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From shark diving to tagging, South Florida offers ways to interact with the big fish

Sharks typically eat fish, not people.

That’s what shark lovers across South Florida want people to understand, and they’re working hard to change what they consider to be the unfair bad reputation of these big, misunderstood creatures. There are shark dives, tagging trips, underwater photography sessions and interactive museum exhibits designed to help educate people.

“I think the misconception of sharks is one of the most outrageous and largest myths ever in the world,” saysBryce Rohrer, owner and operator of Florida Shark Diving in Jupiter. “Vending machines kill more people than sharks every year, which is true. But we don’t have this huge fear of vending machines.”

While Shark Week is still almost a month away (it’s set to start July 23 this year), there are several ways you can interact with and learn about them all year long.

Shark diving

There are a few companies in Palm Beach County that offer diving encounters with sharks. Some focus on experienced scuba divers, others take amateurs and first-timers. Some dives are done with a cage, others are cage-free.

On a recent Monday, Florida Shark Diving took five people on a trip to the Gulf Stream off the coast of Jupiter. Dive guide Amanda McRoberts jumped in the water carrying a small crate with bait.

“Sharks!” McRoberts yelled just a few minutes after jumping in.

Wearing snorkels and fins, the five divers jumped in after her. For the next two hours, they swam, cage-free, among about 20 sharks, seeing up to 12 at one time.

To attract the sharks, McRoberts crushed an empty plastic water bottle underwater to mimic the sound of struggling fish. She sporadically shook the bait crate, letting chum flow out of it, or let pieces of bait out.

The latter has caused controversy through the years, with some people arguing that feeding sharks while diving could change their behavior.

Rohrer counters that the amount of bait they leave out is not significant enough to change the behavior of animals that swim hundreds or thousands of miles across the ocean.

“Our diving is done out in the Gulf Stream, in 100, 200 feet of water, far offshore. All the sharks that we see are highly migratory sharks,” Rohrer said. “Everything we do is a minimum of 4 miles off to the shore, and we’re constantly drifting, we’re not in one location.”

“Nothing we do affects anything happening on the beach. And all sharks we dive with are offshore species of sharks.”

Shark feeding is illegal in Florida waters, so Rohrer sails to federal waters to lead the dives.

He says the awareness and education they provide is beneficial to the species.

“I’d say virtually everybody that comes in our boat, they start out a little nervous. They haven’t seen a shark or dove with a shark before. They see the sharks, and their fear is gone within a matter of minutes,” Rohrer said. “Before you know it, they want to see more sharks.”

That was the case for Eric Mccaled, 52, who was vacationing from New Mexico. He had been wanting to swim with sharks since seeing the movie “Jaws” at age 12.

“I’ve always wanted to go in a shark cage and see a shark. That’s what I thought this trip was going to be. I had no idea we were going out and swimming with them. At first, I was very scared. It was an amazing experience,” he says. “I’ve always been fascinated with sharks. Of course, where I live there are very few places to swim, and certainly not any sharks. So this is a big deal for me.”

Shark diving companies:

Florida Shark Diving, U-Tiki Marina, 1095 N. Highway A1A, Jupiter. Cost is $195 per person. Call 305-395-9140 or go to FloridaSharkDiving.com.

Calypso Dive Charters, 200 E. 13th St, Riviera Beach. Cost is $175-$660. Call 561-222-3822 or go to CalypsoDiveCharters.com.

Emerald Charters, Harborside Place, 201 Coastal Way, Jupiter. Cost starts at $100 during the week and $125 on weekends. Call 561-248-8332 or go to EmeraldCharters.com.

Shark-tagging trips

Research scientist Derek Burkholder often hosts shark-tagging trips that are open to the public. The tagging is part of his research for the Guy Harvey Research Institute at Nova Southeastern University in Davie.

Participants help Burkholder and marine-biology students prepare the bait, which is attached to weights and a buoy and is placed in different ocean locations. The buoys are left alone for about two hours, before the scientists come back to collect them.

If there’s a shark on the hook, the scientists and guests will tag the animal, collect a tissue sample and snap some photos before releasing the fish.

“You can certainly look at seasonal patterns. Maybe we catch more sharks in the summer versus the winter,” Burkholder explained to a group participating on a trip on a recent Saturday. “We’re trying to understand what our community looks like and how we can keep them around, keep protecting them over time.”

The shark-tagging trips leave from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale or the Pompano Dive Center in Pompano Beach. Burkholder has been tagging sharks for about 3 ½ years. He tags about 150 sharks per year.

“Sharks get this stigma that they’re these scary things, and it’s just not true,” Burkholder says. “They’re very important for keeping balance in the ecosystem.”

