Swimming with the Sharks

My stomach rumbles but I'm not nauseous. I swallowed seasickness pills at Eckerd's more than an hour ago and I'm sure they've kicked in. Last-minute nerves strike as I approach the edge of the boat. It's just a wave of butterflies, not an all-out panic. I'm not going to break into flop sweat or have an emotional meltdown in front of the nearly 30 snorkelers and scuba divers on the glass-bottomed boat. A couple of deep breaths will take care of it, I tell myself, as a freckle-faced girl who looks just like Buffy from Family Affair splashes eagerly into the water not quite 300 feet from the Pompano Beach shore.

My jelly belly quivers. Lightning strikes the horizon. Below me, large sharks await a feeding. I'm next. A moment ago we passengers stood around the undersea window amazed at our first sighting -- a real, live sand-colored nurse shark, its whip-perfect tail swaying beneath the glass for our cameras. If I didn't know better, I'd swear it was smiling. Up until then I was ready to go -- my mind clear, Speedos secure, neon-orange flippers in place, mask and snorkel strapped securely to my head. I snickered coolly when Renee, the dive assistant, pointed to my flippers and said that sharks are attracted to orange. But now, as I approach the ledge -- my nerves do a reality check. She was kidding, right?

"SHARKS," whispers a voice in my head, sort of loudly. "SHARKS," it echoes in rhythm with my pulse while I ponder the ripples that splash against the hull. In a blink, I relive those moments when the slightest hint of motion under me or brush of seaweed would set off a JAWS panic. Growing up in Miami, I avoided the water until my late teens, partly because of the Steven Spielberg epic. I was marred by the shark flick at the old Miracle Mile Cinema when I was about the same age as Buffy, who bravely plunged in ahead of me. I remember feeling certain that a Great White had somehow breached the ocean and was lurking beneath the surface even when I paddled in lakes and swimming pools. These paralyzing moments were punctuated by the JAWS score. Tah -- Duh Tah-DUH TAHDUH TAHDUHTAHDUHTAHDUH . . . that awful accelerating fear sound. Irrational, I know, but I was an imaginative, if not delusional child.

But I'm over that now. I'm 35 years old -- I've been swimming for years -- I freestyle from buoy to buoy at Miami Beach. That fear of getting eaten by JAWS is gone, I tell myself. Or is that a delusion? A breath, and I'm flashing to that time, not long ago, when I sprinted to shore upon catching a glimpse of tarpon cruising the sandy bottom of Dania Beach. I'm 35 years old, I repeat -- I can swim a mile in a pool -- I use $20 goggles and wear Speedos with confidence. I attended an EST seminar, damn it -- I'm not afraid.

The next moment I'm in.

"SHARKS!" My subconscious screams as I splash into the water. "SHARKS!" it cries as I adjust the mask and snorkel to immediately see a five-foot nurse shark cruising just ten feet below me. Its head looks wider than my waist. It navigates the ocean floor like a skilled morning commuter on I-95 -- direct, efficient, and late to work. The shark joins a school of meaty brethren who gather around shark-feeder Scot Dickerson, as he waves a PVC cylinder full of bloody tuna in front of their eager mouths. He is chumming the water I swim in, and dancing around with the fine, finned elasmobranch of my deepest nightmares. What am I doing?? I ask myself. And then I remember pint-sized, freckled Buffy who jumped in before me, and her pigtailed bravery. She's in here, too. I don't hear her crying. I try to relax and do a dead man's float.

When I lift my head out of the water, I see my fellow voyagers taking the plunge. A plump German family jumps in -- white-haired father, his voluptuous wife, and their teenage son -- each one so pink it's as if they'd been bitch-slapped by the sun. Then Jim and Kira Goodyear take a dive. Tourists from Stuart's Draft, Virginia, the couple brought their fifteen-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old son to watch the sharks feed. A teenage boy who asked me to snap his picture under the waves plops in next. He's the nephew of a local dive instructor and wants to work on a boat this summer. Then sixth-grader Kimberly Pate and her grandmother, Betty Decker, hit the water. They escaped hot and parched De Land, Florida, to do some grandmother-granddaughter bonding over the weekend at the family time-share in Deerfield Beach. Decker, a nurse, signed the couple up for a snorkeling trip. She discovered just moments before boarding our boat, the Aqua View, that they'd be swimming with sharks. Still, they splash into the Atlantic, unfazed.

