The captain of the ship that appeared in the video, an irascible lifelong Keys shark fisherman named Peter Boehm, says he fired McLaughlin, whom New Times couldn't reach for comment. "The video is a bunch of crap. It's not what I'm about. I run a legitimate business here."

But Boehm, who some scientists criticize for being far too aggressive with sharks, admits the shotgun blasts are typical. "What do you think happens?" he asks. "How is that any different than a slaughterhouse? Do you eat meat? How do you expect us to fish for a living? Animals have to be killed. As far as shooting sharks, there is no other way to really handle them."


The Giant Stride — a white, double-decker, 42-foot dive boat — rumbles along six miles southeast of Islamorada's Bud n' Mary's Marina. In the stern, a slight man with frizzy hair and freckles addresses a gaggle of high school kids. Dressed in matching neon-orange Crocs and University of Miami hat, Neil Hammerschlag smears sunscreen on his pale skin as he speaks about disappearing sharks and the fragile ecosystems where they dwell.

Mike McLaughlin introduces his shark-hunting video and then shoots and skewers the bad boys.
Photo by Michael E. Miller
Mike McLaughlin introduces his shark-hunting video and then shoots and skewers the bad boys.
A still from Mike McLaughlin's shark-hunting video.
Photo by Michael E. Miller
A still from Mike McLaughlin's shark-hunting video.

As the boat chugs toward a bright-orange buoy, the students crowd into the stern and a ghostly outline forms in the waters below. For five minutes, a crew member reels in a heavy line until finally the water erupts and a six-and-a-half-foot sandbar shark bursts through the surface as if gasping for air.

Hammerschlag and two other team members swiftly slide the shark onto the boat, where it whips its powerful tail against a crew member's leg. The scientist straddles it like an aquatic cowboy, thrusting his small hands down onto the convulsing creature's head to keep it from turning and attacking. "A sandbar!" he shouts, referring to the species of shark. "Hi-yo!"

He is the nemesis of shark killers such as Boehm and McLaughlin. The founder of UM's R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, Hammerschlag makes it his mission to catch, examine, and tag as many sharks as possible. He and his colleagues not only track the creatures — they recently traced one all the way to New Jersey — but also check levels of mercury and other toxins the sharks have absorbed from atop the food chain.

Hammerschlag goes out tagging twice a week in the Keys. He begins every expedition aboard the Giant Stride with an explanation to ten or so students about why he has devoted his life to saving sharks. It's a sort of prayer before holy shark communion.

"One hundred million sharks are killed every year," he begins today. "That's 270,000 a day. The problem with that is they can't reproduce fast enough to deal with that kind of overfishing... In the last 50 years, 90 percent of the world's sharks have disappeared, mainly to make soup — shark fin soup." His voice is tinged with anger. "It has no taste, no nutritional value. But in China, it's like caviar: a status symbol."

Hammerschlag has loved the torpedo-like predators since he was a child living in South Africa. Born in Johannesburg, he vacationed with his electrical-engineer father and beautician mother in Durban on the western edge of the Indian Ocean. Instead of playing on the beach, Hammerschlag stayed on the dock and watched fishermen slit open the massive sharks they had caught. He was enthralled.

When he was 7, his family moved to Toronto, where Hammerschlag grew up. But he remained fascinated by sharks. At age 15, he persuaded his parents to send him to the Bahamas, where he went on his virgin shark dive.

"I was scared," he admits. "But I was the first one in the water." After attending college in Toronto, Hammerschlag moved to Miami to study marine science at UM. A master's degree quickly became a Ph.D. and then a teaching position. He met his wife, a pretty Swiss blond named Caroline Peyer, on a dive trip. Since they were married two years go, Caroline has become a shark researcher too. The couple plan to name their children for different varieties of the species.

Hammerschlag has made headlines around the world for his research on sharks. In 2009, he published a paper about the hunting strategies of great whites. While watching sharks devour Cape fur seals, he realized the attacks weren't as random as commonly thought. Instead, older sharks acted like underwater assassins, learning the best hiding spots and carefully positioning themselves deep enough to develop the speed necessary to hit the surface and catch unsuspecting seals.

Last year, Hammerschlag hosted a "Summit at Sea" for celebrities including Sir Richard Branson. Also in 2010, he received death threats after defending the bull sharks that devoured 38-year-old Stephen Schafer while Schafer was kiteboarding near Stuart. Though there were 11-inch chunks torn from Schafer's thighs and buttocks, Hammerschlag told newspapers that "deadly shark attacks are very rare" and that the fish "usually don't bite people unless provoked."

"I wince every time there is an attack," he says now. "It's never good, for sharks or for people."

Hammerschlag's efforts to protect sharks have also made him enemies among local shark fishermen, including Boehm. Last year, the shark hunter unexpectedly phoned Hammerschlag to say he had found a shark tag belonging to the scientist. Then Boehm asked him how much he would pay for it, Hammerschlag says.

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