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July 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 35, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Death of a Shark Diver, Redux

dive ops rely on sharks for business, but it comes at a price

from the July, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Shark attacks are happening less often. That’s according to George Burgess, curator of the International Shark Attack File. He reports 59 unprovoked attacks by sharks last year, lower than the 71 in 2007 and the all-time high of 79 in 2000. Four of those were fatal. The majority of attacks were in North American waters, 42 last year, with Florida accounting for 32 of them. Luckily, snorkelers and divers were the smallest group affected, totaling only 8 percent of unprovoked attacks.

But that’s unprovoked, mind you. Burgess classifies “provoked attacks” as a human initiating physical contact with a shark, usually involving fishers, spearfishers and those feeding sharks. The latter is often what affects divers most as more of them go on shark dives, with boat crew chumming the waters to get sharks in front of the paying customers – and that can be an accident waiting to happen. Burgess says 19 provoked attacks happened last year.

One of them was Markus Groh, an Austrian diver who died on a shark dive trip in the Bahamas with Jim Abernethy’s Scuba Adventures. Groh, 49, was bitten by a bull shark, which apparently mistook his calf for the baitbox that the dive operator puts at the bottom to attract sharks. We did an extensive report on Groh’s death in our April 2008 issue.

Comparing Sharks to Birds and Dogs

Abernethy wasn’t talking to the press then but now that there is no threat of a lawsuit, he was willing to talk to Undercurrent. He was cleared of wrongful doing by the Miami-Dade County police 24 hours after the event, and Abernethy, based in Riviera Beach, FL, says he has no plans to change anything about his shark trips, and he is backed by big names in marine biology and underwater photography. “I have a two-hour plus briefing on what needs to be done when in the vicinity of large sharks, and I require the same level of advanced diver or above to dive with us. What happened was an accident that unfortunately happened on my boat. The main reason why I haven’t changed anything is because sharks don’t eat people. Sharks do not seek them out, I’ve never seen a shark being aggressive toward people. The accident with Groh, it was just not a shark attack.” The Bahamas Diving Association, whose members offer openwater dives with more sedate reef sharks, has been trying for some time to get Abernethy to stop his openwater, non-caging dives but he refuses. “[Cage diving] doesn’t follow the way I interact with sharks.”

Critics of Abernethy’s interactions don’t like the idea of turning sharks into trained animals used to humans in the water and being fed. Abernethy replies that he looks at sharks as 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.”

Then he tries another comparison: canines. “Sharks are very much like dogs. There are the smaller, speedier ones, like the little dogs that nip and yap. Then there are the big dogs, walking tentatively into the living room trying not to break anything. We see that mix on our Bahamas dives.”

“It’s the Humans’ Fault, Not the Sharks”

That comparison to household pets is what bothers Burgess, who instead compares feeding sharks to feeding bears in parks. “Encountering humans is an unusual event for sharks, so there’s a natural distance,” he told Undercurrent. “Once that natural behavior is modified, it’s lost and that’s where problems begin. Dive operators want to keep a lot of sharks in one place for predictability – and for paying customers. But divers are seeing an underwater Disneyland rather than a natural world.

“If people want to go diving with sharks, that’s their choice. To me, the biggest concern is what happens when you attract sharks to the boat and how it affects their behavior, the reef ecology and the long-term affects to the shark-human relationship. If you’re going to put people and food in the water to attract sharks, fine. But if something happens, it’s the humans’ fault, not the shark’s.”

“If you want to dive, you go with a dive operator but if you want to dive with sharks, you go and learn with a shark expert.” That’s Erich Ritter, who calls himself the only professional shark-human interaction specialist. He runs, an organization that teaches one-week courses in the Bahamas, Maldives and the Red Sea for divers about how to interact with sharks. Two-hour classroom sessions and homework are mixed with dives to show students how to learn sharks’ body language and react correctly with their own. “If you can understand why a shark of any species comes closer, you are in the driver’s seat and in charge of the situation. If you don’t understand, you get afraid. We put divers in different scenarios and mentally push them to a point where they must rationalize the situation they’re in.”

This seems rich coming from a man who is a pariah in the dive industry. Ritter, who claims a Ph.D. in “behavioral ecology” from the University of Zurich, says he can intuit shark behavior and read their thoughts just by looking at them. However, Ritter was bitten in the calf, just like Groh, while being filmed for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week series in Walker’s Cay back in 2002. Ritter was demonstrating how he could, by controlling his heartbeat, interact safely with a school of sharks, even when food was in the water. But when there were more sharks than usual in the feeding area, dive staffers tried to lure them away from Ritter by throwing a piece of fish into the water 15 feet away from him. A bull shark lunged for it and in doing so, bit directly into Ritter’s left calf. The shinbone was so damaged that Ritter’s left foot must be permanently supported by a bar. Ritter blames the spotter assigned to keep an eye on the sharks and steer them away but says, “My bite was the best proof that I know what I’m doing.”