We are the snorkelers. We float on the surface sans Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI) certifications, air tanks, or wetsuits. Our beachy bathing suits mark us as recreational swimmers, not pros or entertainers. Breathing through plastic tubes that stick out of the ocean, we are rapt in sheer wonder, if not frozen by initial fear, as Scot stains the water a murky pink and the sharks come out to feed. It's a riveting sight, and we bump into each other as the sleek predators -- ranging from four to seven feet -- circle our tour guide to get a taste of his bloody tuna. This is what we paid $45 for -- this is what we'll be talking about as we share the snapshots from our waterproof disposable cameras.

But what we're participating in this balmy Friday, as an afternoon storm front forms to the east, is one of the most controversial issues to hit Florida's waters this season. Dive-boat operators who claim that swimming with carnivorous fish is safer than bowling, are lobbying the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) to keep the tours -- known as interactive dives -- unregulated. Their task is made tougher in the wake of bull shark attacks off Pensacola Beach July 6 and July 16 that left eight-year-old Jessie Arbogast, a visitor from Mississippi, struggling to survive after surgeons reattached his right arm, and Michael Waters, age forty-eight, with a mean bite on his foot. Arbogast, who also lost a chunk of his right thigh, was nearly drained of blood by the time he made it to the hospital and is still badly traumatized. The attack occurred about a mile from the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier, where fishermen regularly chum the waters for sharks. After Jessie, all the reassurances and rationalizations from the shark-feeding lobby seemed callous.

The boat I go out on is owned by Jeff Torode, the man at the center of the Florida shark-feeding conflict. Torode, co-owner of South Florida Diving Headquarters, and a coalition of dive operators, say the shark-feeding trips are educational and serve to dispel the monstrous image Hollywood has bestowed on the poor creatures. He also says the trips heighten the public's awareness of the dwindling shark population around the world. If people can see for themselves that all sharks are not killers, he reasons, they might be inclined to help save them. "We get a lot of people that are just Joe Blow off-the-street that have preconceived notions of sharks," Torode points out. "Once we get them on the boat and show them a different species, even if I don't say anything, they've done a couple things. They've educated themselves and overcome their own fears."

When I ask him what there is to learn from watching a shark while it feeds, Torode repeats that people can grasp that sharks are not bloodthirsty predators hell bent on eating human flesh. We are not normally a part of "the shark food chain," Torode observes reasonably, because quantitatively, there just isn't that much man meat out there to compete with all the tastier fish, squid, and plankton floating by. Interactive dive proponents insist on the common sense of sharks. They're an opportunistic species, like lions. What a shark really wants is a nice sailfish, dolphin, or up north, a fat seal ...

But the greatest lesson, he says, is a personal one -- a sort of going beyond self-imposed boundaries and "breaking down your fears." He uses some of the same rhetoric that a wormy New York EST recruiter once used while trying to get me to join his New-Age cult. If the great lesson is to realize that one can swim with a predator, I wonder why we must feed them. "Can't we just swim alongside?" I ask. "We feed them to attract them and to gain their trust," Torode answers. "Otherwise sharks won't come to man."

Torode and company are at war with a group of divers -- the Marine Safety Group (MSG) -- who are urging the FWCC to ban open-sea feeds of all marine life -- especially sharks. They say Torode and his pals are not only profiting from the public's morbid fascination with fear, but are training sharks to be increasingly aggressive toward humans. As a result, they claim, the shark feeders are endangering beach swimmers and scuba divers because sharks, normally creatures who ignore humans, are now equating people with food. Moray eels and barracuda, and other underwater carnivores, they charge, are also becoming increasingly aggressive because of the interactive tours.

Torode maintains that the Marine Safety Group formed only after he spoke out in support of designating marine preservation areas, making it illegal for spearfishermen and others to take marine wildlife out of the underwater ecosystems along Palm Beach and Broward counties. He said the MSG threatened to take the shark-feeding issue before the FWCC in retaliation, and thus the issue has inflated. MSG members say they took the issue before the commission after they were continually attacked by sharks, eels, and barracuda in areas where interactive dives occurred.

