Shark Practice

A sudden spate of attacks by sharks has struck terror into Florida's tourists this summer.
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The Independent US

As Jeff Torode manoeuvred his scuba-diving boat out from its dock one recent afternoon, he did the equivalent of those last-minute destination checks that you sometimes get on aeroplanes.

As Jeff Torode manoeuvred his scuba-diving boat out from its dock one recent afternoon, he did the equivalent of those last-minute destination checks that you sometimes get on aeroplanes. "We are on a shark dive today. Everyone does know that, right? Anyone who needs to go back, say so now!" You would think that every last one of us would have screamed to be let off. But no, we nodded at him and smiled.

So there we were, 38 apparently sane souls heading out to the open ocean off the coast of Florida in search of the one species of fish normal people would very much like never to see, unless in an aquarium. There were some serious diving folk fiddling ceaselessly with the tubes and valves on their oxygen bottles, and then there were mums and dads and kids. There was Martin, 40, for example, a teacher from Ramsgate, Kent, and an experienced diver. He had left his wife back at the hotel, "checking my life insurance policy". But there was also Jacob, from Fort Myers, who was 12.

Jacob, it turned out, had done this before and knew the drill. Once tied to our buoy half a mile from the shore at Pompano Beach, just north of Fort Lauderdale, we would all plop in the water and head to the sea-bed 15ft below. Jeff, the skipper and part-owner of the South Florida Diving Headquarters, the scuba diving outfit running the trip, would get everyone sitting in a semicircle to wait for Scot. (Those not certified – me and one other guy – would stay on the surface with snorkel gear.) Scot Dickerson was the shark-feeder, who would make sure we got what we had come for – a close encounter with a shark. "I was scared at first. But once you get down there, it's awesome," Jacob said, trying to reassure me.

It was kind of the kid, but it didn't work. There are lots of ways to explore the frontiers of your fear, and, frankly, I am not fond of any of them. I remained especially baffled, however, by the appeal of shark-feeding, which has become one of the fastest-growing attractions here in south Florida and in the nearby Bahamas. Just recently, it has also turned into one of the most controversial tourist activities. Florida has seen a spate of highly-publicised shark attacks recently, and some people are beginning to see a connection between the attacks and the suddenly popular shark-feeding safaris like the one I was taking.

However, details of the debate, which has prompted some state politicians to try to ban shark-feeding altogether, were not uppermost in my mind as I got into the water. "Jeff, got the morphine on board?" one of the more macho divers piped up, attempting morbid humour. Moments later, as I bobbed around and fretted about my mask fogging up, Jeff appeared alongside me with interesting news. "Look, there's one down there already," he said breezily. And with that he vanished beneath the waves. There it was. The fearful outline of its fins and snout was unmistakable. Silently cruising right underneath me was a grown nurse shark that was perhaps eight feet long. I reacted in several ways. I started to giggle and to breathe very fast. I was also overcome with a desperate need to pee in the water, but wondered if I should. The merest whiff of urine, it occurred to me, might send the sharks into a feeding frenzy. Above all, I started to wonder what I would have done, had I been alone with that fish. The answer was obvious: I would have thrashed about madly, screamed my lungs out and had a heart attack.

Nurse sharks are docile and rarely bother humans. Indeed, most species of shark will leave us alone, unless we somehow antagonise or threaten them. "Humans are not on their menu," was how Torode put it. The Great Whites are the obvious exception. But right at that moment, none of that soothing science mattered to me. Nor was I impressed with the statistic that says you are more likely to be struck by lightning than eaten by a shark. My mind was filling with images from Jaws, the 1975 horror epic by Steven Spielberg, with its awful, two-note score – "Ta-duh, tah-duh" – and the slogan "Don't go in the water". I was in the water already, and there was a shark right underneath me. No wonder I was giggling.

But then, instead of sheer panic, curiosity took hold of me. I forced my breathing to slow down and turned my gaze below to watch Scot drawing five sharks into the semicircle of divers. They came to him, obviously, because of the food – bloody morsels of fish called chum, packed into a short PVC tube that he held in his right hand. For 30 minutes he strung the sharks along, allowing them only occasional slurps at the pipe. (Nurse sharks have blunt teeth and suck the flesh from their victims – another Torode titbit that I had not found entirely reassuring.) We had been instructed to avoid touching the sharks but, of course, nearly everyone succumbed to the temptation to reach out and discover what a shark feels like.

Up on the surface, looking down, we snorkellers remained mere spectators. Shortly before finishing, however, Scot remembered us and brought the tube of chum – and the sharks – up towards us. I dived down to meet them. And suddenly, there I was, face to face with the largest of the sharks. Its eyes and mine seem to lock for a second and, had I wanted to, I, too, could have touched it. But suddenly I choked on a surge of adrenalin and rushed to the surface, lungs bursting.

