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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Diver has a chilling encounter
By ED WALKER
Published November 20, 2004
There are not many divers who make a living spearfishing along the gulf coast.
One of the few is Dan Macmahon, who runs his boat, Headhunter, out of Hudson. Macmahon and his crew of veteran shooters work in water 100-200 feet deep, often more than 70 miles from shore. They hunt grouper (when in season), huge hogfish, snappers, amberjacks and a variety of others for the market.
These guys have witnessed things many other divers never will see. Territorial Goliath grouper grabbing their fish or parts of their bodies, black grouper 100-plus pounds and encounters with rare species such as the 10-foot blue marlin that circled them while ascending from a dive last year. And, yes, there are sharks. Where there are large numbers of fish, there often are sharks.
For the most part, the hunters keep out of their way. On extremely rare occasions, however, some sharks are just plain trouble. Such was the case for Headhunter diver Ritchie Zacker on a trip last week prior to the closure of the commercial grouper season. To hear him tell the story is quite chilling:
"Once I get to the spot, I see about 15 gags or so in front of me finning into the current. I shoot one and the others take off, so I proceed to the honey hole, only to find nothing home. I look back into the swift current to see that a few of the gags had come back to check me out. I quickly take aim and let one have it, only to watch it take off with the current.
"I take off the way the fish went. When I get to him, I decide to stringer him up. When I look up to glance around, I see the biggest shark that I've ever seen coming right at me. By the time I see him, he is only 10 feet from me and coming fast. I grab my gun and lift it to protect myself when it rams me so hard that the gun comes straight up against my chest and the shark is pushing me into the current like I'm not even there. "When I say the shark is pushing me, I mean pushing me hard and the only thing between the jaws of death and me is my trusty Sea Hornet (speargun). I had one hand on top of the gun and one under the handle bracing myself for the worst. The shark pushed me about 80 to 85 feet down the break into the current.
"It all happened so fast, but it felt like forever. In this time of shock or disbelief, I was thinking to myself that this was it for the ol' Ritchie. After the shark decided it had enough of me, it turned to go its way, but not fast enough for me not to get a good look at what this beast was. In my guess, it had to be at least 14 feet long and the beefiest Tiger shark I've ever seen."
Fortunately, the shark didn't come back after plowing Zacker through the water.
He managed to regain his composure, grab his stringer of fish and slowly make his ascent to the surface, where he sounded his dive alert horn, which signals an emergency to those on the boat. Soon, he was onboard trembling from the realization that he had just been attacked by a giant shark.
Zacker estimated the weight of the tiger to be 800 pounds.
Later that day and into the next, it was business as usual on the Headhunter. Zacker was back on the bottom hunting fish, although he says he was looking over his shoulder a lot more than he usually does.