As I wallow in the chummed water, I look for signs of pissed-off sharks. Erratic movement, frenzied figure eights, arched backs -- I even try to spot the sharks' diminutive pectoral fins to determine if they are turned downward. (University of Florida shark expert George Burgess gave me pointers on how to recognize sharks going into attack mode.) But all I see this Friday afternoon is a half dozen nurses that cruise by like underwater Cadillacs, undisturbed by all the humans in the water, but clearly craving a nip of Scot's chum. I think of the statistics Burgess keeps in the International Shark Attack File. Of the 79 confirmed shark attacks worldwide last year, 34 occurred in Florida. Australia ranks second, with just seven attacks. He further attributes 23 attacks in ten years to interactive dives. None of the Florida attacks was fatal. But that's not because all Florida sharks are nurses.

There are plenty of sharks in state waters that could rub you out if they wanted to. Chief among the underwater bad boys is the chunky-torsoed, snout-nosed bull shark -- it looks something like John Gotti, Jr. -- which Burgess describes as being one of the most lethal. "Their teeth are designed for shearing food," he warns me. "They have serrations, like knives, that can bite through sea turtles and easily take chunks out of dolphins." Worse, bulls like shallow water, and even seek freshwater pools for spawning, so your chances of swimming into one are greater than they are of encountering the bigger and more predatory tiger shark, which normally keeps to itself but ranks among the most fearsome when provoked. The tiger is second only to the terrifying JAWS prototype, the mostly northern Great White. Whites, tigers, and bulls account for 62.6 percent of all attacks on humans. While Burgess describes the creatures, it is clear he is in awe of them. A shark can smell its prey a mile away; it can pick up electrical impulses from fish at the same distance, he adds with reverence. "In many ways, sharks are sensory machines," Burgess lauds.

Those opposed to shark-feeding tours say dive operators like Torode are capitalizing on a twisted form of ecotourism that may be the latest version of "extreme" sports -- like bungee jumping or ropeless cliff climbing -- or may signal a return to Roman-style decadence. "What they've done is create a circus down there," says commercial diver David Earp, a board member of the Marine Safety Group, which wants to ban the shark feeds. "It's become such a fad, it's now getting out of control." He repeats that since the trips have gained popularity, commercial and recreational divers are experiencing increased incidents of aggressive shark behavior. Earp and his group are lobbying the FWCC and coastal cities and counties to prohibit feeding sharks and other marine wildlife in their waters. "What has happened is that as a whole, our society is more and more into thrill-seeking sports," Earp says. "Now we have Johnny Tourist and his family from Ohio who come down here to get a once-in-a-lifetime picture with a shark. [Tourists] just don't realize the impact, that what they are doing is causing great danger."

But if the once-in-a-lifetime divers are putting themselves in danger, experienced ones like Boca Raton resident Lisa Schwab say the feeding tours put the pros in even greater peril. Schwab, PADI-certified for twenty years, has plunged into the depths of the world's great dive destinations. She's been in the waters off Micronesia, Palau, the Galapagos, and Belize. But it wasn't until she dove the Sea Empress, an underwater wreck near Pompano Beach, that she experienced really bad sea-life behavior. Schwab and her diving buddy were attacked by a moray eel that came after them from behind. She does not want to identify the boat operator, but she was participating in a feeding dive for stingrays. Although she was not holding bait, the eel bit into her left hand, leaving a trail of blood while nurse sharks began eerily appearing. "Any place in the world where I've been diving, I've never experienced eels being so aggressive to humans, unless they were provoked. They're usually afraid," Schwab says. "[But this time] I've experienced aggressive creatures in local waters. I was really spooked, and I've never [before] been scared in the water."

The attack told her that eels and other fish were getting much too accustomed to interacting with humans. "Eels are not as intelligent as sharks, and they are teaching eels to look to humans for food," Schwab says. "Just think what it's teaching the intelligent sharks! Sharks are not killing machines, unless you teach them -- like a dog -- to kill." Schwab says she supports an all-out ban.

The dive-boat operators who organize interactive feeds, naturally, want the state to back off banning the practice and allow the industry to regulate itself. The shark-feeding issue came before the FWCC last fall after Earp and the MSG complained of increased aggressive shark behavior near waters where feeding tours occurred. The commission drafted a resolution to ban feeding all marine wildlife and put it to the public. Soon afterward the operators joined with lobbyists to form the Global Interactive Marine Experiences Council. They soon gained the upper hand.

