Tourists still dive with sharks even after deadly attack in Bahamas

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It was a smooth ride from a marina in northern Palm Beach County, Fla., as the 65-foot boat Shear Water carried American and Canadian tourists toward the Bahamas.

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It was a smooth ride from a marina in northern Palm Beach County, Fla., as the 65-foot boat Shear Water carried American and Canadian tourists toward the Bahamas. After anchoring by a reef, the crew placed crates of bloody fish parts in the water, and guests donned scuba gear and went over the side.

A 10-foot great hammerhead shark swam under the boat. Nearby swarmed about 30 lemon sharks, reef sharks and tiger sharks, according to a blog about the trip last month by Jim Abernethy, the boat’s captain. As the divers watched, a 14-foot female tiger shark seized one of the crates in its jaws, crushed it and sucked out its contents.

The thrilling encounter with the ocean’s top predators came off without trouble, but in February a shark killed one of Abernethy’s clients in an event that led many experts to question the wisdom of placing people, fish parts and sharks in close proximity. Despite the death and calls to ban the dives, Abernethy quickly returned to the business of taking tourists for cage-free encounters with large sharks.

During the next few months, he has scheduled six trips to dive with great hammerheads and tiger sharks. There were no legal actions from the fatal attack. The victim’s family did not sue. The Bahamas has taken no steps to end the dives, although a spokeswoman says action remains possible.

“I can assure you this is still under review,” said Anita Patty, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Tourism. “What you’re talking about is changing policy. We will definitely stay on top of it.”

The fatal attack took place off the Bahamas on Feb. 24 when a shark bit lawyer Markus Groh on the leg. His death, the first and only one reported from such dives, drew worldwide publicity. Some shark experts and dive operators called on the Bahamas to ban cage-free dives with big sharks, saying chumming the water to attract the sharks alters shark behavior, putting other swimmers at risk and changing the marine environment. Florida banned such dives in 2001.

Veronika Spies, the sister of the victim of February’s fatal bite, said she had no objection to Abernethy’s continuing the shark dives.

“I think he can do whatever he wants,” said Spies, a cancer researcher in Seattle. “And if people do it, it’s their choice. Lots of people offer risky things, and people undertake risky things for themselves. I don’t think people should judge.”

Abernethy declined comment for this article, saying he has been asked by the family not to talk to the media. But his supporters, including many conservationists, portray his trips as enlightening expeditions that dispel myths about sharks at a time when their populations worldwide are being devastated by demand in China for shark fin soup.

“If people understand the magnificence and plight of sharks, they have a better chance of getting international protection,” said Neil Hammerschlag, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science who has been on Abernethy’s dives. “He was obviously very upset about the death. He felt in some ways he may have helped create a negative image for sharks.”

Hammerschlag, who last went on a dive over the summer, said Abernethy conducts extensive safety briefings and allows only a few people in the water at a time. Some sharks hang back, swimming around the perimeter of the divers. Others come close enough to touch.

“It’s awe-inspiring, thrilling, exciting,” Hammerschlag said. “It’s exciting because you’re in the water with very large predators. And they’re there for the same reason you are: They’re curious and they’re there to check you out.”

Abernethy knows many of the individual sharks in the dive areas. “Before lunch we had six different tiger sharks including some of our favorite supermodels, Begonia, Relentless and Kimberly,” he wrote in his blog of a November dive. “All the guests now know what tiger sharks are truly like. At this moment they are talking about how sad it is that people portray them as such monsters.”

George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, said such dives alter the environment by concentrating large predators in one place, and he questioned the conservation value of viewing sharks that have been virtually trained to tolerate people.

“What you’re essentially seeing is an underwater circus. It’s like seeing tigers jump through hoops,” he said. “I don’t buy the argument that this is making converts for sharks. What it is is putting money in the bank by making people come to your boat instead of someone else’s.”

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.