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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

 

Author Peter Benchley’s marginally successful novel “Jaws” was released as a movie 42 years ago today. The film shattered box office records, rewrote the rules on movie release methods and touched off a succession of progressively awful sequels and occasionally credible documentaries that continue to fuel fascination- and mostly unreasonable fear of sharks- to this day.

Since “Jaws” every shark attack makes headlines. Nearly everyone remembers seeing the film with its shocking surprise visuals and its oddly floppy fake rubber robot shark. But most terrifyingly, everyone remembers the scenes in the water when you can see… nothing.

Director Steven Spielberg did an incredible job of building tension and terror in the unknown with soundtrack, lighting, foreshadowing and a looming sense of unseen menace. And of course, those two low notes of music that now universally signal impending doom: “duh…DUH.”

Speilberg’s skill was so effective it has created several generations of people with an irrational fear of the water, absurd notions about sharks as wanton maneaters and a general and wholly unwarranted misconception about the sea.

My girlfriend was afraid of the water. Not just what was in it, but even putting her face in it. Eight weeks later she swam unprotected at 70-feet depth off Roatan Island in Honduras in a school of 10-foot sharks in a feeding frenzy while I photographed her. Her only anxiety stemmed from my penchant to swim too far away from her to try to photograph, and pet, the swirling mass of “man eaters” as they swam around us.

My girlfriend Jan at 80-feet depth in a school of nice-sized reef sharks.

The truth is, sharks aren’t really that dangerous. In fact, I’ve spent years and thousands of dollars in travel and equipment just to find them for the chance to swim with them. And when I have been successful, which takes time, money and work. I have always been rewarded. They are beautiful and majestic. Often they are even gentle and playful.

I have swum in schools of sharks, petted sharks, fed sharks, and photographed sharks while in the water with them. No cages. Not one has ever tried to bite me. One shark in Curaçao demonstrated aggressive behavior toward me, she may have been playing with me, but she was big and she and I did not speak the same language so I simply swam away from her. She left.

Sharks are not wanton killing machines as Peter Benchley’s fictional novel suggests. Benchley’s novel is based loosely on a real life incident that took place between July 1 and July 12 in 1916 along the New Jersey coastline and, oddly, far up a small, brackish water rivulet named Matawan Creek. Sharks, or a single shark, attacked five people. Four of the victims died, more from poor first aid in 1916 than the severity of their wounds. One survived their attack.

The 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks happened as American news media was growing and people were on summer holiday. It made for sensational (and grossly embellished) headlines. It sold newspapers, pamphlets and books. And it created an absurd level of hysteria and fear so vast it continues today. Talk to any modern triathlon competitor about their biggest fear, and they will tell you it is swimming in the open ocean.

While the 1916 Jersey Shore attacks were terrifying, they were a bizarre anomaly likely attributable to a unique happenstance in shark behavior. A large shark was likely confused by the moon phase that influenced the tide and accidentally swam upriver as the water salinity (salt levels in sea water) increased in the usually fresh water. As the shark became increasingly distressed, it became increasingly aggressive and panicked. And it bit people. The same behavior is common from a squirrel, a house cat or a panicked dog. But a medium size shark can inflict a larger bite than a dog.

Since Benchley’s novel and Spielberg’s movie was released conservationists have had to wage war on the terror-driven misconceptions that have caused unreasonable fear and wanton killing of sharks. To this day the unwarranted fear continues, not only of sharks, but of the ocean in general.

Could a shark bite you? It could. But the chances are more than remote. They’re astronomical, even when you are in the water with sharks. Think about this, if you were on a street with three strange dogs would you be panicked about them attacking you? Common sense dictates you observe their behavior and go about your business. The exact same is true of sharks. Even the rarest of sharks, the holy grail of shark spotting, the great white shark, is relatively placid when not feeding. If you are ever lucky enough to actually find one it will likely swim away in disinterest.

Our fear of sharks and the ocean is like nearly all fears. It is founded in lore and ignorance. The remedy is learning and understanding while developing a strong respect for this vast remaining wilderness and the marvelous creatures that live in it.

