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SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL OP-ED ONLINE
by John Christopher Fine
It was a media feeding frenzy. When a 49 year old lawyer from Vienna, was bitten on the leg in Bahamas waters during an "interactive" shark dive, the story was sensational news for several days. The dives were touted by Riviera Beach operator Jim Abernathy as out of cage experiences. The Austrian diver bled to death before competent medical attention could save him. The result: newspapers and media from all over the world carried the story as front page news.
The shark death competed with murder headlines for space. The same pages described "Dad Gets 40 Years For Killing Baby." It was a story about a 29 year old father that smashed his infant son's head against the hood of a car then threw the body into an alligator infested canal and told his wife to go in and get it before the gators ate it. Another headline on the same page 'baited' readers with "Killer's son Gets $30 Million For Loss of Mother." It was a story about lawyers collecting a jury award for a child whose father shot his mother.
Scathing blame was placed on South Florida dive operator Jim Abernathy. His comment to the press about his failure to use recommended cages to protect his divers while the sharks were put into feeding frenzies with chum and blood, was that he regretted the incident and was mournful.
Unlike the human predators in competing headlines, the sharks themselves are not to blame.While perpetrators of the murders, that shared the same front page with the story about the Austrian lawyer's death, premeditated their killings, the shark that bit the diver only reacted to a human induced feeding frenzy that caused it to misjudge the diver for bloody bait in the water. If there is blame, then it is to be placed on humans, not the sharks.
We have all seen it on nature programs, or so called 'nature' programs, better described as unnatural programs where cinematographers have baited the water with chum to lure elusive sharks into camera range. Huge chunks of meat are held over side white photographers snap away on dive boats and others slip into cages to film great white sharks. If the commentary is accurate it describes the many days it often requires to lure the sharks into sight by streaming blood in the water and chumming with chunks of bloody rancid meat and fish parts. What results is unnaturally induced natural behavior. A feeding frenzy where many sharks have been attracted to the bloody chum.
None of this is new to wildlife filmmaking or adventure tourism. Before diving was popularized African hunters guided treks into the wilderness, baited trees with dead carcasses and waited until a panther pounced and their courageous hunting clients killed it while it feasted on the dead meat. A man I dive with created an analogy with bears in camp.
Veteran diver Leo Sand who has been operating a fleet of dive boats out of Boynton Beach, Florida for many years, a wilderness hunter originally from Gunnison, Colorado, said: "Don't act like part of a bear or shark's natural foods without assuming a large degree of risk. When we're dealing with those on the top of the food chain and in their environment, it's merely a matter of time before something like this is going to happen."
Sand then described shark encounters off his dive boats: "We have the occasional brief shark encounter. No problem as we don't change their habits by feeding them. It is not good to teach any top line predator to associate people or people sounds, like a boat or regulator bubbles, with a dinner bell. Sting Ray City off Cayman Islands is the best of examples. Tourists feed sting rays and are mobbed by the ravenous creatures. Now move the animal up to a Category 4 shark or a Grizzly bear and one is just asking for trouble and given enough time this is bound to happen. Only thing surprising to me is that it took so long before it happened."
I work with large animals in the open oceans, tracked and studied sharks in their natural environments from Rangiroa in the French Society Islands to the waters off Fort Lauderdale and Boynton Beach. I've fed them, been present when divers speared fish to bring them in close and have had to bat frenzied sharks away from me. The natural behavior of predatory animals changes dramatically when food is present.
On one shark feeding dive in the Atlantic Ocean north of Pompano Beach years ago, dozens of Carribean reef sharks, black tips, nurse sharks and a bull shark came in to fight for frozen chum tied to the bottom to draw the action in. Paying divers huddled against the reef in awe. As I was photographing the melee, a mad and frenzied scramble for the food, a large Caribbean reef shark swam toward me and bit into my underwater electronic camera strobe that I was holding in my bare hand just over my head to aim it. I have the picture, somewhat out of focus of course since the shark was only inches from my face and I shot the pic quick before I popped the shark in the snoot with the strobe. Wasn't the shark's fault.
We are in awe of large predators. Somehow the human mind craves vicarious danger, lured as we are to ghoulish precarious adventures. Witness the way televised news reports document war related tragedies, bombings, vehicular accidents and murders. How long do we wait at accident scenes while ghouls rubberneck to see close into the tragedy and blood spilled in the roadway. I excuse no one, the human mind is perverse and it is reflected in the headlines that attract readers to newspapers.
The current issue of a dive magazine, something of an advertorial for travel and dive equipment that poses as editorial copy, where undisclosed relationships of freebies and advertising dollars drive the coverage, has a shark on the cover. How did the photographer get that picture? Feeding brings them in and the Abernathy's of this world cash in on the desire of divers and photographers to seek sharks up close. Same is true with dolphin encounters. I know people who have grown wealthy by having dolphin swim programs. Rarely do the dolphins butt or injure people with their snoots or flukes but it does happen. What keeps the dolphins happy is food.
I knew the late Peter Benchley, author of Jaws. To his dying day he advocated shark preservation and regretted the misnomers about sharks created in his book and the film production that popularized it. "Sharks have an important role to play in nature," Benchley told me. "It is unnatural to feed them. Worse to kill them because we are afraid of them and must kill what we fear."
Shark populations have decreased dramatically in the world's oceans. Many reasons but mostly because of overfishing. Sharks are very slow to reproduce. Sport fishermen take sharks, now under some restrictions in U.S. waters, offshore long liners and licensed shark fishermen take them in large numbers to sell their fins and other parts to Asian markets for soup and aphrodisiacs. Some kill sharks for the macho photos they take next to opened jaws on the dock, a conquest of human strength over wild beast.
Shellfish have all but disappeared in the Chesapeake Bay and other areas. Too many sting rays. Sharks eat rays. No sharks, lots of rays. Lots of rays, less scallops. Everything has a role to play in nature, probably even human beings. Commercial interests and greed make us less interested in being human and more like outlaws in the natural environment.
John Christopher Fine is a marine biologist and Master Scuba Instructor and Instructor Trainer. He has authored 24 books. His research and studies have created awareness for ocean conservation worldwide.