Shark Huggers

Tourists can't wait to get next to them – even if they are eating machines

A soothing female voice narrates, "We've always loved to hate our monsters. And sharks are some of the scariest." Flash to another image: Flexible cartilage flips backward as a shark throws its jaws open in the direction of a black patch that's difficult to make out. Is it a fish? Chum on a stick? A diver's fin? The shark tears at the morsel with such swift force that the image becomes an indecipherable swirl of turbid white and gray dorsal, with a glimmer of sunshine beyond.

"We've been programmed to believe they're bloodthirsty killing machines," the narrator continues. Cut to an image of the divers kneeling on the sand, face-to-face with a gray beast. The shark tilts its body upward 45 degrees to avoid them. As the creature swishes over their heads, one diver reaches up to stroke its belly with her hand. "But sharks are also one of the most misunderstood and most hunted animals on the planet."

It's similar to the spiel offered by Captain Abernethy, who has refused to speak with media outlets, including New Times, in the wake of Markus Groh's death. His dive shop continues to operate day trips off the coast of Palm Beach. Inquiries about shark encounters get a frigid response from the shop's receptionists, though. Callers are informed that, in light of the Groh incident, the Shear Water won't be transporting passengers to shark haunts for some time.

Shutterstock.com
"Mark the Shark" Quartiano in his Biscayne Bay office
Amy Guthrie
"Mark the Shark" Quartiano in his Biscayne Bay office

According to his company website, www.scuba-adventures.com, Abernethy "dives every day, and each day is like his first." The site says he is a Florida native who has worked as a dive boat captain and scuba instructor since 1981, and has been diving off the Palm Beaches and the Bahamas for more than 30 years.

Abernethy has long spoken out about the supposed benefits of feeding, and then swimming with, sharks. "[Chum dives] provide people with firsthand knowledge of what the species is all about. We are teaching people that sharks are beautiful creatures that need to be protected," he told a reporter in 2000.

Then, in the summer of 2001, a few high-profile attacks (on surfers in Volusia County, an 8-year-old in the Panhandle, and a Wall Street banker in the Bahamas) convinced Florida officials they should pass a law against chumming during shark dives. Some marine conservationists were equating chum dives with forbidden feedings of other wildlife, such as bears and alligators. Florida spearfishers and lobster divers were also opposed to chum diving, saying the practice taught sharks to equate humans with food.

As Florida wildlife officials mulled a statewide ban on shark chumming, Abernethy told a news crew: "I don't think there's a shark in the world that would bite you unless he was confused." Florida banned shark-feeding dives in September 2001. At the time, only three dive shops even offered such excursions. One of them was Jeff Torode's South Florida Diving Headquarters in Pompano Beach. Torode says the law was a political ploy and that concerns about feeding sharks are overblown. "A fishing boat can pull up right next to us and put chum in the water, and that's legal," he explains. "If you can put fish in the water to kill them, why not to look at them?"

Torode scrapped his shark dives when they were banned in Florida. But Abernethy simply changed locales, carrying passengers from Palm Beach County to the waters of the Bahamas.

February was a busy month for the folks at Jim Abernethy's Scuba Adventures. The Shear Water was booked with three consecutive trips for "European shark enthusiasts," as Abernethy refers to the passengers in entries in his Captain's Blog on the company website. The post about the February 1 voyage employs church words such as blessed and prayers, as if the charter captain were unveiling a new religion:

"The water was clear and the sharks were plentiful... At the end of the trip, we were blessed with 150 feet of visibility at Tiger Beach... Roughly 12 tigers and 30 lemon sharks showed up for the event, answering our prayers after the rough weather."

In fact many passengers who traverse the Gulf Stream with Abernethy to convene with sharks return to land as born-again converts. They recite the mantra that sharks are mellow creatures worthy of reverence, not bloodthirsty terrors eligible for indiscriminate slaughter.

In a blog entry recounting the events of the Shear Water's February 11 sailing, Abernethy introduces some esteemed members of his cast of underwater characters. There's a 14-foot tiger shark named Emma, which Abernethy calls "our superstar." Alas, for the second consecutive week, Emma was a no-show in February. "Hopefully she is off on a very well-deserved vacation after working so hard since we met her a little over four years ago," Abernethy muses. Or perhaps she tired of "working" for fish scraps.

Abernethy adds that his crew had prepared a "special treat" for Emma that they instead gave to a new supermodel they named Angel. Oh, but that Angel sure is a wily one! Abernethy goes on to recount how the new fish made off with a diver's Canon 5D camera — though thankfully not his hand.

That was Abernethy's last post on the blog. But other divers swear they've seen the Shear Water out at Tiger Beach, a popular spot in the Bahamas for mingling with sharks. And on the website www.wetpixel.com, underwater photographer Eric Cheng has posted an announcement of an Abernethy-led "expedition" that departs July 19 from Palm Beach County. The eight-night voyage costs $3,870 and is open to only eight divers.

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