 

Author Tom Demerly will pet just about anything, even sharks, but never catches any fish. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for Tom Demerly.com

Only a mile and half at its widest, The Detroit River has been a geographical barrier between opposing tribes, rum runners and nations. Few rivers hold this much history. Globally, the Detroit River shares its historical relevance with the Mississippi in the United States, the Bosphorus in Turkey, the Rhine in Germany, the Ganges in India, the Volga in Russia, Paris’ Seine River, Egypt’s Nile, China’s Yangtze and other globally significant waterways like Iraq’s Tigris and Vietnam’s Mekong.

Last Wednesday, as members of the Detroit History Club, my girlfriend Jan Mack and I sailed the historic Detroit River on the 85-foot long Appledore IV two-masted schooner. Appledore IV transports its crew and passengers back in time as soon as they step on board. It is a fitting vessel for a trip back into the remarkable history of Detroit and its unique river.

Our guide on board Appledore IV was Miss Bailey of the Detroit Historical Club. Her encyclopedic knowledge of Detroit history was matched only by her wit and talent. She delivered a fascinating running narration of Detroit’s sensational history from Native conflicts to daring rum-runners driving modified Ford Model-T’s across the frozen river in an occasionally unsuccessful attempt at defying prohibition.

After casting off from the dock in front of Detroit’s Renaissance Center and General Motors headquarters we set sail on moderate winds and calm waters north and east toward Belle Isle and the Hiram Walker distillery. As we sailed across the Detroit River the strong and delicious scent of baking bread drifts off the Windsor shore from the Hiram Walker complex. The yeast processing for spirits production at the distillery produces the delightful aroma, lost on powerboats to their exhaust smell but blissfully preserved onboard the sail-driven Appledore IV.

Once at the top of the river we reversed course under jibbing canvas sails, ducking under swinging booms and picking up winds that brought us downriver toward the majestic Ambassador Bridge. We sailed under, marveling at the incredible volume of truck traffic engaging in the free exchange of goods between Canada and the U.S. that typifies the relationship between the two countries.

To the south we saw the dark silhouette of the industrial monolith of Zug Island, formerly one of the most polluted places on earth, now in the midst of reform into at least a slightly less toxic habitat. Today foxes, peregrine falcons, feral cats and other unusual species share the island with its heavy industrial tenants like steel mills and coke ovens. A rare species of sturgeon lives on one side of the island because of the deposits of coal cinders that collect on the bottom of the river from the industrial activity.

Mystery surrounds much of Zug Island, a private, manmade industrial otherworld that has produced an undefined loud humming sound to the distress of residents as far as ten miles away. Some say it is the sound of wind through industrial structures on the island. Over a million dollars has been spent on studies to find the source of the bizarre sound but the maker of the mechanical music remains a mystery.

Shipping traffic is a huge part of the Detroit River. During our cruise we saw two passages, one a massive ore freighter and the other a smaller cargo vessel, our radios crackling to life with instructions from the river traffic control as Customs and Border Patrol vessels zipped back and forth. The Detroit River is one of the busiest commercial rivers on earth, and ship spotting along its banks is a popular pastime.

This cruise aboard Appledore IV with the Detroit History Club is a rare and intrinsic perspective on Detroit, and one all Detroiters ought imbibe in. People who live in Detroit and its suburbs often have a deep affection for something undefinable about the city that makes it unique. An intrinsic authenticity and resilience belonging to a place that survived riots, wars, fires and economic collapse. Detroit has produced iron and steel, innovation and art. But few people own the deep historical context of Detroit’s remarkable and repetitive penchant for survival and prosperity.

To join the Detroit History Club and enjoy their many fascinating and varied events follow this link:

 

http://www.detroithistoryclub.com

Photos and Story by Tom Demerly with Jan Mack.

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I’m going to puke.

