Friday, March 28, 2008

Balancing Media-Bahamas Shark Attack

The media grabbed last months unfortunate shark attack in the Bahamas and chewed on it with a ferocity reserved only for Michael Viks vast Pit Bull Empire. It was, for a time, the shark story that would not go away.

Additionally, anyone during that month with a shark film to flog, pictures to sell, and anti-shark diving websites to promote did the same. The word "Circus" came to mind.

Once again the media is running with this story just in time for the spring dive charter season from the Red Sea to the Caribbean. What makes this story interesting is the reporting balance that is attempted here. This is the first time we have seen a story that even tries to take a look at the nuances involved in this highly charged issue.

The headline's a grabber, but the body has some interesting points both pro and con. It would be nice to see more of this kind of reporting and less of the rest.

In the end it will be up to the Bahamian Government and not the dive operations or even paying divers to decide how much liability they will be willing to accept in the name of cage-less big predator encounters.

Swimming with sharks: is it ever safe?

The death of an Austrian tourist bitten during an organised shark-safari dive off the Bahamas has reignited arguments about the safety of such pursuits.

Markus Groh, a 49-year-old lawyer from Vienna, was one of 10 scuba divers aboard the MV Shear Water, a charter boat operating from West Palm Beach, Florida, which embarked on a shark-safari expedition on February 24.

He was bitten on the left leg by a bull shark and taken by a US Coastguard helicopter to a hospital in Florida, 60 miles away. The Miami-Dade County medical examiner found that he had died from loss of blood.

According to an eyewitness, Groh was diving north of Great Isaac Cay, an uninhabited islet in the Bahamas, where sharks had been lured by plastic crates filled with fish heads and scraps placed near the reef by the Shear Water crew. On these dives large sharks and divers are in close proximity, and the divers do not use a safety cage. The attraction is that photographers get action shots of rarely seen predatory species including tiger sharks, bull sharks and great hammerheads.

Immediately after being bitten, Groh was taken to the surface by a dive guide and given first aid on the dive boat. Air evacuation was carried out within the hour but, in spite of clotting agents being applied to the wound, Groh bled to death.

Jim Abernethy’s Scuba Adventures, which operates the Shear Water vessel, is well known for its shark safaris to the Bahamas from Florida, where shark-feeding was banned in 2001. The Scuba Adventures’ website warns that “shark diving is a potentially dangerous activity”, and that the sharks will be attracted by “chumming the water with fish and fish parts to ensure the best results. Consequently, there will be food in the water at the same time as divers.”

Following the fatality, the Bahamas Diving Association said it had issued a letter discouraging dive operators from open-water diving without a cage with 10 species of potentially dangerous sharks - including tiger sharks, bull sharks and hammerhead sharks. This seems disingenuous given that most of these species have rarely been proven to prey on humans. Cage diving is not the same experience, and is usually only carried out with great white sharks whose behaviour is less predictable.

Shark-feeding is not illegal in the Bahamas and several local dive operators have, for many years, been safely conducting what are commonly known as “shark rodeos”, where dive guides feed sharks. I have taken part in numerous such dives, which are extremely exciting and a valuable opportunity for divers to study sharks at close range with experienced dive leaders.

However, most organised shark dives do not allow ''free chumming’’ where fish parts are scattered from a boat in advance to attract sharks. Some operators use a “chumsickle” a frozen block of fish scraps that thaws slowly underwater allowing very limited amounts of food to be released in front of the sharks. Others distribute bait, which is handled only by a shark wrangler in a protective suit who distributes it intermittently among the sharks a safe distance from the watching divers.

Chumming for sharks has attracted controversy in several parts of the world, including South Africa, where some experts argue that great white sharks are learning to associate the sound of boat engines and shark cages with the presence of food. However, with sharks increasingly endangered, and large specimens of most species becoming rarer, scuba divers are prepared to pay a lot to see them. The British company Divequest charges about £3,000 for a week-long shark expedition on Shear Water. The company aims to “maximise time spent in the water and in front of big sharks, as close as you want...”

American media reports of the attack have questioned the wisdom of divers getting into the water with large sharks, especially bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas), which are widely regarded as among the most aggressive species. It was a bull shark that bit Erich Ritter, the shark expert, in the Bahamas in 2002, when he was making a documentary about how unlikely sharks were to bite a human.

Nevertheless, most divers would argue that the death of one diver, however sad, is statistically insignificant when set against the number of safe encounters between divers and sharks. The International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida records, on average, fewer than 200 attacks a year worldwide, of which less than five per cent involve divers. By comparison, pet dogs account for almost 1,000 admissions a day to hospitals in the United States alone.

“People should be free to engage in activities that have a perceived risk,” said Simon Rogerson, editor of the British Sub Aqua Club magazine Dive. “If we restrict shark diving, then we would have to argue that deep diving or cave diving should also be forbidden. There are many things that divers do that are more dangerous than diving with big sharks.”

