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Close encounters

Divers intentionally test their nerve among dozens of sharks 75 feet below the surface.

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 31, 2001


RIVIERA BEACH -- The lad from Ireland didn't want to hear it.

"Sharks prey upon the young, sick and weak," I said as he dropped his scuba gear on the deck. "But they especially like the young."

The 15-year-old laughed and waved me off.

"No more shark jokes, please," Connor Kealy said. "Enough."

The media hysteria surrounding the recent string of encounters between surfers and sharks at Ponce de Leon Inlet 163 miles to the north hadn't dampened the spirits of 16 divers gathered for the weekly "shark roundup" offered by Jim Abernathy's Scuba Adventures.

The dive site, in 75 feet of water more than a mile from shore, is home to dozens of Caribbean reef sharks, labeled dangerous in many books and periodicals.

All sharks could be considered dangerous if you get too close to their mouths. Like dogs, some varieties have bad reputations -- pit bulls, Rottweilers, etc. -- but lest we not forget, poodles bite, too.

But on the fear scale of 1 to 10, with the plankton-eating Basking Shark at one end and the seal-chomping great white at the other, the Caribbean reef shark is something of a softie. Most divers don't give reef sharks a second thought unless they are engaged in a high-risk activity such as spearfishing.

"Nothing gets sharks going like a wounded fish," Abernathy said. "That is why on all of our shark dives we only use dead bait."

Sharks pick up the electrical impulses from wounded or dying fish. They go into a feeding mode, quite different from a scavenge mode, Abernathy said.

On the typical shark dive, one of Abernathy's crew takes a plastic milk carton filled with the carcasses of fresh yellowfin tuna and suspends it 10 feet from the bottom. The carton is sealed so the sharks can't get to the bait. They just swim in circles, occasionally taking a bite out of the plastic box.

"It is quite safe," Abernathy said. "We have had more than 2,400 dives without a single incident."

Still, there are those who would like to see the weekly shark dives stopped.

Several South Florida groups have petitioned the state. They say chumming for sharks is like feeding bears or alligators; the animals lose their fear of humans and change behavior.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will discuss the matter next week at its monthly meeting on Amelia Island.

"They blame us for surfers getting hit more than 100 miles away," he said. "It is ridiculous."

Richard Finkus, a local diver and self professed shark lover, agreed. "It is like going to watch the Daytona 500 and on the way home, you get into an car accident. They both involve automobiles. They must be related."

Seventy-five feet below the surface off Palm Beach, the sharks appear as if on cue. The divers, heavily weighted in the strong current, sit on the sand about 20 feet away and watch the sharks swim back and forth.

A 6-foot reef shark swims by on my right, and I reach out and run my finger along its side, feeling its rough skin. The animal seems not to care.

For 10 minutes the sharks swim in and out of the circle of divers, taking the occasional swipe at the bait box. One shark lingers too long and is bumped by another. Another sweeps in, takes a shot and gets the whole pack going. For 15 seconds or so, the sharks whirl around in a frenzy. As quickly as it started, it stops. Back on board, I can't wait to share my excitement.

"Did you see those sharks," I tell my new friend Connor. "They were so close you could touch them."

The $65 dive was well worth the money, he says, but he points to my knee.

"What happened to you?" he asks.

The skin was red and blistering. I had been preoccupied with the sharks and didn't notice I had run into a jellyfish or stinging coral.

"It's really starting to hurt," I tell him.

You think by now I would have learned how to avoid dangerous marine life.

-- Jim Abernathy's Scuba Adventures can be reached at 1-888-901-3483 or www.scuba-adventures.com.

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