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The debate over cageless shark dives rages after a man is killed in the Bahamas.
WEST PALM BEACH - Ask any shark diver why he does it, and the answer is quick and simple - the thrill.
From Cape Town to California, Florida and the Bahamas, adventurous divers can slip into the ocean with an experienced guide to observe some of the world's fiercest predators.
But some say the search for a thrill has gone too far: baiting the water with bloody fish parts and getting face to face to the most aggressive species without cages or protective gear. An Austrian tourist on this kind of dive was fatally bitten by a shark this week.
Bans on feeding sharks in Florida and federal waters have pushed some shark diving companies to the Bahamas, about 50 miles off the coast, where 49-year-old Austrian lawyer Markus Groh's tour took him Sunday. He was bitten on the leg and died a day later.
Critics liken the practice to feeding bears or any other wild predator, and say the more contact sharks have with people, the more likely they are to attack.
But others say such attacks are rare and that the dives, popular among international tourists as well as adventurous Americans, actually help educate people about sharks and conservation.
"People just misunderstand these creatures," said Sonja Fordham, director of the Ocean Conservancy's shark conservation program, who advocates some shark dives.
Groh's death was the first reported fatality from a shark attack during feeding, said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File.
Burgess fiercely opposes feeding wild sharks under any circumstances, claiming it turns them into "trained circus animals."
"Ecotourism for animals is a great concept, but it is most successful in situations where people watch their natural behaviors from afar and not intrude," Burgess said.
Fears about diver safety and altering shark behavior led Florida to ban feeding sharks in 2001. It's also banned in Hawaii and in federal waters, which generally begin just beyond a state's three-mile territory and extend about 200 miles out.
Many operators in the Caribbean take divers to reefs in shallow water where less aggressive sharks, such as black tips, feed. Some also use cages or metal suits to protect divers.
The problem, Burgess said, is that some tour operators take risks to lure clients by offering a chance to get closer to the bigger, more unpredictable sharks such as bulls, lemons and tigers - species responsible for most attacks worldwide.
Groh's tour with Scuba Adventures of Riviera Beach was just such a trip, with no cages, chum in the water and diving in the deep, open ocean.
The dive company has been criticized by the Bahamas Diving Association, which sent a letter last year urging it to stop conducting "open-water, non-cage shark diving experiences with known species of potentially dangerous sharks."
"It reached the point where it wasn't a matter of if but when an incident was going to occur," said Neal Watson, the association president.
Scuba Adventures' operators have declined comment about the attack or their business.
The Ocean Conservancy has a more moderate position on feeding in general, noting that sharks face a far greater threat from fishing worldwide. Getting people up close to sharks in the wild can help dispel myths that they are monsters, Fordham said.
"Shark feeding in the grand scheme of conservation is not a big threat," she said, adding that it still should be done with limited interaction and should not involve the aggressive species.
"When something like this attack happens, we step backward in terms of the public image of sharks," Fordham said.
Keith Rogers, owner of Dive Abaco in the Bahamas, has been leading shark diving expeditions for more than a decade.
While his clients are not caged and don't wear protective gear, he operates tours only in about 50 feet of water along the reefs where bigger, more aggressive sharks are rare.
Rogers cited benefits, including that his clients leave "no longer considering sharks as predators of man."
"And it's definitely exciting," he said. "When the divers come up, they're thrilled to death."
[Last modified March 1, 2008, 22:56:15]