GIMEC stormed the commission meetings starting last September and members attended workshops claiming there was no scientific proof that shark and marine life behavior is altered owing to human interaction. The group proposed guidelines in a sixteen-page document that outlines how operators could regulate themselves. It lays out a vague agenda for shark-tour operators to follow. In broad strokes it explains training procedures for dive masters, emergency plans, and what snorkelers and divers should do while swimming with sharks. It also dictates how to conserve reefs and how much food to feed the predators. GIMEC brought in experts to testify that swimming with sharks while they fed did not pose an imminent threat to humans. GIMEC scientist Robert Hueter, director of the Mote Marine Laboratory's Center for Shark Research, claims that while it is apparent the sharks could adapt their behavior because of the feedings, there is no scientific evidence that they have. The FWCC commissioners, who'd been leaning the other way, soon reconsidered their decision to ban.

John Stewart, a West Palm Beach dive consultant and instructor, is one of GIMEC's main lobbyists. A scuba diver with 30 years experience, he says the image of sharks as killing machines is a "misperception." Like a good spokesman, he'd rather substitute the word "incident" for "shark attack" when talking about Jessie Arbogast. Stewart insists swimming with sharks in chummy waters during a tour is perfectly safe. "You stand a better chance of getting hit by lightning than being bitten by a shark," he vows. "The only way to see sharks and interact with them is by seeing them feed. [Shark-feeding trips] have been a tremendous benefit to the public and the diving community because they educate them that sharks are not the monsters Hollywood has made them out to be."

I wonder how the Arbogasts of Mississippi would respond.

At the May 24 Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting, the commissioners decided that the proposed guidelines, developed by GIMEC, did not adequately protect either the public or Florida's marine wildlife. Commissioner Edwin Roberts of Pensacola describes GIMEC's guidelines as flimsy. "The commission is clearly unhappy with the way the industry headed in policing themselves," he says. "There were weaknesses, and frankly there was stuff not addressed that needs to be addressed." Among the shortcomings, the proponents failed to designate sites where shark feedings would occur, and there were no limits to feeding sharks in murky water, where the creatures are prone to go into feeding frenzies, and where sight lines make it harder for divers to see them coming. While most of the dive operators feed the nurse sharks, there are others who've fed Caribbean reef and even bull sharks, and under the industry's proposed guidelines, the excursions could continue to feed any species -- GIMEC seems to think that any type of shark who's hungry ought to be able to chow down, even if it's a hammerhead or mako. The dive group also failed to define the distance from beaches and natural reefs where feeding operations would be allowed. (This is of interest chiefly to protect swimmers from "trained" sharks.)

Faced with the self-serving document, the commissioners directed the FWCC staff to come up with stronger guidelines that would define which species could "reasonably" be fed. While even this action is more stringent than GIMEC wanted, it is clear the lobbying paid off. The dive industry got the green light to continue interactive dives. Only one commissioner, Tony Moss of Miami, proposed a motion banning the excursions at the May meeting. He did not get a second.

Though they failed to ban the practice, Moss says the commissioners could still move to stop marine-feeding trips. For Moss, shark feeding presents a liability issue that he believes the state should not allow. "It's definitely a door I don't want to see opened," he says. "My position is you don't feed bears in a national park for the reason that they lose their fear of humans. I don't see a difference between [shark feeds] and feeding terrestrial animals." The consequences of a shark attack -- in the wake of Jessie Arbogast's tragic encounter -- are too great for the state to allow the feedings, he says. But the August meeting of the FWCC will be Moss's last. He is leaving the commission after six years. "We're waiting to see if both sides can come up with satisfactory guidelines," Moss says. "What we suggested is for them to meet among themselves to see if it could work out."

