A Jupiter charter captain known to hand feed sharks during dives was bitten so severely by a “sea creature” in May that he spent three days at St. Mary’s Medical Center.
But unlike most people who tell breathless tales of their toothy encounters to an America fascinated by sharks, a “cone of silence” fell over the incident that stymied even International Shark Attack File investigators.
George Burgess, director of the shark attack file at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said he wasn’t surprised by an unwillingness to report the bite. He’s hit brick walls in the past when a person involved in the shark dive tourism industry, or one of its clients, has a negative run-in with an apex predator.
“These operators, when these things happen, they don’t want to talk about it,” Burgess said. “It’s a cone of silence. But we have ears on the ground and we’ve gotten some bits of information.”
The concern expressed by shark dive companies called by The Palm Beach Post is that people will blame the shark for the bite.
But there is also the underlying controversy about baiting the water for sharks during interactive dives — something banned in state waters in 2001 but still allowed in federal waters more than three miles out.
A report earlier this year from the ocean conservation group Oceana found that in 2016, shark dives generated about $337 million, fueled about 6,000 jobs, and $80 million in wages.
“The take-home message really should be that this is a stupid human trick,” Burgess said. “As far as we’re concerned, it’s a provoked attack, it’s not on the shark.”
There’s little doubt that something tore into Randall Jordan’s arm on May 28.
Palm Beach County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Teri Barbera said the sheriff’s Marine One unit picked up the owner of Emerald Charters after a distress call that he suffered a severe injury to the hand when he was bitten by a “sea creature.”
Until December, Jordan, was listed as the owner of Emerald Charters in state records. Ownership has since been transferred to 257 Charters, LLC, but Jordan is still named as the captain of Emerald Charters on its website.
A St. Mary’s spokesman confirmed Jordan was admitted to the hospital May 28 and released May 31. A Palm Beach Post photographer took pictures of a man widely identified in social media posts as Jordan being transferred to the Trauma Hawk helicopter after he was dropped at Jupiter Lighthouse Park by the sheriff’s marine unit.
Deborah Toohey, who lives in Springhill, Fla., north of Tampa, said Jordan is her brother, identifying him from one of the Post’s photos, and confirmed the day after the incident that he was injured during a dive. While Toohey didn’t know details, she said Jordan had to undergo “reattachment surgery.”
“He tries to teach people to not be afraid of sharks,” Toohey said. “He’s an avid environmentalist when it comes to sharks.”
Jeff Raffa, president of the Fort Lauderdale-based scuba club South Florida Divers, said the club doesn’t have a stance on shark feeding, but he personally doesn’t have a problem with it.
“Sharks are not as aggressive as people think they are,” said Raffa, who has participated in baited shark dives. “I’ve never had a shark be aggressive.”
But some shark enthusiasts argue that baiting sharks during dives is a practice that changes the behavior of the animal.
“Right now when a boat pulls up with divers on it, sharks are showing up because they think they are going to be fed,” said John Russell, president and founder of Florida Association of Diving Instructors. “Sharks don’t have a bad reputation, these guys are making them mess up.”
In 2011, shark dive operator Jim Abernethy suffered minor injuries when he was bitten below the elbow by a shark during an excursion near the Bahamas where the water was baited. Three years earlier, a 49-year-old Austrian man bled to death after he was bitten on an interactive shark dive in the Bahamas that was being led by Abernethy’s company.
In 2014, a Texas doctor on one of Abernethy’s charters disappeared during a night dive to see tiger sharks.
Brent Winner, a fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said more study is needed to understand how sharks are affected by baiting, but that there is research to support migration and feeding patterns can be changed when they are fed during dives.
“The basic take home is that sharks do have the ability to learn and respond to cues, such as a boat arriving and divers overboard, especially if this is reinforced several times with food,” Winner said.
Last year, Sen. Bill Nelson filed a bill that included language banning shark feeding in federal waters. But the ban was part of a larger proposal that resolved itself and there are no plans to reintroduce the feeding ban.
“The impression that shark diving operations give is that it’s a perfectly safe operation,” Burgess said. “It’s generally safe, but not perfectly safe.”