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Shark Huggers

Markus Groh felt uneasy aboard the M/V Shear Water. A buddy had talked him into booking a six-night trip on the charter boat with nine other Austrians to scuba-dive with sharks in the Bahamas. There would be dead fish in the water to attract the big boys — tiger sharks, lemon sharks, hammerheads, and bull sharks — and there would be no cages to protect the divers. Only wetsuits. It would be the experience of a lifetime.

So there he was on the morning of February 24, about to step off a 65-foot watercraft and into the ocean. At 49, Groh was handsome and healthy. His nimble, 5-foot-9 frame carried just 147 pounds, and his long, thick, black locks were turning gray. Back home in Vienna, he was a lawyer and a divorced father of an 11-year-old girl. Out there above the aquamarine wilderness, he was an adventurer. Groh took the plunge.

Groh and two other Austrian divers settled 80 feet below the surface and positioned themselves around a plastic crate filled with fish bits. Smelling dinner, a gang of stockily built bull sharks arrived. The species has a thug reputation: They tend to be tough and territorial, greeting potential prey with headbutts. The Austrians were trespassing in the bulls' underwater kingdom.

Shortly after 9 a.m., dive master Grey O'Hara descended with a fresh crate of bait. He saw the Austrians lying supine on the sandy bottom, 20 feet apart, snapping pictures of the sharks weaving among them. O'Hara lashed the crate to a weight at the end of a rope dangling from the surface. The crate settled onto the ocean floor, just ten feet from Groh. Suddenly a seven-foot-long bull shark bumped the chum box with its snout, nudging it perilously close to Groh.

O'Hara, anticipating trouble, rushed toward his client. A mere two feet separated bait from human. In an instant, a sand cloud filled the cobalt depths, obscuring the horror of a shark sinking its teeth into Groh's left calf muscle, slashing through arteries and veins. Groh rolled on his back in an effort to shake the shark. O'Hara grabbed his customer's tank and kicked the shark — one, two, three times. The shark released Groh and swam away placidly.

O'Hara rushed the injured tourist to the surface. Once onboard the Shear Water, Groh passed out. He was bleeding profusely. The crew and passengers, surrounded by scuba tanks on deck, swaddled him in blankets and raised the shredded leg above his heart. They poured a coagulant powder into the gaping eight-inch wound in order to staunch the bleeding. The boat's captain, Jim Abernethy, radioed the U.S. Coast Guard for help.

The wait must have been unbearable. The Shear Water — surrounded by water as far as the eye could see — was anchored 65 miles east of the trauma centers of South Florida. The nearest landmark was a rock formation known as Great Isaac's Light, notable only for its abandoned lighthouse. At one point, Groh's heart stopped. The crew administered CPR. Abernethy told his passengers that, in 25 years of organizing shark dives, he "never believed this would ever happen."

The Coast Guard chopper arrived at 10:20 a.m., 50 minutes after receiving the distress call. O'Hara accompanied a still-unconscious Groh to Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where the diver was pronounced dead at 11:33 a.m.

The Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner declared the death accidental and listed the cause as "exsanguination." Groh had bled to death.

Apart from inspiring tasteless lawyer jokes on Internet message boards, the incident stirred calls for the Bahamas to ban shark diving.

The world's love-hate relationship with sharkdom has created a sprawling, often bizarre industry of shark adventures, from vicious killing expeditions to face-to-face encounters designed to debunk the animal's scary image. Even legitimate scientists are getting in on the act by turning their facilities into entertainment venues for wide-eyed diving tourists hungry to rendezvous with the creatures.

Practically every day of the week, dive masters lead tourists into Bahamian waters to interact with wild sharks. From several feet away, the spectacle is like an underwater circus. Plenty of tourists climb into the invisible ring to caress shark bellies and tails. Typically, the spectators emerge with dazzling photographs, a newfound appreciation for sharks, and one hell of a fish tale to share with the folks back home. Sometimes would-be shark huggers have experiences akin to religious epiphanies.

The waters around South Florida are a mecca for shark observation and research. More than a dozen species call this region home at least part of the year, especially during mating season. Their migrations along Florida's coasts make for spectacular aerial images and lure shark lovers from across the globe who yearn to get up-close-and-personal with these majestic predators. But, as Groh's fate indicates, these adrenaline-filled comminglings can have lethal consequences.

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Amy Guthrie
Contact: Amy Guthrie

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