“Dive Operators Should Get Educated”

Despite his reputation and claims of intuiting shark behavior, Ritter does have some good tips for improving the safety of shark dives. “So we must educate the operators and have them use solid techniques. Don’t have a floating milk crate for sharks to push around, attach it to the bottom and don’t let divers get too close to these sharks. And always have a second dive guide who is capable of observing sharks’ swim patterns. If they get excited, they’ll change their swim pattern. For example, if one does a wide-angle approach, it may be a little nervous but not aggressive. If it does a frontal approach, it wants to check you out and get a reaction from you. Dive operators are generally novices and have no clue to the actual behavior of these animals. They should get educated and the standards should be changed. You can’t take the dive shop owner’s livelihood away but he can indeed change what he can’t control.”

Their feeding methods are debatable but shark dive operators know what their livelihood is and are stepping up their efforts to protect it, especially now that finning for shark-fin soup is dropping shark numbers precipitously. Beqa Adventure Divers, a notable shark dive operator in Fiji, has been blogging about its efforts to get Discovery Channel to get the Jaws references out of its upcoming Shark Week series this summer. Andrew Cumming, Beqa’s operations manager, wrote on the shop’s blog ( about the shady efforts of one of the network’s film teams to hire Beqa to take them to dive sites but then do their own thing. “We were told the group would come with their own safety divers, need a chumsicle and require no further service other than unlimited access to our site.” Cumming believed the team leader was going to descend in a specially-designed clear shark cage and conduct experiments like flailing about, floating lifelessly and holding freshly-killed fish to elicit an attack response from the sharks. “After years of trying to establish a safe and mellow routine and to keep the sharks away from the surface, having [them] come and thrash our dive site! We of course declined to enable the shoot.” He said another dive shop down the road agreed to take the film crew out. “Money apparently talks much louder than one’s professed love of sharks and fake ecobranding. But in the end, it’s not our country, not our operation and hopefully, not our reputation, either, that will lose out. Although we’ll have to share the negative repercussions, as will Fiji tourism. In the end, the real losers will be the sharks.”

Abernethy is also stating his pro-shark stance to the public, becoming active in government actions on coral reefs and shark management. He recently protested a June shark tournament in Fort Myers, helping to get it turned into a no-kill event. On his Web site, he blogged about a seven-foot lemon shark with a rope tied around its neck cutting deep into its skin and gills. It swam off before Abernethy could free it. In April, he saw the shark again while taking a charter of photographers and videographers. They all agreed to rescue the shark, tail roping and pulling it aboard. Abernethy restrained the shark while a crew member cut the rope. In just over one minute, the shark was back in the water. “The thought of this beautiful creature dying a slow painful death because of trash discarded in the ocean was too much for me,” he wrote. “Many people would think that it’s just a shark and not to bother, but I love these creatures and will do anything within my power to save them.” Of course, when he saw the lemon shark the next day, Abernethy fed it lots of fish to keep it coming back.

- - Vanessa Richardson

P.S. The latest shark fatality of 2008 happened to a French woman on June 2, when an oceanic whitetip shark attacked her while snorkeling along Egypt’s Red Sea shoreline, south of Marsa Alam. The woman, in her 50s, was part of a group aboard the liveaboard Le Nautile. About 20 snorkelers were at the dive site Habili Al on the St. John’s reef area observing the shark when the woman moved away from the group and duckdived toward it. According to Egypt’s Chamber of Diving and Watersports (CWDS), the woman was bitten on the leg when she surfaced, and the shark was still biting her as she was pulled onto the boat. She lost consciousness and died soon after.

It was Egypt’s first fatal shark attack in five years; the previous one was another snorkeler near the busy Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2004. While such attacks are extremely rare in the Red Sea, this one most likely happened because two safari boats had been feeding sharks in the same area that day. Both the National Park and CDWS are conducting an investigation into the recent incident, CDWS spokeswoman Mary Gleeson told Undercurrent. “Shark feeding is illegal here in the Red Sea. It is looking likely that they will face a serious fine and suspension from operating for a period of time, probably three months.”

Ritter, who teaches some of his SharkSchool courses in the Red Sea, says dive boats there routinely flout the no-feeding rules. “The galley staff dump leftovers after the cooking is done, and divers take fish with them after lunch and start feeding sharks. Every boat does this because divers want to push the envelope, so they’re forced to increase the thrill. They’re competing for the few sharks left but they don’t know how to handle an antsy, full-grown oceanic whitetip.”

- -Vanessa Richardson

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