Jim Abernethy, owner and operator of Scuba Adventures, was the dive operator who showed all of the others that sharks are peaceful animals who want nothing to do with humans as a food source.
He spends most of his time with wild sharks during dives from his liveaboard ship, The Shear Water, at remote sites in the vicinity of the Bahamas, and is on land for only about 40 days a year.
Ila France Porcher is a self-taught, published ethologist.
She began her career as a successful wildlife artist, documenting the behaviour of the wild animals she painted.
In Tahiti she found sharks to be so intriguing that she launched an intensive study of them, systematically spending time with them and recording their actions, following the precepts of cognitive ethology.
She is credited with the discovery of a way to study these much maligned predators that does not involve killing them, and has been called the Jane Goodall of sharks for her documentation of their intelligence in the wild.
Her book about shark observation, My Sunset Rendevous: Crisis in Tahiti, is available at: Amazon.com
In order to show people the true nature of sharks on his dives, Jim specifically targeted those with the worst reputations. He was the first eco-tourism guide operator to do so. Soon he was taking divers to see great hammerhead sharks, tiger sharks, bull sharks, oceanic whitetips and lemon sharks. For roughly the first seven years of these interactions, the other operators who have now followed his lead, fought and voiced their opinions that people would soon be dying because of Jim’s foolishness.
But Jim was right, and he was the one who showed all of the others that sharks are peaceful animals who want nothing to do with humans as a food source. Now there are at least half a dozen shark dive operators trying to replicate what he started decades ago. Jim’s eco-tourism shark business is credited with being the first to offer night dives with all of these species, too.
As Jim became familiar with shark behaviour, he began caressing them gently on their faces when they curiously approached him. As they got over their fear of his touch, he was able to remove their parasites and massage their heads. The sharks clearly enjoyed these affectionate attentions and responded by returning to him more often and more confidently, apparently considering him to be a type of cleaning station.
So when some of them appeared with hooks in their mouths, he was able to use these tactics to get them to swim up to him over and over, so that he could examine their hooks repeatedly before removing them.
One eight-foot male lemon shark was blind in his left eye, yet he had managed to survive in spite of this serious handicap. Jim named him Captain Ron, and always gave him special attention when he saw him. He knew how hard it is for an animal with any handicap to meet the challenges of living wild.
Jim had known Captain Ron for a decade when he appeared with a large “J” hook piercing his snout—the hook passed right through the flesh of his nose, and into his mouth. Jim started by touching his face whenever he passed with gentle caresses, and as Captain Ron relaxed, he began grasping his nose for short periods. The hook was close to the shark’s teeth, so Jim was concerned about being accidentally bitten
and waited for the right moment. When he sensed that the time was right, he held the animal’s head still with his right hand long enough to remove the hook with his left hand, while Captain Ron remained relaxed and nearly motionless in the water. Jim released him, and the shark’s response was to circle and come back.
It was a week before Jim returned to the area, and Captain Ron swam straight up to him, allowing him to examine the wound. It had nearly healed. The hole made by the hook had filled in, and the redness around it had gone. Captain Ron was even more affectionate as a result of the incident, repeatedly returning to swim close beside Jim and let him touch his face.
Though most of the sharks drawn to Jim’s dives remain distant and never do approach closely to interact with him, he found that no matter what the species, a natural bond would form between him and certain individuals over time, facilitated by his affectionate gestures. In the wide region known as Tiger Beach, there are approximately 17 such tiger sharks, whom he calls “supermodels,” who come to him on sight for the affection that he gives them on every encounter.
One of these is a matronly four-meter (14-foot) individual whom Jim named Emma, after his guest, Emma Finn. Over the years, the great shark has grown increasingly trusting and intimate with him and their bond has steadily deepened. She is clearly able to recognize him from among all of the divers present, and comes straight over to him whenever she sees him, while he strokes her head and face.
When Emma came to a dive with a fish hook stuck through her lower jaw, Jim gently touched her until he had the opportunity to pull it out. Twice he was able to remove hooks stuck into the outside of her mouth in this way, by caressing her gently first, and waiting for the right moment to coax out the hook.
Then, one day Emma appeared at the beginning of a dive with fishing wire hanging from the side of her face, and a large hook stuck deep into the muscle of the right hinge of her jaw.