When I spoke to other commissioners I found that most agreed that shark feeding is not the wisest sort of field trip. In fact, they each described feeling (excuse the expression) somewhat torn, deciding on the issue, because the process of creating new law conflicted with their personal beliefs. But most said they could not fully support the ban because there just wasn't enough "scientific data" to show that feeding sharks and other wild marine life caused aggressive behavior. "I think it's crazy," Roberts exclaims. "It's not healthy for humans or marine life. Unfortunately Governor Bush told appointees: “When you make rules regarding wildlife, make sure there's enough science to back you up.'" Treading the line of making responsible regulations while knowing in his heart that allowing interactive dives poses a great danger sent Roberts into an ethical feeding frenzy himself. While diving with his family off Marathon Key recently, he was perplexed by a group of nurse sharks that glided curiously toward him and his children. Still he voted for regulation. "My guts tell me feeding sharks is a dumb thing to do," he explains. "But when you're dealing with an industry that depends on this for income, you have to be sure when you make rules that you make it for a reason. There was not enough science to support my gut feeling."

The revamped guidelines will be made public shortly, and will enter a new round of public hearings at the FWCC's September meeting on Amelia Island. Bob Palmer, director of the FWCC fisheries division, is helping draft the improved rules for the undersea feeds: "We have heard allegations of people who say they were attacked ... because people were feeding sharks in the vicinity, but there were no documented attacks ... Just because something is perceived as dangerous doesn't mean we have to make it illegal. [sic]"

Despite the image of sharks as bloodthirsty predators, shark-feed tours are becoming increasingly popular in Florida and throughout the world. Television programs such as Inside Edition and the Discovery Channel have broadcast segments about the feeding dives that have aroused attention, be it negative or not. "Every time CNN does a segment, my phone rings off the hook," Jeff Torode chortles. "The business really started to grow once it became a controversy." He reports sold-out boats since Arbogast.

In the Bahamas and the Caymans, the shark tours are big business. Thousands of divers from around the world arrive in the chain of islands about 100 miles east of Miami to swim with bull sharks, Caribbean reef sharks, and hammerheads. One group on Grand Bahama offers a four-day "program" where for $2500, participants get to hand-feed pointy-nosed Caribbean reef sharks while being videotaped and photographed for their gushing friends and family back home. "If you like heart-pounding adventure and are really into sharks, this program is for you!" exhorts their Website. (A Wall Street broker's leg was severed there August 4.)

According to the FWCC, four shark-feeding outfits are in business in Florida: Capt. Spencer Slate's Atlantis Dive Center in Key Largo; South Florida Diving Headquarters in Pompano Beach (Torode's outfit); Capt. Jim Abernethy's Riviera Beach dive operation, and Deerfield Beach's Dixie Divers. While no dive boats advertise excursions out of Miami-Dade County, local dive shops happily refer clients to Torode and the others, and so, over the course of a year, thousands of locals and tourists shark-feed from here. But they aren't the only operators who feed marine wildlife. If you want to swim with the sharks, be it the cuddly nurse or the grimmer makos or hammerheads, there is Marathon Key, where a bevy of dive operators conduct regular shark operations. "We all do it," admits Bob Brayman, owner of Hall's Diving Center at Mile Marker 48. "When we go out on a reef, there are usually a lot of nurse sharks hanging out."

But what the advertisements don't say, and what dive operators are eager to downplay, is the fact that there are no barriers to prevent more aggressive sharks from entering areas where divers are chumming the "good-guy" sharks. As the Pensacola attack shows, bull sharks are a reality in Florida waters. Hammerheads cruise the Keys, and though Caribbean reef sharks, another regular in our waters, are known to be sweeties if you rub their bellies, they also are capable of treating you like a slice from Domino's.

Still, the Florida dive-boat outfits assure scuba divers and snorkelers that the sharks they are likely to encounter are the puppy-tempered nurses. Occasionally a Caribbean reef shark, bull shark, or hammerhead will swim by, they say, but those are rare. Yet, while the species is "passive," the nurse shark is not entirely harmless. During the recent two-day lobster season, a 34-year-old Melbourne woman was twice bitten by a nurse off Duck Key. And last summer, while snorkeling the waters off Big Pine Key, Coral Springs housewife Andrea Nani was attacked by a five-foot nurse shark while the boat operator she was touring with threw chunks of fish into the water. "I literally felt that animal suck the flesh out of my body," Nani told the press. "I shook my leg. I couldn't get him off my body." Nani and her lawyer, Michael Joseph, are suing the operator, Strike Zone Charters, and urging the FWCC to ban swimming with the sharks altogether. They were ubiquitous on TV this past May, when prime time blanketed the decision to seek "guidelines" instead of a ban.