The waves just won’t let up. My equipment is too tight. It is digging into my guts. I pissed inside my wetsuit and another guy’s fins keep whacking my ankle hard enough to make my legs scream. I’m drenched with cold salt spray. The wind coming over the bow is freezing. I can’t see a thing except some vague notion that we are getting farther and farther from land and the ocean keeps getting rougher and rougher.

I’m headed south from Roatan Island, Honduras in a very crowded, open skiff that more closely resembles a Somali refugee boat than a dive yacht. My girlfriend is sitting next to me.

At least she was my girlfriend when we got on the boat.

She might not be if we make it back to shore. This week she earned her Advanced Open Water SCUBA Diver certification, often diving in silty, dark brown water with the same visibility as day-old coffee. Now we’re about to dive in heavy seas far offshore at significant depth in a school of sharks. Big sharks.

And we’re not using a shark cage.

Speaking of refugees, some of our boat crew looks more like… well; this isn’t Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso. They find some seemingly random point in the tossing ocean marked by a soccer ball-sized red buoy almost too small to see. It’s too deep to anchor. We tie off to the buoy line.

The incessant, nauseating roll of the ocean is worse once the boat stops. At least I’m not getting pelted by freezing salt spray and having my rapidly contracting nuts crushed on the fiberglass benches of the gunwales anymore.

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The idea is, “Get out of the boat as fast as you can” because being in the boat sucks. Divers are doing back rolls into the waves immediately, like there is a fire on board. I think everybody is ready to barf, and SCUBA divers know it is always calmer underwater.

I glance at my girlfriend. She isn’t smiling.

I roll off the rail and fall a long way into a wave trough before I hit the water tank-first with a commanding splat. The boat slides down the same wave and crushes me underwater. I’m glad I forgot to inflate my buoyancy compensator vest since I really would have gotten clobbered if I had, but now I’m hurrying to get compressed air into my vest since the weight of my gear is dragging me under fast.

I roll over and look down. There is a shark. About the size of a Toyota. Its pectoral fins are gracefully splayed outward; I have a perfect plan-view of it 60-feet below. There is another. And another… They circle slowly in silence down there.

The sharks know we are coming. They swim up from the depths and wait. Wait for something to eat. Wait for us. Wait for the black-rubber bubble monkeys to come see them.

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This is the Cara a’ Cara dive site. In Spanish, “Face to Face”. It’s named that because it is world famous for having a face-to-face encounter with big sharks at depth without protective cages.

There are a few species at Cara a’ Cara but the most common are Carcharhinus Perezi, the Caribbean Reef Shark.

Caribbean Reef Sharks are large, about 10-feet at full size. They share the top of the food chain with other large sharks in the Caribbean reefs, especially in shallow water above 200 feet depth.

These sharks are not dangerous or aggressive. If they feel threatened, which is rare, they exhibit a “threat behavior” posture akin to a cat arching its back. They eat fish, and because there are a lot of fish around them in the Caribbean, they are seldom hungry. These facts make them a rather threatening looking, but actually agreeable shark species.

We’ve brought fish with us, and a load of camera toting “adventure” tourists looking for a thrill, a good story, a good Facebook post. And I am one of them.

We brought our dive master with us. His name is Russell Nicholson. Nicholson would fit easily into the crew of the Calypso as one of the divers in a Jacques Cousteau documentary. Bearded, slim, handsome, fit, 26. He speaks with a British accent that seems like narration in every Discovery Channel wildlife documentary you’ve seen. Nicholson has dove everywhere. He is calm and relaxed underwater. During our dives earlier this week I studied his technique, fanning his fins in a motion more like an aquatic animal than a SCUBA diver to move slowly along underwater.

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I don’t know it now, but Jan is still on the surface, tossing over the waves and expressing concern about the safety of this dive to Russell.

Me? I’m a tourist who just wants to pet sharks.

As usual it is decidedly less chaotic underwater. Visibility is good, maybe a couple hundred feet, the water is warmer than the air and there are, thank God, no waves churning my stomach down here.

A queue of divers who speak five different languages hangs onto the mooring line beneath the buoy. Our languages don’t matter underwater. We descend the mooring line as a group, as though we are rappelling into the steel blue depth.

