Cageless shark-feeding dive turns fatal

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Posted by on February 26, 2008 at 13:56:19:

In Reply to: Austrian diver dies after shark attack posted by on February 26, 2008 at 13:42:32:

Jim Abernethy's peers had warned him to stop his South Florida company's shark-diving excursions. They said his practice of taking divers to open waters, dumping chum to bait the beasts and then sending in divers without a steel cage would prove deadly someday.

This past weekend, it did.

Austrian lawyer Markus Groh, 49, died from a shark mauling he suffered Sunday in the ocean off Great Isaac Cay in the Bahamas. Doctors at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital were unable to save him after he was brought there by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter.

Groh, two friends and several other Austrians were diving off the Shear Water, a 70-foot charter boat owned and operated by Abernethy's Scuba Adventures in Riviera Beach. Groh was apparently bitten in the leg, though the Miami-Dade County medical examiner's office is still investigating.

Abernethy's website advertises shark-diving excursions to find hammerhead, tiger, lemon, bull and other sharks. Groh's trip was supposed to be a six-day sea adventure in search of hammerhead and tiger sharks -- widely considered to be among the most dangerous kinds. The divers go down without cages, while the boat's crew lures the sharks with bloody fish parts, according to the website.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission banned shark-feeding dives in 2001 -- one reason operators like Abernethy go toward the Bahamas for their dives.

''No one can get you closer'' to sharks, the site promises.

The site warns potential adventurers about the dangers. But anyone who pays Abernethy's charter fee and is scuba-certified and ''fairly experienced'' can go on the trip, according to the company's site.

A woman at Scuba Adventures' office declined to comment Monday, and attempts to contact Abernethy at home, by telephone and via e-mail were unsuccessful. He issued a statement: ``My heart and soul goes out to the loved ones and family members who are affected by this unfortunate accident.''

The blue Shear Water remained docked outside the company's office on the Intracoastal Waterway, with wetsuits and scuba tanks still on deck.

Abernethy's company has been cautioned by the Bahamas Diving Association to use more care during its shark excursions. The diving association, of which Abernethy is not a member, sent Scuba Adventures and other dive operators a ''cease-and-desist'' letter last year, urging that cageless dives be done only around safer shark varieties such as Caribbean reef sharks, nurse sharks, black-tip sharks and silky sharks.

''I've personally pleaded with Jimmy to stop this action, but he refused to comply with good judgment,'' Neal Watson, the association's president, told The Miami Herald. ``He would not use a cage, and this is the result.''

The attack marks the first shark-bite death of the year, said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. He also said this was the first time anyone has ever died in a shark-feeding incident.

Burgess said shark-diving can be safe if precautions are taken, like staying in cages or close to reefs so divers have somewhere to hide if sharks become aggressive.

''In the open sea, those sharks are not necessarily encountering humans with regularity,'' Burgess said. ``Under those circumstances, cage-diving would be the preferable way to go.''

Echoing Watson's warning, Burgess said the danger increases exponentially around certain types of sharks.

''Tiger sharks rank with white sharks and bull sharks as the three that we are very concerned about relative to danger to humans,'' he said.

Because food was thrown into the water to bait the sharks, the attack will be considered provoked, unlike unprovoked attacks on surfers or swimmers.

Said Burgess: ``Food in the water is something you can't blame the shark for.''

The Palm Beach Post contributed to this report

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