There is just something special about sharks.
Up close, a shark commands immediate respect — the kind of respect reserved for things that can eat you if they want to. It doesn’t mean they will. Usually, they won’t. In fact, they almost never do.
For some, seeing a shark in an aquarium is enough. For others, it’s fun to catch one on rod and reel, either from a boat or a beach, and then release it.
But for thousands of scuba divers, free divers and snorkelers, the best way to experience a shark is to interact with it in its natural habitat, the ocean.
Shark Addicts helps shark fans realize their dreams.
Within 20 minutes of leaving the dock, Shark Addicts can have up to six divers off the coast of Jupiter Inlet and in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream eyeballing bull sharks, tiger sharks, lemon sharks and hammerhead sharks within arm’s length.
Three Jupiter locals have grown Shark Addicts from a passion into a part-time business. Chris Cameron, Cameron Nimmo and Mickey Smith bring divers face to face with sharks off the “Jupiter Ledge.”
Cameron said the bloody, oily scent of cut bonito and fish heads in Nimmo’s “bait crate” calls up sharks in five minutes or less.
“Where we live, we can have as many as seven species of sharks show up,” Cameron said. “Our divers will stay there in the water until people can’t swim anymore. We’ll be in the water with the sharks for over three hours.”
Cameron said Shark Addicts provides a profound message of conservation for its clients.
“Sharks are not bloodthirsty man-eaters,” Cameron said. “They are opportunistic apex hunters. Shark diving has become really popular in recent years. Social media has had a huge role in its growth. People see footage all over the place of shark encounters. These animals are not caged up; they are not in a zoo.
“It’s one reason why this has just exploded.”
Cameron said diving with sharks has become a “bucket list” item for many. Like sky diving, bungee jumping and even climbing Mount Everest, diving with a shark gets the adrenaline pumping.
Cameron gets calls from all over the world.
Nimmo and Smith began filming their dives with sharks in 2013 while out with Randy Jordan of Emerald Dive Charters in Jupiter. Now, with more than 300,000 followers across various social media platforms, Cameron said they’re “as busy as we want to be.”
And the numbers support his claim.
Oceana, an international advocacy organization focused on ocean conservation, released a report this week extolling the economic value of sharks as a draw for ecotourism businesses. According to Oceana’s research, shark diving in Florida is now a $221 million-a-year industry supporting more than 3,700 jobs and generating more than $377 million in indirect economic impact. Shark diving is perhaps the fastest growing market segment of the diving economy in Florida.
Kind of a twist on the plot of “Jaws,” isn’t it? Instead of shutting down the beaches during the tourist season, it turns out having sharks near a beach community is filling seats on airplanes, filling beds in hotel rooms and driving sales of dive equipment and underwater camera gear. Even coastal fishing charter businesses are reaping benefits from having a healthy shark population.
The report was released to generate support for the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act, federal legislation banning the buying and selling of shark fins in the United States. In comparison to shark dive dollars generated, Oceana’s report claims shark fin sales are only around $1 million a year.
Shark finning is the practice of catching a shark, slicing off its fins and discarding the injured and now immobile shark to die a slow death as it drowns and bleeds to death. It has been banned in U.S. waters since 2000.
Asian markets buy shark fins for sale in shark fin soup. Each year, Oceana reports, fins from 73 million sharks hit the world market. Many of the species observed bought and sold at markets in Hong Kong are at high risk of extinction.
Florida laws protect 27 species of sharks from harvest. The state also enforces a ban on dive charter operators from feeding sharks during dives in state waters. As a result, Shark Addicts and their peers, more than 370 of them, must carry their shark watchers into federal waters, more than three miles from shore on the Atlantic Coast and nine miles on the Gulf Coast.
“It seems inconsistent to me that the state allows the practice of taking a chunk of bonito off the beach and allowing someone to catch a huge hammerhead or bull shark from the beach on rod and reel with bait, but a dive charter can’t feed sharks within three miles from shore,” Cameron said.
He’s got a point. And he bristles at the thought of a federal rule, if any ever comes along, doing the same thing.
Until then, Cameron’s message for potential shark divers is clear. Once one gets past the hype and the horror perpetuated by film and scary headlines, the shark is really just a gentle creature living in a world of wonder.
And it’s worth much more alive and well than it is in someone’s soup.
Learn more: Go to shark-addicts.com or follow Shark Addicts on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Shark Diving Dollars
Florida shark diving direct revenue: $221 million
Florida total economic impact from shark encounters: $377 million
Jobs supported: 3,700
U.S. shark fin exports: $1.03 million
Ed Killer is the outdoors columnist for Treasure Coast Newspapers, TCPalm.com and the USA Today Network, and this column reflects his opinion. Friend him on Facebook at Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller, email him at email@example.com or call him at 772-221-4201.