Despite shark attacks, divers continue to probe the sea

Monday, September 10, 2001

JACKSON, Miss. -- At a time when the news is filled with stories of shark attacks on swimmers, it might seem like suicide to travel to places where sharks gather by the hundreds and then dive in among them.

But some scuba divers call it the ultimate diving experience.

"We're very excited if we see sharks," said Latti Adams, who once saw hundreds of silky sharks on a Gulf Coast dive. "We consider it a privilege."

The divers are confident the clarity of the deep blue -- instead of murky beach water -- will protect them from "mistaken identity" attacks.

One hundred miles off the Mississippi Coast, the Sea Angel -- an 85-foot dive boat -- drifts among a diver's artificial paradise: hulking, stationary oil rigs.

Shark paradise

A mass of vertical legs and crossbeams creates an artificial reef -- a faux tropical setting that invites coral and higher marine life. It sits on the continental shelf, giving divers clear, deep-water blue.

Migratory patterns and chance encounters allow the divers to see the silky sharks, filtered sunlight glinting off their silver sheen.

Despite the recent publicity, divers note that shark attack numbers this year are no higher than usual, and say they do not worry about being bitten.

"We as divers aren't worried about the sharks so much. It's the swimmers and the people on top of the water," said Adams, of Jackson. "The sharks can't see what they are. They can't distinguish the swimmers from food."

Two deadly attacks over Labor Day weekend -- in Virginia Beach, Va., and Avon, N.C. -- occurred in shallow water and were believed to have been caused by sharks who mistook swimmers for fish.

George Burgess, who runs the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, said if sharks can see people clearly, there's less danger of such a "mistaken identity" attack.

Fewer attacks

Only about 5 percent of shark attacks occur between 30 feet and 60 feet, diving's popular depths, according to Burgess' figures. More than 80 percent occur in less than 5 feet of water -- wading depth.

Only 114 scuba divers have been attacked by sharks in North America since Burgess' organization started keeping track in the 1950s. In 2000, 79 swimmers were attacked by sharks. In the 1990s, an average 54 swimmers were bitten each year.

"Sharks are definitely not out looking to grab humans most of the time," Burgess said. "They tend to shy away from an organism they're not familiar with."

Divers on the Sea Angel trips, run by Jackson's Deep South Scuba, run into sharks by chance, unlike divers who participate in some Caribbean operations in which sharks are drawn with "chumcicles," frozen food set in the water to attract the creatures.

Scientists, divers and lawmakers don't agree on the effects of feeding sharks.

While divers argue that because they mostly no longer feed by hand but instead use the frozen concoction, the sharks don't associate the feeding with humans.

Even so, divers that feed sharks change the ecology of the area because they increase the shark population artificially in the same place repeatedly, Burgess said.

Still, they do attack

In recent years, there have been at least 15 attacks on shark-feeding divers and eight on professional photographers who used bait to attract sharks, according to Burgess' figures.

A Florida wildlife panel voted this past week to ban the feeding of sharks and other marine animals off that state's coast.

Burgess said that any interaction -- even the chance meetings on the oil rigs -- may start out at safe distances, but they become more interactive over time, a dangerous trend for both shark and man.

"The fact of the matter is that sharks can and occasionally do do damage," Burgess said. "We need to respect them, not hug them."

Still, Jackson's Deep South Scuba owner Walter Scott says his Mississippi divers think swimming with sharks is a great experience.

"You might make 1,000 dives and never see a shark, and after all those dives you say 'I wanna see one,'" Scott said. "It's a very exhilarating, very enlightening, experience."

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