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Swimming with Sharks-It's No Lawyer Joke

‘Look! Over there, on the starboard side of the boat—a shark!” Eight divers scrambled to the right side of the small dive boat and peered into the turquoise water. Sure enough, a five-foot long black-tipped reef shark swam lazily beneath.

“Don’t worry. Black tips are non-aggressive,” assured Scott, the divemaster.

One of the divers laughed nervously and muttered, “Do they know that?”

It’s a primeval terror, being low on the food chain. In the new movie “Open Water,” sharks surround two terrified scuba divers. Like “Jaws” in the 70s, “Open Water” suggests that ocean swimmers are in mortal danger of being eaten alive.

It Ain't Necessarily So. . . .

Submerging with sharks doesn’t always mean “human buffet.” But neither is it an aquatic petting zoo. Like all wild creature encounters, once you enter their world, you play by their rules.

Follow me to the Atlantic Ocean. We’re swimming with sharks!

Shark Rules. . .

Rule One: Not all sharks are aggressive. Yes, the great white seized a lot of publicity in “Jaws.” But the black tipped reefs, sand tigers and nurse sharks you’ll encounter off the North Carolina coast and in Belize prefer smaller fish, not five-feet-plus humans.

Rule Two: Don’t act like food. Even if a shark doesn’t consider you an appetizer, don’t press your luck.

“Ignore them,” advised Scott. “They’ll investigate you from a distance so just keep swimming. Eventually they get bored and move off. Don’t swim toward them, try to feed or pet them. Like any wild animal, they’ll react to a perceived threat.”

Even with that advice and the reassurances of fellow divers who’d dived here before, I was nervous. Nevertheless, I adjusted my gear and plunged in.

. . . . And Sharks Rule

Our destination: the Markham, an ocean-going hopper dredge sunk 10 years ago. It lies in the sand approximately 18 miles offshore from Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina and is a popular dive site, largely because of shark sightings.

Underwater, I located the anchor chain and descended to the submerged wreck 81 feet below.

That’s when I saw the shark, a six-foot long reef shark.. It hovered below me, about 20 feet away from the anchor chain. I pretended to ignore it and descended to the wreck.

Fellow divers gathered on the Markham’s stern. We followed the divemaster inside and through its decks, scattering schools of small fish now occupying the wreck’s empty holds. We emerged near the bow.

There, right in front of us—more sharks!

Shark c. Lanelli 2005

Two black tipped reef sharks over five feet long glided slowly back and forth, maybe 15 feet away. A flash went off behind me as someone snapped a picture. The sharks ignored the flash, the small fish - and us. They merely stared, then turned and leisurely swam away.

I realized I was breathing hard. I inhaled deeply, let it out slowly and resolved to relax.

Maybe the sharks had read the rules.

Or Did They. . . ?

Back on the boat, divers compared sightings as they popped soda cans. “Didja see that big one? Must’ve been six feet!”

When our boat arrived at the next dive site, a wreck named the Hyde, Scott advised, “Expect more sharks here, too.”

We descended but saw no sharks. As we explored the wreck, fat barracudas, multi-colored sponges and purple corals captured my attention. I forgot about sharks.

Then my dive buddy yanked my arm and pointed. There, only 10 feet away, hovered a seven-foot long sand tiger shark. My blood congealed. It was the biggest shark I’d ever seen - or been this close to.

I tried to ignore him, but he swam parallel to us. Relax, I told myself, relax. Reaching the stern of the wreck, my buddy and I turned to swim back to the bow. The shark turned and followed us. Don’t panic, I told myself.

Finally, it swam away. I let out a long breath. . . .

It Feels Like Sandpaper. . . .

“I think we’ll see sharks today,” commented Turanio, our divemaster in Belize. This tiny Central American country south of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula cradles the world’s second largest barrier reef, paradise for swimmers, divers and snorkelers.

All week long we’d swum its warm waters, playing with colorful tropical fish, admiring fantastic coral formations. But we hadn’t seen any sharks. “Too many storms,” Turanio reasoned. “But, here, maybe.”

“Here” was Cypress Reef, about 15 minutes from Ambergris Caye, a popular Belizean resort. Turanio reached in the ice chest and pulled out a plastic bag with food scraps in it. He stuffed it inside his wetsuit. “Let’s go!” he said and flipped overboard.

Four divers followed him down 50 feet then leveled off. We swam over white sand dotted with orange and purple corals, our masked faces turning to look at every passing fish. In the lead, Turanio suddenly stopped, turned, and faced us. He held one outstretched hand over his head and pointed with the other. We recognized the silent signal: shark!

As we hung motionless in the 82-degree water, first one, then a second, then more nurse sharks emerged. Cameras flashed. Turanio reached inside his wetsuit, pulled out the plastic sack, opened it and began scattering food scraps.

The sharks, each four or five feet long, responded like kids around the ice cream man. They ignored us and grabbed each scrap. Cameras and videos flashed and whirred.

As they slithered in between divers, I put out a tentative hand on one’s tail. It felt like 80-grit sandpaper. Suddenly I realized - I was petting a live shark. I jerked my hand back - but the shark hadn’t noticed.

I was lucky this time. I won’t try that stunt again.

c. “Follow Me!” Alamogordo (NM) Daily News 2004

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