I was thinking of Nani while we anchored at the spot for our shark dive. Our tall, good-looking navigator, Capt. John Moren, gave us a little pep talk, which made me think twice about jumping in. In a bright tone he explained what was going to happen and gave us pointers on how to behave around the sharks. First he instructed the certified divers to hit the ocean floor and form a semicircle around Scot as he chummed the water. Then, as if to quell our anxieties, he described the teeth of the nurse shark. Rather than the sharp jagged rows of enameled blades we imagine, Captain John explained the species we'd be swimming with has "slats" for teeth that do not tear flesh as easily. (Thanks for small favors.) Still, he warned us frankly, they can cause damage as the surface of the tooth plate is as coarse as a sanding belt. Nurse sharks, he added, grab on and suck their prey instead of shearing bite-sized chunks from your body, as, say, a famished blue shark might. "Make sure to keep your hands close to your sides," he warned. "Don't make sudden movements."

Then Captain John dropped a doozy. In a cheerful and reassuring voice, like that of a 747 captain during turbulence, he told us not to worry about the possibility of the bloody chum sparking a feeding frenzy, because the nurse sharks we'd be facing were docile. "They're like giant catfish," he soothed us. "Besides, your shark feeder Scot has years of experience."

But just moments before our captain's speech, Scot had told me he'd never fed a shark prior to getting the job six months ago. Before this gig he worked as an insurance estimator for a Ford dealership. He moved to South Florida about a year ago, after he closed his biker shop in New Mexico. An avid motorcycle road-racer, Scot is drawn to danger. "I'm devoted to speed," he told me. Serving chum to sharks is something that just came his way. "I never thought I'd be feeding sharks for a living," he chuckles. "I used to think what others think -- that sharks are mean. Then I went on a dive and I realized, they're just big fish." While shark feeding is a new experience for Scot, it is not altogether foreign to him. He used to train attack dogs. He tells me what fascinates him most about feeding the sharks is their keen ability to associate behaviors. "They're like a dog," he mused. "They know when they hear the boat they're going to get food."

So that's a SHARK! -- I tell myself in the waters off Pompano Beach. I dive down to try to get some close-up pictures for my story and freeze in my flippers. Scot is leading a gang of nurse sharks to the surface as I descend. In a turn I find myself face to face with what looks like a seven-footer. "ARRGGHHH!" the voice in my head screams -- and I backtrack to the surface, my eyes glued down below. Soon the chum is gone, and Scot returns to the boat. We snorkelers and scuba divers are left to roam the reef on our own.

I keep my mask in the water, staying close to other divers. Drawn, yet nervous, I remain vigilant for stray sharks that keep cruising by. Even though it's been pounded into my head that these creatures are relatively harmless, I can't get too comfortable swimming just a few feet away from something bigger and heavier than I am -- I don't care if it's wearing a tag that reads, "Pet me, I'm friendly." That fucker could make a meal out of me with just a quarter-millimeter twist in its pattern, and a widening of its jaws ... When one of the captain's giant "catfish" swims by, my pulse quickens and I curl up and reverse my motion. At one point I explore the reef after the feeding is done and see a smart-looking shark tail sticking out from beneath a ledge. Chumless, I quickly maneuver my flippers in the opposite direction. On my way to the boat, I keep looking behind me.

Back onboard, as a plastic tub of salty chocolate-chip cookies is passed around, Captain John asks us to freeze while the crew does a body count. That task happily completed, we chug back to the Intracoastal Waterway and home. I ask the Goodyears from Stuart's Draft, Virginia, what they thought of their experience. Bashful eleven-year-old Zachary simply calls the experience "fun," and then with a little prodding he adds, "I learned a lot." His mom Kira, a customer-service rep for a department store, tells of enjoying the experience once she got over her initial fear for herself and her children. As we talk, I notice that, Jim, a large-framed hydraulic mechanic at a nuclear plant, is fiendishly smoking his Benson & Hedges 100s. "I touched the bottom and a big six-foot shark came up behind me at arm's length," he says. "After that I made a beeline for the boat, and went and had a smoke."

He was still smoking when we tied up at the dock.


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