The hook was deep inside her huge mouth, and Jim observed her circling around him, wondering how he would be able to remove it, and especially about how he would protect his arm from her teeth when he reached inside. His first thought was to get a piece of PVC tubing to protect his arm, then open her mouth and remove the hook, but just at that moment, Emma came straight toward him, and just before she reached him, she bit down on a large coral head.
This was an inexplicable move—sharks never bite down on coral in such a way. Yet, this unprecedented act permitted Jim, moving swiftly on the spur of the moment, to reach inside her mouth, take the hook in his fingers, and rip it out!
Blood poured into the water. Emma took her jaw off the coral head, and soared around bleeding. She stayed in the area, and continued to approach Jim to be stroked as she always did.
Later that day, while Jim was stroking her head, he tried opening her mouth to get a look at the wound, by sliding his right hand onto her nose and using his left hand to open her lower jaw. Thus encouraged, Emma opened her mouth, and he was able to see that her wound was very swollen, and was between fifteen to twenty centimetres (six to eight inches) long.
A week later Jim returned to the area, and was again able to coax the huge tiger shark to open her mouth for him. The open wound had closed, to his great relief—he was impressed by the shark’s ability to heal up quickly.
For the next four or five weeks he opened Emma’s mouth to see how her wound was healing whenever he saw her, which was about five times a week. Eventually, she began swimming up to him and opening her mouth by herself. But by the time this writer was able to visit, to observe Emma’s behaviour, the tiger shark had not been seen for about six months.
But one evening, an enormous tiger shark passed swiftly just at the visual limit. I thought of Emma—the shark was so much bigger than any of the others. She was pregnant, and the tip of her dorsal fin was missing. Soon she reappeared and glided straight into the centre where the divers were watching. Jim was on board at the time, so the word was sent that Emma had come. She was energetically roaming the area when Jim arrived on the seafloor, and she immediately swam to him.
Wounds and healing
Though I had found it hard to believe that a tiger shark would willingly open her mouth so that Jim could inspect her wound, that is exactly what she did. Jim was still reaching out for her when she opened her mouth. He rested his right hand on her head, and looked inside. She was remembering him and their complicity over her hook wounds from six months before!
Emma appeared to be excited, roaming around energetically, and often approaching Jim. I saw her open her mouth when she approached him four times. Her momentum kept her moving forward so she rose upwards, Jim moving with her, so that by the time he was able to take a good look inside, she was rising nearly vertically.
Jim described how Emma had lost the tip of her dorsal fin. He and Emma had reunited soon after she had birthed the year before, and he noted that each week, she had another mating scar. (Females generally acquire significant mating wounds because the male holds her with his teeth to stabilize the pair during copulation.)One day a small male tiger shark of about three meters (ten feet) in length was with her and kept trying to mate with her, biting her on the back of her head. Emma rejected him and eventually she swam away.
Jim followed, trying to keep them in view, but he was left behind. When Emma reappeared, the upper part of her dorsal fin had been ripped off! Filaments of cartilage were coming out of the wound, and some of her fin was missing. Jim was able to document the healing, which involved flesh replacement.
Jim described an incident in which a shark trophy hunter had visited one of the dive sites and fished some tiger sharks in the five-and-a-half-meter (18-foot) range, in hopes of setting a fishing record. As a result of the slaughter, the sharks disappeared from the area for a period of two months. Sharks of other species have also been documented to flee an area for a period of time, after some of their numbers have been slaughtered.
Knowing sharks in their liquid realm so well, and regularly witnessing such incidents, Jim has become a passionate and very powerful advocate for sharks. When he was disparagingly referred to as a “loose cannon” by one of his adversaries, Jim retorted that he was no cannon but an F-22 Tactical Fighter for sharks. And he is. As an award-winning photographer, author and film-maker, his influence is growing and spreading. His original work for sharks and his unique story is also being documented through different movies and films which will soon be available.
As well as fighting for sharks as an individual, Jim also works through a variety of important NGO’s including Operation Blue Pride, which he founded in 2011. Operation Blue Pride invites military veterans to go underwater and discover the gravity-free submarine world and the sharks who inhabit it. These wounded, handicapped men and women fall in love with the majestic creatures, while the underwater environment relieves them of the pain they feel above the surface. This special combination is the key to its success, and the organization is now building a worldwide army to take on ocean issues, starting with sharks. ■