During his Saturday trip with a group from the South Florida Divers scuba diving social club, the ocean was rough, and it rained for a large portion of the day. But the group of experienced divers kept helping the scientists prepare the bait and place the buoys through the bad weather.

Even though the group wasn’t lucky enough to catch a shark that day, many of them left satisfied having learning so much about sharks.

“Even if we didn’t catch any sharks, we had the adventure of knowing what people are doing to save our planet,” said Donna Eades, of Dania Beach. “We had the excitement of having an adventure.”

To make a reservation, call 954-788-0208. Cost is $185. For more information, go to PompanoDive.com or cnso.nova.edu/ghri.

Shark photography sessions

Underwater shark photographers often use social media accounts to advocate for the animals.

Among them is Szilard Janko, who has more than 11,000 followers on his Instagram account. He photographs sharks on his free dives and sometimes joins Florida Shark Diving to shoot tour participants.

“After you’ve done it so many times, and you see that they’re not coming at you, it’s an incredible feeling,” says Janko, who lives in Hallandale Beach and also works as a Fort Lauderdale lifeguard. “There’s no fear there. Once you see it in person, you see it’s more curiosity and just respect between you and the shark.”

Janko charges $350 per person for shark-dive photography and $250 for an underwater shoot without sharks.

Zach Levitetz, 30, has been photographing sharks during his free diving trips for about four months. He’s getting ready to go on his fifth trip to the Bahamas to photograph tiger sharks on Tiger Beach. He gets really close to the shark’s snout and mouth to take very clear photos.

“They’re always touching my camera, a few inches off the dome of my camera,” he says.

In Florida, he often dives in Jupiter, where he has seen lemon, bull and sandbar sharks. He says the largest shark he’s seen was a 15-foot female tiger shark.

Levitetz, of Boca Raton, shares his photos with his 17,000 followers on Instagram.

“I grew up surfing and you do have that fear that is associated with sharks, from not being in the water with them and understanding them,” Levitetz says. “The first time I got in the water with them, it was like immediately the fear went way. It was more of a fascination, no fear at all.”

Michael Dornellas and John Garza are two other prominent shark photographers in South Florida. They take people on private shark-diving tours and conduct underwater photo shoots, either on Dornellas’ boat or on a client’s boat. Private tours cost $1,000 per day, for up to six people.

Both of them share their favorite shots on Instagram and Facebook for their thousands of followers. Garza, 30, of West Palm Beach, sayshe uses his social platform to teach people about the importance of sharks for the ecosystem.

“A lot of people don’t realize how important they are for our ocean. Sharks don’t feed on healthy fish that the ocean needs. They’re feeding on sick fish, and fish that’s about to die, so really what they’re doing is making our ocean healthier,” Garza says. “I wish people would realize how important they are.”

For more information, go to Instagram.com/szjanko (for Janko) or Instagram.com/surfzach for (Levitetz). For more on Dornellas, go to LiquidIrisPhoto.com or Instagram.com/ReefHunter. For Garza, go to JohnGarzaPhoto.com or Instagram.com/JohnGarzaPhoto.

Museum exhibit

The brand-new Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami has four sharks in the Gulf Stream Aquarium exhibit. A sandbar shark, tiger shark and two scalloped hammerhead sharks swim among fishes and stingrays in the 500,000-gallon aquarium that mimics the real ecosystem of the Gulf Stream.

The sandbar and tiger sharks were caught in the Keys, and the two hammerheads came from Australia, but the species is also found in Florida. The aquarium water comes from Biscayne Bay, and the animals are fed “restaurant-quality food,” says Andy Dehart, the museum's vice president of animal husbandry.

“The animals under my care eat a lot better than the staff under my care because of the quality of the diets that we do,” he jokes.

The museum also has an interactive exhibit where people can put their faces inside a robotic shark head that demonstrates how the animal hunts.

“First, it’s by sound. Then, it’s vibration. Then, they start getting the smell of something going on. It’s actually a cool interactive where you become a shark and learn how to feed as a shark,” he says. “My hope is that the next step from here is someone wants to learn how to scuba-dive. And from there, maybe it’s a career in marine biology or conservation. The world needs a lot more scientists.”

He hopes the sharks at the museum can serve as ambassadors for the species.

“Oftentimes ... the shark will come in, they’ll see you, and they’ll swim in the other direction as fast as they possibly can,” says Dehart, who’s also a certified diver. “Sharks are not mindless eating machines … They’re very cautious. They can be very charismatic. They have their own personality. And that’s what we hope people can understand,”

Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science is at 1101 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. Admission is $17-$28. Call 305-434-9600 or go to FrostScience.org.

bduarte@sunsentinel.com, @babicorb

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