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April 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 23, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Death of A Shark Diver

will it affect shark dive trips in the Bahamas?

from the April, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The latest diving shocker happened on February 24, when Austrian diver Markus Groh died from a shark bite while diving from the MV Shear Water in the Bahamas. Rumors, hearsay and theories abound about what actually happened but, as in most matters involving police investigations and potential litigation, no one is officially talking.

Here are the facts we can determine so far. Groh, a 49-yearold attorney from Vienna, signed up for a shark dive trip with Jim Abernethy’s Scuba Adventures in Riviera Beach, Florida. The dive would be a cageless one and the goal would be to swim with hammerhead and tiger sharks. The boat left West Palm Beach and entered Bahama waters. Crew found sharks, and passengers went diving. Groh was bitten by a shark and brought up, bleeding. Crew called the Coast Guard, which sent a helicopter to take Groh to a Miami hospital. Groh died after he left the boat. The Miami-Dade County medical examiner’s office concluded that loss of blood killed Groh, and ruled the death an accident.

As soon as the news hit, rumors started. Groh was bit in the calf. His leg was ripped off. It was a tiger shark, no, a bull shark. Scuba Adventures was reckless. No, they followed procedures, it was medical error. Because no one on the boat is talking, per orders by Abernethy’s lawyers, it can’t be publicly determined exactly what happened, so everyone in the dive community is forming their own conclusions. They’re also taking sides – some say it was just a matter of time and that cageless dives should be banned, while Abernethy defenders say it was a freak accident and shark dives are the best way to save the marine predators. Either way, Groh’s death emphasizes the divides between divers, businesses and government.

Undercurrent contacted many sources to research this story. Several declined to comment, so we relied on unattributed sources and opinions from those not on the boat, and our own speculation. But we do know that Groh’s death is promoting closer scrutiny of Bahamas shark dives.

A source close to Abernethy, who was not on the trip, says, “No one on the trip has come forward and won’t. But Groh was not the target of an attack. A bull shark apparently pushed the baitbox on the bottom into him. It bit his calf, mistaking it for the baitbox. Bite and release, no tearing of flesh. Groh eventually went into shock and respiratory arrest. Although the bleeding was stopped and he was resuscitated, he did not make it to Miami alive on the Coast Guard helicopter.”

“Everyone Should Know What They’re Getting Into”

Abernethy has been making Bahamas shark dives for five years and takes big names in marine biology and underwater photography to “secret locations” on secluded Bahamian reefs frequented by various sharks. His Web site states that divers are recommended to have Advanced Open Water certification with drift and deep diving experience, although the minimum requirement for the trip was only Open Water certification with “the necessary experience.” It’s not clear what Groh’s dive experience was, but it’s surmised that Abernethy’s passengers had plenty. Past guests say he gave two-hour-long briefings and sent divers off the boat if he felt they weren’t up to par.

Past Shear Water divers are bonding to defend Abernethy. Wetpixel.com has a page for testimonials from former guests. So far, 147 people, many underwater photographers, have praised his operation. The nonprofit group Shark Savers is creating a petition in support of Abernethy and shark diving, and sending it to the Bahamas Diving Association urging them not to change current policies. It had 1,097 signatures in late March. We recently called Scuba Adventures to ask about shark dive bookings and were referred to two Bay Area underwater photographers trying to round up divers for trips in May and June – they now had seven open slots because some divers’ spouses had heard about Groh’s death and forbade them to go.

It’s understandable why shark-diving advocates are defensive. Major media outlets highlighted the story, some playing up the Jaws aspect. Even the diving Web site Cyber Diver News Network had a grotesque photo of a man in a bathing suit with a bloody stump of a leg accompanying its story on Groh. NBC’s Today Show host Meredith Vieira looked skeptical as filmmaker Rob Stewart, who filmed his documentary Sharkwater on Abernethy’s boat, defended shark diving.

Some Undercurrent readers also voiced strong opinions to us. “What are we turning into, the nanny society?” asks Mary Chipman (West Palm Beach, FL). “Anytime you suit up and jump in the ocean, any number of things can go wrong and you can die. Is it always someone else’s fault? In cases where the operator was clearly negligent, then yes. But this is not one of those cases. Add up how many people die in any given year from true dive-operator negligence, then compare it to people who died from being bitten by a shark in the entire history of shark diving. Abernethy is quite clear on his Web site, everyone knows what they’re getting into.”

“One of the only reasons why the Bahamas shark population is so healthy is because shark-diving operations convinced the government that it’s more profitable to attract shark divers than it is to sell rights to Asian shark-finning operations to decimate them, as they have in other parts of the world,” says reader and Shear Water guest Bruce Yates (Seattle, WA). “I’ve never met a boat captain more conscientious about safety and more passionate about sea animals than Abernethy.”

But Abernethy is also a businessman, trying to set himself apart from competitors by doing cageless shark dives - - and the only ones with major predators. That draws more customers, but still they’re hanging out with sharks drawn toward bait. Scuba Adventure’s Web site says, “We will be chumming the water with fish and fish parts.” Some dive customers told us he doesn’t throw bait or blood but sets out sealed milk crates filled with fish carcasses. But another diver claiming to know Abernethy’s trip details says he was starting to push it with hand feeding. “Divers were getting really close to the fish box.”

“Sharks Are Turning Into Underwater Circus Animals”

Even if food was dangled in a bait box, sharks expect to eat once they reach the scent. If they don’t get food from the bait box, won’t they get frustrated and start poking around? “Frustration is a human emotion, but sharks do demonstrate they’re in an agitated condition when there is an olfactory sense in the water,” says George Burgess, director of Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida. “If you merely tease them with food, it’s like waving candy in front of a baby.”

