Sharks must be treated with respect
Byron Stout • bstout@news-press.com • February 27, 2008

Sunday's fatal shark attack in the Bahamas on an Austrian diver completely vindicates the 2001 decision by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to ban the kind of activity that led to the incident. I am reluctant to refer to it as an accident.

According to McClatchy News Service, the diver was on a seven-day excursion called the "Great Hammerhead and Tiger Shark Expedition." During such excursions, sharks are attracted to divers by chumming - dumping fish oils, blood and chunks into the water.

The owner of the dive service, Jim Abernethy's Scuba Adventures, claimed he hadn't had an accident in 25 years. But previous FWC deliberations showed the shark-feeding business certainly wasn't without risk.

According to the International Shark Attack File kept at the Florida Museum of Natural History, by 2001 at least 12 divers had been bitten during shark feeding activities. Which, some would say, was getting what you asked for if you signed up (literally, signed a hold-harmless agreement) to participate in such "adventures."

But the commission's considerations went further. The problem was that other divers, not involved in shark feeding, had been bitten by sharks in the areas where they were habituated to feeding and associated humans with food.

The sharks apparently had some difficulty distinguishing between innocent divers and those tempting fate - much less those engaged in spearfishing - so the FWC wisely curtailed the whole "predator feeding" biz.

Which brings us to the not-so-innocent species advertised by Abernethy, who runs across the Gulf Stream to Bahamian waters for his trips. The "adventure" sharks he advertises are common to local Gulf waters.

Bull and tiger sharks are just plain dangerous - implicated in hundreds of worldwide attacks on humans over the years. Tigers frequently feed on sea turtles, amputating their limbs in methodical attacks in open water. Humans are simply slower, softer versions of sea turtles.

Bulls also are big-prey eaters, designed to take bold scoops of the best available flesh - tarpon, other sharks, dolphins or whatever. It's just not wise to tempt them.

Great hammerheads, which become locally abundant during the May-June peak of tarpon season, are not as often implicated in attacks on humans. But they are huge, with the speed to run down free-swimming tarpon and bite the man-size fish in half.

I know of two local incidents in which monstrous hammerheads took issue with fishing boats and attacked the propellers - ruining the prop on a 200-horse outboard in one instance - without apparent serious injury to themselves.

But in these days of cable TV and incredible videos of shark interactions with divers, it is easy to forget the sharks aren't paid actors, bound by human constraints. Easy, but unwise.

When it comes to diving with sharks, I think Aretha Franklin's admonition is best.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T.