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Video: Was this diver’s death provoked?

TODAY contributor
updated 2/27/2008 9:32:31 AM ET 2008-02-27T14:32:31

The death of a diver in the Bahamas from a shark bite was a tragic accident and not an intentional attack, according to documentary filmmaker and shark advocate Rob Stewart.

“What happened on Sunday morning was absolutely a terrible mistake,” Stewart said on Wednesday of the death of Markus Groh, 49. The Austrian attorney was with a group of seven on a shark-diving expedition run by Scuba Adventures, a Florida-based company that has been running such expeditions for years without incident.

The company lures sharks by baiting the water with crates of “chum” — hacked-up fish. Groh was bitten on the calf and died, apparently from loss of blood, before a rescue helicopter could get him to a hospital.

Speaking from Dania Beach, Fla., Stewart told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira that rather than proving that such expeditions are dangerous, Groh’s death showed that the sharks are not interested in eating people.

“They bring crates full of bait underwater to try to attract sharks,” said Stewart, who spent five years swimming with sharks while making “Sharkwater,” his recent documentary. “The shark involved was actually trying to bite at the crate full of bait when it ended up biting the man’s calf instead. Because there was no flesh actually removed from the calf, the clear intention of the shark was not to eat the human. That just shows you the reality — they’re not out there to get us.”

Others say that the attack demonstrates that such diving excursions are inherently dangerous. Florida banned the practice in 2001 because wildlife officials thought the sharks attracted by bait were becoming too aggressive. In the Bahamas, in whose waters the attack occurred, the Bahamas Diving Association last year sent a letter to Scuba Adventures and other companies that offer shark-diving expeditions asking them to stop the practice.

“We recommend all operations immediately cease and desist conducting open-water non-cage shark diving experiences with known species of potentially dangerous sharks, such as tiger sharks, bull sharks, hammerhead sharks, lemon sharks & mako sharks," the Association’s letter read.

Dangerous sport?
After Groh’s death, Neal Watson, the president of the diving association, said, “It's like taking people to the zoo and putting them over the wall of the lion pit.”

Stewart, whose documentary expressed alarm at the worldwide slaughter of sharks and their decreasing numbers in the ocean, disagreed.

“Diving with sharks is one of the best ways to get new understanding of sharks,” he told Vieira. “The reality behind sharks is they’re not menacing predators of people; they’re not out there to get human beings. This shark bite shows that the clear intention of the shark is not to eat them. By bringing people underwater with sharks, shark divers gain a new respect for them and that can help further their protection.”

He denied that the practice of baiting sharks to give tourists an up-close and personal experience with them is inherently dangerous. “As much as it is potentially a threatening experience, it really isn’t,” he said. “This is the first fatality from a shark-diving operation in history. People are dying all the time from soccer games, from skydiving and bungee-jumping.”

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Enclosing divers in shark cages would protect them even from accidental attacks, but Stewart said that many of the people who go on such expeditions are photographers who don’t want bars in the way of their pictures. They also do not have the experience of sharks swimming past them and brushing them with their fins.

“They’ve been doing this with large sharks for decades without ever a problem,” Stewart said of the shark-baiting dives. “This is a terrible accident, and something I don’t see happening in the foreseeable future.”

Officials have said that it still isn’t clear exactly what happened that led to Groh’s death. There has been speculation that after he was bitten, he panicked and surfaced too quickly, causing an embolism in his blood stream. Other reports say he died from loss of blood.

Scuba Adventures’ owner, Jim Abernethy, has not done any live interviews, but he did release a statement saying, “My heart and soul goes out to the loved ones and family members who are affected by this unfortunate accident.”

Added Stewart, “This is hopefully not going to align people with the misconception behind sharks. What I hope people come away from this [with] is realizing the shark didn’t actually eat any part of the human being. It’s just unfortunate that it happened so far out to sea that the man perished from it.”

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