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January 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 44, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Catastrophe at Cocos Island, Costa Rica

a diver is killed in a tiger shark attack

from the January, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

On November 30th, an American woman was killed by a large tiger shark while on a diving trip in the vicinity of Cocos Island, about 330 miles from the Costa Rica mainland.

Twenty-six-year-old diving guide Jiménez said that it was a female tiger shark that mauled the 49-year-old Rohina Bhandari, a Manhattan, NY, private equity director, while she was at the surface. The shark cut deep lacerations in Bhandari's legs, and as well as in Jiménez's legs.

The shark had paid unwanted attention to the group of divers as they made their way up to the safety stop in the lee of Manuelita Island, ignoring repeated attempts to drive it off. After the attack, the panga crew managed to fend it off with a boat hook, paddles or whatever they could grab, as they pulled the injured divers aboard.

Despite a number of medical professionals among the passengers of the MV SeaHunter, they were unable to save Rohina from the effects of massive blood loss. The vessel returned immediately to Punta Arenas with her body, together with the seriously injured Jimenez. Alan Steenstrup, Undersea Hunter fleet's sales manager, said everyone was in shock, but immediately had to focus on working with the victim's family and the authorities.

Avi Klapfer, the owner of the Undersea Hunter fleet, told Undercurrent, "We are in the midst of caring for the family, our injured dive guide, and the crew's mental care. We are still investigating and observing the tiger shark activity at [Cocos] island. Once treatment is set, and all the details are clear, we will put out a detailed account of the incident.

"Regarding social media, there is not much we can do about tabloid-hungered individuals who can't tell fact from fiction. Their tales are full of mistakes and "expert" shark behavior interpretation."

This is the first shark attack on divers at that remote location, known as "The Island of the Sharks," and famed for its schooling scalloped hammerheads. Only in the last decade have tiger sharks returned to the Isla de Coco National Park as the apex predator. During a visit in 2012, researchers marked five specimens around 15 feet (4.5m) long. Authorities have now imposed a moratorium on diving around Manuelita Island, although tiger sharks have regularly been sighted elsewhere at dive sites around Cocos.

Meanwhile, the fiancé of the deceased woman, plastic surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Rosenthal, blames the Undersea Hunter operation for the fatality, for not providing adequate protection. In an interview with the New York Post, he said that neither divers nor instructors (guides) had anything with which to ward off sharks. "I feel that the safety precautions they took were not as good as they should have been," he said and seemed to be considering a lawsuit.

While seasoned divers know that there is virtually nothing anyone can do to stop a tiger shark on the hunt, we asked David G. Concannon, a Wayne, Pennsylvania attorney with vast experience in dive fatality litigation, what kind of liability might be presumed? In his opinion, not much.

"For several reasons: The death was not caused by a fire on a vessel or something you can predict and guard against. It was caused by an unpredictable predator, which is known to hunt for food near the surface. The diver was experienced and obviously knew the risks posed by sharks, and Cocos is widely known as a remote place that you go to for diving if you want to see apex predators in their natural environment.

"The case would be governed by the U.S. Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA), which limits damages to funeral expenses and the value of services the deceased provided to her family until retirement at 67, reduced to present value. That means you don't get any of the damages for things you read about in the NY Post like pain and suffering, fear, apprehension of death or punitive damages. This is a small money case with all the emotional damages removed. It's only about negligence and numbers."

Despite the shock and fear generated by such an event, the chances of being attacked by a shark are almost negligible. Take into consideration that the Undersea Hunter group has been operating fully booked liveaboard dive vessels, along with the Okeanos Aggressors, at Cocos Island for more than a generation. The original vessel, MV Undersea Hunter, made 450 trips to Cocos over 26 years. Even discounting other vessels and operations, that's a lot of divers who have enjoyed close encounters at the "Island of the Sharks."

Add to that, regular encounters with tiger sharks in popular diving locations such as Beqa Lagoon, Fiji, and Tiger Beach in the Bahamas, put such events into perspective.

In reality, it was catastrophic bad luck. Nevertheless, we should not discount that we are privileged visitors when we enter the ocean and there are hazards associated with diving with any predators.

Although dive guides at some locations are equipped with "billy sticks" to push sharks away, nothing can stop a determined attack, and it would be foolish to think otherwise. Neither would it be practical to issue divers expensive Neptunic chainmail suits that would contribute considerably to negative buoyancy, making them difficult to swim with.

Some people on social media have advocated that dive guides carry bang sticks to kill dangerous sharks. Kevin Denlay, a well-known veteran Australian diver with plenty of experience diving with sharks, thinks that makes no sense. "In a place like Cocos with many different species of sharks about, a bleeding, dying tiger shark in its death throes would have attracted a shark feeding frenzy in no time at all, and then everyone in the vicinity could have been in real trouble!"

Furthermore, the tiger shark is not the apex predator at Cocos. In 2014, Edwar, a dive guide from the Undersea Hunter fleet, along with others, recorded a video of a tiger shark being hunted and killed by an orca in the very same place that this current tragedy happened.

While to us divers, the ocean seems safer than big city streets, we are swimming with wild animals. Anything is possible.

-- John Bantin

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