests for products such as shark repellant. Enthusiasts and commercial fishermen alike are hoping that such a repellant, if sprayed on fishing hooks, will prevent sharks from bothering — and becoming — catch. Of course, galeophobes (people who fear sharks) might also want to slather themselves in a sunscreenlike version of the stuff before taking a dip in the ocean.

Gruber slips disposable plastic gloves onto his hands before reaching into a large blue cooler for bits of barracuda. He tosses the morsels into the water one by one, like a retiree might offer bread crumbs to ducks swimming in a pond. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon, you guys. C'mon, reefies," he pleads.

A solitary reef shark shows up. It's a start, but not quite the spectacle Gruber had promised. Then the animal swims off, spooked by the arrival of the tourists in a pontoon boat. Gruber is deflated. "I never got skunked here. Normally we have a roiling mass of sharks."

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