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August 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 40, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Did This Shark Diver Disappear?

did a heart attack, tiger shark or something else get him?

from the August, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

At 8 p.m. on July 13, the U.S. Coast Guard received a distress call about John E. Petty, a 63-year-old diver missing from the Shear Water, a liveaboard used by Jim Abernethy's Scuba Adventures for its controversial cage-free shark dives in the Bahamas. On the Saturday prior, Petty, a chiropractor from Longview, TX, boarded the boat along with eight other divers and four crew in Palm Beach, FL, for an eight-night expedition to Tiger Beach, 20 miles off Grand Bahama's West End, with the goal of diving with its resident population of tiger sharks. The dive took place in the late afternoon near Memory Rock, and Petty was last seen by another diver in the group during the dive.

Michael Stroscheim, manager of Scuba Adventures, told the Longview News-Journal that the trip was Petty's first with his company, and that Shear Water crew followed emergency procedures when he didn't return to the boat. "John was separated from the boat about 6:30 p.m. on Sunday. We are not really sure why. We do know that there was a current. When the crew realized he was not at the boat, they recalled the divers and initiated the search. Our protocol is 10 minutes. After that, we contacted the Coast Guard and at that point, the Coast Guard takes over."

Operating out of Miami, the Coast Guard deployed an immediate air-and-sea search operation consisting of a cutter, a fixed-wing aircraft, and a helicopter. On Tuesday, the search-and-rescue crews recovered a dive mask. On Wednesday morning, they recovered a camera and some shredded dive gear. All were on the seafloor a nautical mile from where the Shear Water called in. On Thursday, after covering 4,600 miles in 64 hours, the Coast Guard called off the search. Petty Officer Jon-Paul Rios of the Coast Guard's Miami station, says that because of the large tiger shark population, a fatal shark encounter could be a possibility.

But Stroscheim told The Tribune newspaper in the Bahamas he believed Petty was the victim of a drowning. "The evidence does not point to a shark attack in this case. The diver most likely was separated underwater in a current, and we believe he probably ran out of air because of the way the gear was found, and then was disoriented and unable to get back to the boat -- and most likely it is a drowning incident. The most important thing with the dive gear is that the buckles were unbuckled -- a shark can't do that."

Unlike many shark-diving outfits operating out of the Bahamas, Abernethy's Scuba Adventures doesn't use cages, and advertises this trip as only for divers with advanced openwater training. According to Outside magazine, Petty received his advanced openwater certification in early July, shortly before he left for the Bahamas. Ken Knezick, owner of the dive travel agency Island Dreams in Houston, had dived with Petty and told the Longview News-Journal,"John is an extremely experienced and capable scuba diver."

"Petty might have panicked and drowned, not have found his way back to the group and been lost at sea, or been injured and bled to death. We may never know."

Scuba Adventures runs three or four Bahamas dive expeditions every month, and Abernethy has come under fire in the past for promoting dives with shark species known to pose a threat to humans. We wrote in our April 2008 issue about how Scuba Adventures lost an Austrian diver named Markus Groh to a bull shark that apparently mistook his calf for the baitbox put at the bottom to attract sharks. Abernethy himself has been bitten. In January 2011, he got a bite to the arm from a reef shark during an excursion to Tiger Beach. According to witnesses, Abernethy was bleeding profusely and needed stitches, but made a recovery and quickly went back to work.

And shark bites may be more than an uncommon occurrence with him, may be happening more frequently than he'd like to admit. A former employee of Scuba Adventures tells Undercurrent that Abernethy and one of his boat captains, George Hughes, were each bitten in the hand or arm last summer. Both were treated in the Bahamas, but Abernethy allegedly told others he was spined by a fish he was cleaning. Abernethy didn't respond to questions from Undercurrent.

Veteran dive writer and Undercurrent contributor John Bantin, who has gone on many shark dives in the Bahamas, says tiger sharks are the garbage collectors of the sea. Describing a dive he did there last summer for the British magazine Diver, he writes, "They'll try to eat anything, including underwater cameras, scuba tanks and in this case, evidently, me. One feels strangely detached when a huge tiger shark grabs your tank and swims off with you. It happened to me twice on the same dive, and I had started to think that my luck was running out . . . The shark, nicknamed Emma, now makes a habit of grabbing cameras and swimming off with them. It's a tiger shark's idea of a jolly jape. But my problem was that she took my tank while I was still wearing it. What do you do when a big 15-foot-long stripy fish with teeth grabs you? Well, there's not much you can do."

Regarding Petty's disappearance, Bantin tells Undercurrent, "If this dive did happen in the dark, [probably no one] noticed it happen. He might have panicked and drowned, he might have not found his way back to the group and been lost at sea, he might have been injured and bled to death. I fear we'll never know."

Neal Watson, president of the Bahamas Dive Association, is tired of Abernethy bringing bad publicity to Bahamas' sharks. He told The Tribune that Petty's disappearance is Scuba Adventures' third mishap in the Bahamas, and that the incident could be due to negligence and incompetence of the Shear Water crew. "This operation has a controversial history and does not operate under the Bahamas Diving Association's shark diving procedures and protocols that have been established to ensure safe interactive shark diving experiences." Shark feeding and shark diving is outlawed in all U.S. waters, so Scuba Adventures, based in Riviera Beach, FL, motors southeast to do cage-free shark dives in the Bahamas.

"The big issue is when you watch the Today Show or Good Morning America, [or read] the press from around the world, they never said it was a U.S.-registered dive boat that was operating in the Bahamas," says Watson. "They say a scuba diver got killed by a shark attack in the Bahamas. So they pull up their anchor and go back home to South Florida, and we are stuck with the negative publicity of a situation they created through negligence and incompetence."

Protocols for tiger shark diving without a cage include keeping people in a tight, confined area where they can be seen all the time, Watson says. "The crew should have seen what was going on the second it occurred, and been there to assist. You don't just later find out that you are missing somebody -- I think it was negligence on the part of the company." While the Bahamas Diving Association has no control over U.S. dive operators, it's in discussions with the Bahamas government to ensure that they follow that country's official diving procedures.

Undercurrent contributor Bret Gilliam stands up for Abernethy and how Scuba Adventures runs its dives, and divers who sign up for his trips should be aware of all possibilities and accept the outcomes. "Petty made a deliberate, informed decision to dive outside cages with sharks, specifically tigers. These are known potentially dangerous predators and there are obvious risks. It is up to the individual diver to decide if those risks are acceptable. Jim Abernethy has excellent protocols for his operation, provides complete briefings and advice prior to dives, and emphasizes that this activity can incur extreme hazards and risk of attack. Guests must execute a detailed and fully descriptive waiver and release document that lays out all potential risks. There is no question that divers are fully informed and it's up to them to make a conscious intelligent decision to participate."

And if Abernethy follows his own past procedures, he's not going to do anything different. He spoke to Undercurrent back in 2009, after Scuba Adventures was cleared of wrongful doing in Markus Groh's death. "The main reason why I haven't changed anything is because sharks don't eat people," he said then. "Sharks do not seek them out, I've never seen a shark being aggressive toward people. He said he looks at sharks the way the Audubon Society looks at birds. "They've been selling bird feeders for years, and birdwatchers feed birds, but every now and then, a bird will bite a person as a mistake. However, feeding the birds is an opportunity for people to get close to these animals so they can see them."

-- Vanessa Richardson

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