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Take a Swim on the Wild Side - With Sharks

Scientist teaches tourists about these underappreciated and misunderstood sea creatures

Shark researcher Samuel "Sonny" Gruber is standing knee-deep in a South Bimini Island inlet, whispering sweet nothings to a three-foot-long baby shark he's holding.

"There, that's it," Mr. Gruber says tenderly, as he shows a young boy standing next to him how a shark falls instantly into slumber when turned on its back.

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Although sharks are high on the list of creatures most feared by human beings, Gruber - considered the "guru" of sharks among shark biologists - has an apparent affection for them.

The focus of Gruber's work is to understand the navigational and migratory behavior of the creatures. He is also somewhat of an unofficial public-relations director for sharks - a difficult job given the popular notion of sharks as aggressive man-eaters. But Gruber and other scientists are trying to portray a more realistic image of these fish - that of placid, even sensitive creatures that have no interest in adding human beings to their diets.

"I have called sharks a fragile resource and delicate animals, serene and delicate, not mindless eating machines, by any means," says Gruber, who has been studying shark behavior for 30 years. He has run the Bimini Biological Field Station, a shark research lab on South Bimini Island in the Bahamas, since 1987.

"One reason why there's so much ignorance about them is they can't be kept in captivity very well. And the reason for that is that they're highly sophisticated creatures," he says.

Gruber's message about the true identity of sharks appears to be getting out, at least among the ecologically minded. Earthwatch, a Massachusetts-based eco-tourism agency, sends groups for two weeks of shark study at Gruber's outpost and helps fund the research station. A French organization, Petits Princes, which assists children overcoming illnesses by helping them to live out a dream, recently sent a boy who is a shark enthusiast and his family to the Bimini station.

As if to underscore the unlikelihood of a shark attack, the typical eco-tour includes what is dubbed a "shark dive." On a recent dive, a group of about 10 people wearing snorkel gear jumped into water frequented by sharks a mile offshore and were told to hold on to an anchor rope off the side of a boat.

"If a shark comes at you ... kick it," Gruber emphatically instructed the group.

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Then, Gruber and assistants tossed chunks of mackerel and barracuda into the water off the back of the boat. Moments later, more than a dozen lemon sharks, some up to six feet long, appeared and a feeding frenzy began. Some came within a few feet of the snorkelers but darted away. Much kicking ensued.

"When you get in the water with them and you see them swimming and they're feeding, you realize that they're not after you, they're after the bait, and your fear just goes away," says Lickey Drake, an art student from Kentucky who traveled here for three months of study and is now working at the shark lab. "You still have to be respectful and cautious, but you lose your fear."

Gruber and his colleagues at the Bimini research station say no one has been hurt during a shark dive. In recent years, however, two workers have been gashed by sharks' teeth while implanting transmitters for tracking purposes. For Gruber, that's a pretty good record, considering that sharks have been handled hundreds of times during his research.

Still, about 10 to 20 people worldwide are killed yearly by sharks. Shark experts believe most attacks are the result of mistaking a human for normal prey. Gruber says that some species, like the great white and the tiger shark, may consider a floundering human being as a meal. But he thinks an attack is more likely the result of other factors, like fear and competition. An attack might also be a way of communicating, he speculates.

"Sharks can't talk and they don't have hands," explains Gruber. "They are trying to say, 'Please leave my feeding place.' "

On average about 100 people are bitten by sharks a year, but most of the attacks are not fatal, says Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory, in Sarasota, Fla.

Compared with larger sharks - like the great white sharks off California's coast - swimming with four- to six-foot lemon sharks, like the ones off South Bimini, is less risky, but not risk-free, Mr. Hueter says.

"Those mid-sized animals ... tend to be kind of aggressive.... That's a size range that I would find a little bit worrisome to try to expose to totally inexperienced people. But if you prepare all your people well enough, I think you can minimize the risk," Hueter says.

Gruber nevertheless believes the perceived dangers of sharks are overblown. But he may have to make his living without the traditional source of funding from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. The school is concerned about liability should someone get hurt by a shark and suspend financial support for Gruber's Bimini lab.

Gruber, a tenured professor at the university, is monitoring the migratory paths of eight lemon sharks that were released with tracking transmitters. He is trying to confirm data suggesting that sharks return to their birthplaces to mate - much like another finned, but much less feared creature: salmon.

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