Shark Huggers

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

But they are elusive creatures. Even when presented with a free meal, they might not grace human beings with their presence.

Unaware that the show had stalled, a dozen Frenchmen flop into the ocean wearing snorkel masks and fins. They swim haplessly in waters slick with 100 pounds of chum. For the grand finale, the shark lab's young manager, Sean Williams, bursts out of the water carrying two bottles of Moët champagne. The French crowd is giddy.

A similar show last year ended more fittingly. Williams emerged in the center of a bunch of sharks, tapping them on the nose with the bottles of bubbly as he cleared his way to the surface.

Fresh kill. "Mark the Shark" Quartiano (far left) and a charter fishing client pose with a sandbar shark they reeled in; a sandbar strung up from Quartiano's Striker-1 yacht at the Marriott Biscayne Bay Marina.
Amy Guthrie
Fresh kill. "Mark the Shark" Quartiano (far left) and a charter fishing client pose with a sandbar shark they reeled in; a sandbar strung up from Quartiano's Striker-1 yacht at the Marriott Biscayne Bay Marina.

Sharing close quarters with sharks is the reason a steady stream of twentysomethings takes residence at the shark lab. Most are conservation-minded aspiring marine biologists, and all are essentially obsessed with the finned creatures. These are the kids who saw Jaws when they were tykes and thought, I want to swim with THAT!

As biology students, the dozen or so residents of the shark lab are keenly aware that feeding wild sharks might influence their behavior, perhaps even conditioning them to expect food from boaters. So they try to keep the feedings to a minimum.

Tristan Guttridge, a 25-year-old doctoral candidate who arrived at the lab in January 2006, is researching social organization among lemon sharks, which are abundant in Bimini. Lemons return to the western Bahamas each year to give birth in the same estuaries where they themselves were born.

Guttridge, a cheery bleach-blond Brit with blue eyes and a helluva sunburn, spends hours at a time perched in an observation tower with a pair of binoculars, trying to determine how lemon sharks interact. After two years, Guttridge says, at least five animals that hang together are still in the vicinity. He characterizes the network he's mapped out as a MySpace or Facebook for sharks.

When surveyed, the residents of the lab all nominate Guttridge as "the most obsessed" with sharks. Hearing this, Guttridge flashes a sheepish grin. He does in fact remember wanting to swim with sharks after watching Jaws. And his longstanding enthusiasm for the beasts is contagious.

"My mother still has a Mother's Day card that I decorated with sharks all over when I was seven," he recounts. Guttridge's parents embraced his passion, even paying for him to dunk into the waters off the coast of South Africa, in a cage, to swim with great whites for his 21st birthday.

The folks at the lab reckon that each live shark in the Bahamas generates several thousand dollars in tourism revenue for the island nation each year. Perhaps they're right. At least a half-dozen dive outfits in the Bahamas offer encounters with the creatures, each declaring itself a pioneer in the field. Most employ chum to attract the animals. And the practice is self-regulated.

Three days a week, Cristina Zenato, a 36-year-old Italian diver, dons a chain mail suit and descends 40 feet for shark dives. For the most part, the mackerel and herring she hands out attract Caribbean reef sharks. They are docile enough to let her stroke their heads and undersides. The recreational divers she leads into the water kneel on the sand, arms tucked in tight, as if genuflecting before sacred creatures. Zenato says she has never been afraid while in the water with the sharks, and that she can sense when they've had a rough day.

"Looking at their behavior," she says, "I know what's been done to them. If someone has been chumming the water, they get very agitated. If they've been caught and released, they become very wary and it's hard to get them to interact. I've even pulled hooks out over the years."

Zenato has been on a dive with Captain Abernethy on the Shear Water, which she says was a completely different yet still enthralling experience compared with the touristy encounters she leads for a company called Unexso on Grand Bahama Island. Abernethy and his crew suspend the bait box just a few feet above the sandy bottom of the sea bed, and they attract large sharks that are traditionally thought to be aggressive. Observers are expected to maintain a 15-foot distance between themselves and the grub, and Abernethy asks that they pause between taking photos to assess the situation around them.

"I've seen him pull people out of the water for not following the rules," Zenato says.

Like the shark lab, Jim Abernethy's Scuba Adventures hosts many underwater camera crews. Last November, Canadian documentarian Rob Stewart, who directed the 2006 film Sharkwater, joined three attractive young blond women aboard the Shear Water, which docks in Riviera Beach. The idea was to show that anyone — even three hot babes — can swim safely with sharks and live to tell about it.

The trailer for the film short, called Shark Angels, opens with eerie, suspenseful music straight out of a Gothic opera. Lemon sharks writhe in circles among bubbles from scuba tanks. Tiger sharks slither an inch above the white sand of the sea bed. The black silhouettes of divers drift down from the boat, through clear aquamarine water, toward the sharks. The lateral fin of one Jurassic-looking beast sweeps an inch in front of a diver's mask.

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