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The Coliseum of Reality.
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 dive experience.

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 Shark.

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

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 ruins too.

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.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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