Burgess credits Abernethy for doing trips away from civilization, but he thinks divers claiming to do shark dives to protect sharks are off-base. “What you’re getting is trained animals used to humans being in the water and used to being fed. We know they’re trained because they arrive before any food is put out. Some boats rev their engines and say, ‘We’re calling in our babies’. Sharks are attracted to the sound, just like Pavlov’s dog, that dinner is coming. They’re the equivalent of underwater circus animals. Their activities are not the behavior of wild sharks but trained sharks.”

In the Bahamas and the Caribbean, unassisted shark sightings by divers are becoming rare because sharks are disappearing. Sharks also have a natural concern over unfamiliar things, especially those near their own size. “Encountering humans is an unusual event for them, so there’s a natural distance out of concern, or respect,” says Burgess. “Once that natural behavior is modified, it’s lost and that’s where problems begin. It’s akin to problems with bears. But dive operators want to keep a lot of sharks in one place for predictability – and deliver a product for paying customers. However, divers are seeing an underwater Disneyland rather than a natural world.”

“An Accident Waiting to Happen”

Groh’s death stokes a feeding frenzy among shark-diving operations. Shark dives used to be done in Florida until the state banned them in 2001. Although still officially based in Florida, Abernethy immediately moved his shark dives to the Bahamas. That must have irked rivals doing openwater dives with more sedate reef sharks, feeling Abernethy was stealing customers. In a letter last year to local dive companies, the Bahamas Diving Association (BDA) told them to cease and desist openwater, non-cage diving with potentially dangerous sharks. Neal Watson, BDA president, confirmed the letter was specifically targeted at Scuba Adventures, and was quoted in the media saying Groh’s death was an “accident waiting to happen.” But, as Abernethy defenders point out, Watson owns Neal Watson’s Undersea Adventures in Fort Lauderdale and so is a shark-dive competitor. Watson now refrains from media comments, but an employee told us in late March that he was meeting with the Bahamian government to talk about shark dives in the Groh aftermath.

Michael Braynen, the Bahamas’ director of marine resources, told the Miami Herald that none of his government’s agencies restrict any form of diving and he hadn’t heard of any effort to change that. “It was an unfortunate accident, but it’s not the first time someone has been attacked in the Bahamas or in Florida.” Still, neither Braynen nor the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism returned our calls. Sources close to Abernethy think the BDA is trying to ban liveaboards in the Bahamas as a work-around to banning shark feeds altogether, although that’s doubtful as they’re also profitable for land-based dive operators. Stuart Cove of Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas and BDA vice-president wouldn’t comment on discussions, only saying that the Bahamian government would be issuing a statement shortly.

“If You’re a Facilitator, Are You Also a Co-Conspirator?”

The Coast Guard and Miami police are investigating Groh’s death, and there’s speculation that Groh’s family may sue Abernethy. While sources in the press said Groh died en route to Miami, another source says Abernethy recently told him Groh died in the trauma center, and there is a suggestion that medical malpractice may have led to Groh’s death. (Is this the foundation for defense in a potential liability case?) But like any dive operator, Abernethy had divers sign waivers, and according to legal sources we talked to, they’ll hold up in court. Florida typically holds that waivers signed by those doing highrisk activity are valid because they are knowingly engaging in the risky activity.

“Even though it basically says, ‘‘I give you permission to be negligent toward me,’ courts will usually uphold waivers in cases involving any kind of recreational enterprise,” says Andrew McClurg, a tort law professor at the University of Memphis. “It’s not a necessary service like medical care or education. You can take it or leave it, you don’t have to go.”

However, he adds, courts only uphold these agreements for ordinary negligence, not for gross negligence or reckless conduct like leaving divers behind or filling tanks with bad air. “It could be alleged that putting someone with sharks, blood and chum is gross negligence, but it can’t be determined until the court says what it is.”

Rick Lesser, an attorney specializing in dive cases, thinks there could be litigation even though divers did sign releases. He wouldn’t give details because he does work for Abernethy’s insurer and may be asked to represent him, but says there are shades of gray on either side of a high-risk sport outing. “People do stupid things but if you’re a facilitator, are you also a coconspirator? If you take willing hikers to a mountaintop in a helicopter and then say, ‘Oh, it’s steep’ and the passengers fall off the side, who’s at fault? They’re providing the mode but the guests are signing a liability.”

We’ve long griped about PADI’s liability waiver and how it makes divers literally sign their lives away. But McClurg says small-business dive shops wouldn’t be able to survive without putting exculpatory clauses absolving them of negligence charges. “Some insurance companies give lower premiums to high-risk businesses using exculpatory clauses, but businesses have more interest in running safe operations so they don’t lose business or be perceived as unsafe. Waivers just serve as protection if things do go wrong.”

Undercurrent will follow any changes to Bahamas shark diving and whether legal action is brought against Abernethy. In the meantime, shark dives are still open for business in the Bahamas. Groh may have been the only diver to have ever died in a shark interactive feed, but he is not the only victim, says Burgess. “There are ramifications that go beyond a diver’s rights to see the shark. The dive industry and the Bahamas are now under scrutiny. But the shark ends up being the biggest victim in the end because this case underscores the erroneous misperception of shark as killer. The blame should be on the humans who attract them and provoke this type of incident.”

- - Vanessa Richardson

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