Miami Beach dive-boat captain Michael Beach has always admired sharks as a primordial link to a lost age. "They're so primitive, so unevolved, and so unchanged," he explains. "When you see one in the wild, you realize you're seeing something very special."
So on dive tours, he used to like to feed the sea beasts in front of clients as "a way to dispel classic myths about sharks being these brutal monsters."
It didn't turn out that way. He was hand-feeding gray reef sharks on a boat off of Bimini in 1996 when one apparently determined Beach's bait was too "fishy" and went for his left calf. The captain tried to pry away the shark's teeth with his hands, impaling a few fingers in the process. The whole attack took ten seconds, but Beach lost one-third of his blood, required 400 stitches, and spent a month at Jackson Memorial and eight months in physical therapy.
Beach, a conservationist who has a doctorate in maritime history and underwater archaeology, felt a surprising emotion as he recovered: guilt. "I instantly realized that my shark bite would be used as further proof that these animals are villainous," says Beach, who has recovered but might face muscle atrophy as he ages. "In fact, I was the one going against nature by hand-feeding the sharks."
He winces at the term shark attack: "I call myself a 'shark-bite survivor' or a 'shark-accident survivor' because sharks never attack people. It's people that invade sharks' territory."
He declined offers from the Discovery Channel and Oprah to sell video of the, uh, bite. He didn't want it used as propaganda. And Beach recently joined eight other survivors, organized by the Pew Environmental Group, on Capitol Hill to lobby legislators to pass the Shark Conservation Act of 2009, introduced by Sen. John Kerry. It would close loopholes related to "finning," the brutal practice of slicing off live sharks' fins for soup. "It's an unbelievably cruel process," Beach explains. "You cut the fins off and throw the carcasses overboard. Sharks breathe by moving through the water, so it usually takes a couple of hours to die."