John Bantin, chief correspondent for Diver magazine, is equally reluctant to warn divers off shark encounters. “It’s easy to be wise after an accident,” he said. “Sharks are wild creatures with a degree of unpredictability, just like lions or buffalo. People get killed on safari but we don’t try to ban bushwalking following accidents that occur where professionals are leading tours.”

We continue to find sharks the most fascinating of sea creatures. I, for one, am in awe of them, and will always try to see them underwater. No creature has their grace or pure power and there is an undeniable thrill in meeting one. In their element, they are our superiors - and that is precisely why we are excited to see them.

Thanks to recreational divers, we understand that most sharks choose to avoid humans most of the time. Occasionally, there is a misunderstanding and someone gets bitten - but very rarely preyed upon. Markus Groh was not foolish to be in the water near sharks. With the evidence available, it seems he was just unlucky.


Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that "Scuba Adventures" is still a going concern.

All those shark tour people may be "Darwin Award" enablers, but that doesn't make it right.

It's a grotesque money-making scheme that needs to be stopped.

Shark Diver said...

Not sure we agree with you on that one but, at least on this blog, you sir, are ENTITLED to your say.

terry said...

It's actually not surprising at all, when you consider Abernathy's stellar reputation in the dive community.

I would also counter that shark diving - a wonderful pursuit and a wonderful reminder that humans are NOT the center of the universe - is less a "Darwin Award" activity than driving or walking along any city street in this country (US). Several people were shot to death on highways just last week, and that's not including all the random wrecks and pedestrian accidents that happen every day.

I'm far more worried about my fellow humans than I am sharks.....

terry said...

(PS - you mention "grotesque money making scheme"s that "need(s) to be stopped"; hmmm, how about factory farming, coal-burning plants, slave labor for US imports, and give-away government contracts to people who routinely LOSE the money on the way to their offshore banks? If people want to sharkdive, what the hell do you care?)

Anonymous said...

You have to take into account the nut jobs who came out of the woodwork to defend Jimmy after this tragedy. From the wetpixel ravers to a bunch of women who communed with these animals for a film everyone had an opinion and no one was listening to reason.

Didn't Eric Cheng get de-lsited from Scuba Diving Magazine over this?

Anonymous said...

I am not pretending to be a shark expert. I know them since 45 years now because I started to swim and dive at the age of 4. The sea has always been my work place as well as my entertainment, my fridge and I cannot live without it. I learned the rules of the ocean and to survive alone on desert islands of the far south pacific because natives or autochthones taught me and I am one of them. I have been attacked myself many times by sharks or I was next to people that were attack also. Sometimes it ended ok but some other times it had happened to end tragically. Knowing the elementary rules and mistakes that should not being done in presence of sharks under water, I can affirm that they are many unpredictable aggressions that are not explainable in any way. Over there, when we are in the sea, we watch around. Instinctively we know, we feel our environment and we don’t play or disrespect, especially with sharks. We don’t believe they do not eat human or not like to eat them because when a shark is hungry or angry…it eats and bites just like that on any thing. Like every wild animal, not showing fear is essential without or when an attack occurs; but you must withdraw especially when the signals triggers. I have seen once a shark feeding like crazy on a dead human body that was thrown at sea after funerals. I would not say they have little interest on human. Once, all for of us have been attack during a lobster fishing outside the reefs and we battled for 1 long hour against a very vicious 5 feet reef specimen (it was not even a tiger or a bull or a white). At one point the attack turned on the most experienced of us, he got his hand removed just like that! And while we were loading the victim on our speedboat, the shark ran after the other one of us that had climbed on the reefs and was chasing after him by less than a feet of seawater. I had been myself bitten in the back of my neck by surprise during an other day attack while I was facing three other sharks in front of me, trying to protect myself with my scuba fins and my spire gun. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time and not fast enough to leave. We have and we know plenty of stories like that, they are printed in our minds. Still, in the ocean with sharks, we do not play monkeys, we don’t speculate and we don’t try to be irresponsible. We know that has to do with vibrations, instincts, luck maybe. A shark is not even a grizzly bear or a lion. They don’t have the same patterns and they respond… like sharks, unpredictably for human evaluation! By the way, the biggest white I have seen in my life was with no doubt an 18 feet. I met him by 20 feet deep at the fall of the outside cliff of an atoll after having missing but wounded an epinephelus with my spire gun. It had sprung from the dark blue suddenly and unexpectedly in front of me with a big smile and dark eyes. In the same area couple days after, two 52 gallons empty gas drums + 1 fishing buoy attached to an 14 inch hook + dead murenas purely disappeared from the surface in front of us. You don’t fuck with the ocean you know!