Shark Huggers

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

"We screen our passengers and accept advanced divers with shark-diving experience only," Cheng warns. "I hate to have to say this, but please do not book if you are squeamish about using bait to attract sharks. We will absolutely be baiting sharks and do not want to fight with you about the issue."

The trip is one of four coveted underwater photography workshops offered in 2008 by Alex Mustard, a British marine biologist turned award-winning underwater photographer. The website proclaims that such workshops are run only in collaboration with "first-class partners." The trip with Abernethy, Mustard advises, is sold out. He adds under the heading "News" that, even though a diver was recently bitten on a Shear Water charter, the July workshop is expected to ship out as planned.

In the wake of Groh's death, hundreds of divers have flooded the Internet with messages of support for Captain Abernethy. Some people venture that, although they didn't know Markus Groh, they recognize him as a kindred spirit who adored sharks and died doing something he loved. Surely, they argue, Groh would want the dives to continue.

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.

They beg his family members not to allow their grief to morph into hatred for sharks. The divers attest to having been subject to stringent security measures while diving with Abernethy. They thank him profusely for having introduced them to the world of sharks. And they worry that they might never be able to dive on the Shear Water with the captain again.

"As an avid shark enthusiast, I had craved having intimate shark encounters like that since I was a young girl," writes a woman who calls herself "sharkdiverheidi." "We do not dive with sharks for a simple adrenaline rush or to thrill-seek, but to realize a connection with nature that few people take the time to experience on land. It is our passion and it cannot be caged."

Adds another diver: "Some won't be satisfied until everyone is bound up on their couch staring at CNN like zombies."

A New York-based nonprofit called Shark Savers, founded in 2007 by a group of divers interested in improving the public image of sharks, began a petition in support of continued shark diving in the Bahamas. Among the signers is Kent Bonde, a 50-year-old diver from Miami Shores who survived a bite from a bull shark while he was spearfishing off Grand Bahama in 2001.

"It was like getting hit by a Mack truck," Bonde remembers. The wound, on his left calf, looked like "a perfect ice-cream scoop all the way down to the bone." As blood filled the water around him, Bonde says, he thought, Please don't bite me again. He managed to get to Freeport, and then to Jackson Memorial by air ambulance.

As Bonde lay recovering in the hospital, undergoing six weeks of painful treatments to regenerate tissue on his leg, he decided to get back in the water as soon as possible. Otherwise, he worried he'd acquire an acute fear of sharks. He has since gone on numerous dives with sharks and now considers himself an avid shark conservationist. He gives talks at grade schools, comparing a sea without sharks to a major metropolitan area without garbage pickups — it's a mess.

"They're just like big dogs," Bonde insists. "They swim up to you and say, 'Oops, that's not part of the menu.'"

Markus Groh, however, was not particularly fond of sharks, according to his sister Veronika Groh, a cancer researcher in Seattle. She is troubled by the efforts of self-labeled shark divers to turn her brother into a poster boy for their underwater hobby.

"None of us really understand why he got himself into this," Veronika says. "The friends who went on that trip ... felt extremely uncomfortable from the first day on. They just did not feel safe and unfortunately did not have the guts to say, 'Well, let's get out of this.'

"He [simply] wanted to spend some time with his friends.... It could have happened skiing or mountain climbing.... All I can say is he didn't want to be [on the boat], and I'm sure he suddenly didn't want to be ... down there."

Click here to view the slide show of Markus Groh's shark attack on his final dive.
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