This summer seems to have been declared – almost by media fiat – the "Summer of the Shark" (to borrow a Time magazine headline). It started on 6 July, when an eight-year-old boy from Mississippi, Jessie Arbogast, was pulled under by a shark in shallow water while playing on the beach in Florida. In a few, horrifying seconds, the fish tore the boy's arm from his shoulder and took a bite from one of his thighs. Drained of blood, he was helicoptered to a nearby hospital only after an uncle wrestled with the shark and a park ranger finally shot it in the head. His arm, retrieved from inside the shark's throat, was reattached after hours of surgery. Jessie is home now, but still in a coma.

Meanwhile, new reports of shark attacks in Florida come in almost daily. Officials in New Smyrna, near Daytona, this week ordered their beaches closed for a second week in a row. No fewer than 20 people, mostly surfers, have reported suffering shark bites at New Smyrna this year. Compared with what happened to Jessie Arbogast, the attacks there have all been minor. Probably blacktip and spinner sharks, chasing small fish in the shallows, were responsible for what were mostly bites to people's feet, none of them very much worse than nips from a dog.

But it has all added to the summer's shark hysteria. It may not even be true that this year has been especially bad. (Florida has always topped the tables when it comes to shark attacks. Of the 79 attacks on humans worldwide last year, 34 were in Florida.) But the perception has been created that it is. And politicians are beginning to search for a reason. Some are looking no further than Torode and the other shark-feeders.

The sharks, according to Charles Justice, a state representative who last week submitted a draft bill that would make shark-feeding illegal in all of Florida, are "associating humans with food". Indeed, he goes on, "the sound of boat engines mean food for sharks now". You can easily see what he and a fast-growing coalition of other interests who want the feedings banned are getting at. On the whole, we agree that it is a bad idea to feed grizzly bears in America's national parks, because it could encourage them to intrude on humans more often. And bears can be very dangerous. So doesn't the same follow for sharks?

It should, says George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, and a leading expert witness at recent hearings ­ organised by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission ­ on whether or not shark-feeding should be outlawed. (Further hearings are planned for this month.) Burgess stresses that most of the attacks happen when sharks mistake human beings for other types of prey in murky waters or poor light. That would be especially true of nurse sharks, the most docile of shark species. But Burgess says that he is nonetheless "not a fan" of the feeding safaris. He has recorded 24 occasions when participants in dives such as Torode's were wounded by a shark (including, recently, one reporter for NBC television). He also notes that the tours draw much higher than normal concentrations of sharks to areas that happen to be very close to popular beaches. "The more people you put in the water and the more sharks you put in the water, the greater the chances of them meeting. And on occasion, the sharks either will grab the human by mistake, or actually go after the human being as a food item."

However, Burgess does concede that there is unlikely to be a direct connection between the shark tours, all centred near Fort Lauderdale and Miami, and the attacks, which have mainly been either in Smyrna, 200 miles north, or Pensacola, on the Gulf Coast. This is what Torode, back on his boat, the Aqua View, wanted us to understand, too.

"Believe or not," he says, "this is not a shark frenzy that is going on right now, but a media-frenzy that is going on." The point of excursions like his ­ aside from earning him a living ­ is, he says, to "demystify some of the notions that you might have about sharks and help you to put aside some of the stigma there is out there about them, caused by Hollywood." Torode was especially excoriating about Charles Justice and the others who are pushing to have him put out of business. "We are just the scapegoats out here. The politicians are saying, 'We are going to be the saviours, we are going to rescue Florida's tourism and make it safe again.' Well, it's all bullshit."

It seems likely that the state, acting on whatever the Conservation Commission eventually recommends, will at least impose strict new controls on shark-feeding businesses and force them to seek sharks much further away from the shore. That alone, Torode says, would be the end of shark-feeding for him, because tourists with only limited diving experience would not be able to go down any further.

But as the Aqua View made its way back to the dock, none of this mattered much to us. We were grateful only that all limbs were intact and that the underwater cameras had worked. George Burgess has since told me, however, that he considers trips like Torode's more dangerous than even I had imagined. For one, he says, you never know when a different kind of shark, or an eel, might join the underwater picnic and be less polite about the presence of humans.

And then there is one thing that, for Burgess, is a "definite no-no". If you have to go shark-feeding, he says, do it properly ­ by diving to the bottom. Do not take part as a snorkeller. "You're on the surface of the water that way, and they can come at you from any angle." Right. Thank you. Cue Jaws music again.