By Tom Demerly.
There are certain inconvenient facts about our
existence as human beings that constitute reality. There’s
no escaping them. That doesn’t mean they are bad or should
be altered. When we step in to the arena of sport or nature,
we accept those facts- either willingly or unknowingly. In either
case, we can’t alter these facts. Or shouldn’t.
It is the coliseum of reality.
On Sunday, February 24, Markus Groh, a 49 year
old Austrian attorney and experienced SCUBA diver was diving
off the dive charter boat M/V Shear Water in the waters of the
Bahamas. Markus was on a SCUBA expedition for advanced open
water divers. The dive charter is run by Jim Abernethy and provides
divers with the ability to dive in open water with large sharks
unhindered by protective shark cages.
Many of the species encountered during these dives
are rare and difficult to see anywhere in the world. They include
the Tiger Shark, Galeocerdo cuvier, and the Bull Shark,
Carcharhinus leucas. These are unpredictable animals
that can be dangerous, and Jim Abernethy has developed protocols
on his dive expeditions to safeguard divers and minimize their
exposure to risk. Divers are briefed on the protocols prior
to the dives and monitored during the dives for compliance.
Divers participating in Jim Abernethy’s open water shark
dives are required to hold a PADI Advanced Open Water Diver
certification, a higher level of SCUBA certification than new
divers and one earned through formal training and practical
To increase the chances of seeing specific shark
species bait is used in the water to attract them to the dive
site. These species are so rare that without the bait it is
unlikely divers would ever see the sharks.
Markus Groh was bitten by a shark during one of
his dives on the 24th. The Coast Guard was summoned and Groh
was airlifted to Miami for emergency treatment. He did not survive.
Reports indicate the species that inflicted the bite was a Bull
In the wake of this incident there has been a
public outcry by people calling for a ban on shark diving. The
argument is that baiting sharks makes them more aggressive and/or
conditions them to associate divers with food. An additional
argument suggests that diving without a protective shark cage
constitutes negligence and is foolhardy. And finally, those
divers who visit sharks without cages are thrill-seeking egomaniacs
bent on attention-getting adventure.
The SCUBA diving lobby stands on the opposite
side of the issue. They contend that shark populations have
dwindled to such a degree that baiting is necessary to see some
shark species and that this exposure to rare species fosters
awareness and conservation. They point out that most divers
on these expeditions are photographers and some are naturalists
whose images, films and documentaries are seen by millions furthering
the cause of conservation and awareness of the ocean environment.
The reality consists of a finite set of facts
that include: Some shark species are dangerous and shark populations
are threatened by pollution, indiscriminate fishing and ignorance.
Another set of facts includes the International
Shark Attack File statistics that list only 8 fatal domestic
shark attacks from 2000 to 2005: Only eight in five years. The
International Hunter Education Association reported 385 North
Americans were accidentally killed by other hunters during the
same five years. From 1977 to 1995 the Consumer Product Safety
Commission reports that vending machines killed 37 Americans
when they accidentally pulled them over onto themselves. And
finally, that lethal North American predator that lurks in nearly
every wooded area waiting to strike hapless victims in a kind
of Bambi-Jihad suicide attack, the common deer, has killed 700
motorists in the past five years. Let’s review the scale
of lethality: Deer, responsible for 700 deaths; hunters responsible
for 385 deaths; vending machines responsible for 37 deaths;
sharks responsible for 8 deaths. These facts were compiled and
reported in Peter Dykstra’s excellent Sci-Tech
blog published on CNN.com.
Dykstra was writing about the sad legacy left
when actor Roy Scheider died this year. Scheider played the
character Chief Brody in the Steven Spielberg film Jaws
written by author Peter Benchley. The movie convinced viewers
that sharks were deadly and killed indiscriminately on sight.
The lesson of Jaws was that, if you are swimming in
the water with a shark it will attack you. Jaws established
this mindset not just because of sensational film making and
good story telling, it was also the first movie ever released
simultaneously in so many theaters at once and during a lull
in traditional movie release times. In many ways, Jaws
shared literary and media parallels with Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein published in 1818. Jaws opened
on over 450 screens, an unprecedented number in 1975 when it
was released. It was also the first film to be simultaneously
promoted through $700,000 in television commercials and specific
feature TV programming linked to sharks and shark attacks. John
Williams’ award winning soundtrack that fore-shadowed
the appearance of the shark in each scene of the movie also
became the musical icon for impending doom. BBC Writer Stephen
Dowling opined that, “If anything helped to make a modern
villain of sharks it was Peter Benchley's debut novel ‘Jaws’.”
In fact, before Jaws author Peter Benchley died in
2006 he spent ten years trying to undo the damage Jaws
had done by writing non-fiction books about the sea and sharks
and championing the cause for their conservation. Benchley even
served as a spokesperson for the National Council of Environmental
Defense. Despite Benchley’s best efforts over a decade,
little has changed in the public consciousness about sharks.
Most people still harbor a level of fear of sharks disproportionate
with the threat posed by them. I can be counted among this number
to a degree, and I wrote about my experiences swimming with
a bull shark here.
We saw a similar sensation after the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster
when 11 climbers died and the incident made headlines around
the world. Author John Krakauer sensationalized the incident
in a popular Outside magazine article called “Into
Thin Air” that was followed by a best selling book of
the same name. Had a gifted wordsmith not been on the 1996 Everest
expedition it’s likely the disaster would not have received
the attention it did. But there was and it did. Predictably
there was public outcry (among non-climbers mostly) that expeditions
be banned from Mt. Everest. People had discovered an inconvenient
fact: Sometimes climbing is dangerous. On February 24 the public
discovered another one: Sometimes a shark gets confused and
bites the wrong thing.
Officially Markus Groh’s death is listed as “accidental”.
In other words, based on years of previous shark dives in the
same area with the same training using the same techniques with
the same species of sharks this had never happened. Not even
once. Jim Abernethy’s safety record was impeccable; spotless,
100%. That is an enviable safety record for any dive operation.
Truthfully it is more likely that a diver could have been killed
by a boat propeller. Because there has never been a blockbuster
movie called Boat Propeller that featured sinister
musical overtures every time a boat propeller was about to appear
on screen that accident wouldn’t have made worldwide headlines.
There was one made about sharks so everyone knows about the
sad and tragic Markus Groh accident.
The reason this is important to sportsmen of each gender, endurance
athletes, adventurers and triathletes is multi fold.
Firstly, we swim in the ocean and have an obligation for its
stewardship. We need to stop polluting it, over fishing it,
over hunting it and wantonly destroying it as though it were
an infinitely renewable resource. Secondly, as triathletes,
we’d all need to get a grip on our fears about swimming
in the ocean. The open water environment commands respect but
that respect doesn’t include unreasonable fear fostered
by fictional novels and sensational films. That fear and misunderstanding
is what paves the way to destruction of marine species like
jellyfish and sharks. This fear also limits our enjoyment of
the sport. I frequently talk to customers who would never consider
a triathlon with an ocean swim because they are too scared of
“the things in the water”.
Secondly, there is the on going issue of legislating common
sense. It goes against the tenants of good common sense for
a layman to jump into the water with large, dangerous sharks
while they are feeding. It does make sense for trained divers
to observe shark feeding using a proven set of techniques that
have yielded safe, environmentally sound principles in the past.
The photos, films and writing these divers produce reach millions
of people who otherwise would not be exposed to this fascinating
topic. It raises their awareness of ocean species and their
conservation. It also de-mystifies them and re-calibrates our
erroneous perception of sharks as wanton man eaters.
Left unchecked, the “common sense lobby”, the usually
uninformed majority that passes judgment on such incidents based
on their exposure to them in the media (including media like
Jaws and Into Thin Air) will sooner or later
get around to marathons and triathlons. Marathons and triathlons
will become the lethal killer, a grandstand for egotistical,
thrill seeking dandies bent on self-sensation. Read the facts:
Last year two people died at the New York Marathon, one at Chicago,
one hapless victim was killed by the Chicago Marathon. One person
died in the icy clutches of Ironman Florida. What are we going
to do about this indiscriminate killer that takes innocent life-
the deadly marathon and triathlon? Something has to be done…
Sooner or later the common sense lobby will turn its attention
from mountaineering to shark diving to triathlons and marathons.
Then the coliseum of reality will start to crumble like the
one in Rome, and the only people to visit it will find it in
If you're concerned about losing the privlege
to dive with sharks in open water or with the passage of new
legislation that limits our choices surrounding involvement
in risk consider signing this petition to protect shark diving
and shark conservation efforts.