There is a reef at our back forming a natural theater. We keep the theater wall to our back, presumably to limit the approach of sharks from behind us but more realistically to keep a bunch of tourist divers from swimming off willy-nilly chasing sharks and getting lost a couple miles off shore.

We pack in, divers next to one another against the reef at 70-feet depth. A moray eel who makes his home here sticks his large, green head out inches from my right elbow in greeting or in grumpy warning to “stay off my lawn”.

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The dive master on this dive brings a bait box to feed the sharks. And this is why they always come. And also why what we are doing may be considered wrong.

According to the late R. Aidan Martin the former Director of the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research, a Research Associate of the Zoology Department of the University of British Columbia, and an Adjunct Professor of the Oceanographic Center of Nova Southeastern University:

“In recent years, organized shark feeds have provoked considerable controversy. Critics claim that this activity changes the behavior of sharks and the structure of reef ecosystems. There is concern that sharks become dependent on these ‘hand outs’ and may associate all humans with food, increasing the likelihood of attack. Proponents argue that sharks are simply opportunistic, if the feedings stopped, the sharks would simply disperse and go back to feeding upon whatever they fed on before. Although accidental nips have occurred (mostly received by ‘shark wranglers’ conducting the feed underwater), there is no good evidence that shark feedings increase the likelihood of attack away from the feeding site. The issue of modifying reef ecosystems is more difficult to assess. Yes, shark feeds may concentrate predators artificially and the intensified removal of fishes from the environment for use as shark bait is a concern. But populations of sharks and other reef predators have been seriously depleted by overfishing and habitat erosion and many operators use left-over scraps from local restaurants, using fish remains that otherwise would have gone to waste. Clearly, this is a complex issue and a quick or easy resolution is not on the horizon.”

My guilty concerns about reckless “eco-tourism” are somewhat assuaged by Martin’s remarks. If we leave, the sharks won’t flop around on the bottom waiting for handouts from tourists. They’ll just keep being sharks, like they’ve done for millions of years as one of the oldest surviving species on earth.

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The sharks are close now; there are about 20 of them. And they are breathtakingly beautiful.

I’ve loved sharks- or the idea of sharks- all my life. When I was a kid I read Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws” and saw the movie over and over. I’m not sure why I liked it so much. It just seemed… adventurous.

But as we grow up our perspective changes. And hopefully we learn. Between my years as a zitty teenager reading Peter Benchley books and sitting in the dollar theater and now I had traveled the world. I remembered my fascination with sharks. After nearly 200 triathlons, quite a few of those in the ocean, I had never seen one- a big one, up close. I was a SCUBA diver, but all I saw were nurse sharks. One time a big bull shark followed me while snorkeling in Belize. Another time I found a school of sickle fin lemon sharks in the Virgin Islands and waded in to swim with them while they dined on a school of panicked baitfish.

But I never had that moment with sharks, big sharks. Until now.

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Operating my camera took work as the sharks circled in front of us at 70 feet. I tried to stay relaxed so I got decent photos. Prayed my camera would work down here.

Then I looked up. She was four feet from me, swimming right into my mask. A big 8-footer. A shark bigger than me. I shot one photo of her coming head-on, then gently kicked my fins once to scoot over, to let her pass.

She was only inches from me, so I touched her. You aren’t supposed to touch the sharks on a shark dive, but I will die someday and this may be my only chance. It was selfish, but I wanted to know what it felt like to touch her, and I wanted her to know I did.

I gently laid my hand on top of her right pectoral fin. It remained motionless as she glided forward slowly. I was struck by her… firmness. Her pectoral fin was hard. The sharkskin, just as you read, was rough and like sandpaper. Fine sandpaper.

She did not react, flinch, dart away, rear around and bite. She just swam- glided rather- straight ahead. I watched, her tail barely undulating slowly side to side in an elegant kind of Hula.

The divemaster opened the bait can and the sharks went berserk, a wild spinning mass of 8-foot rifle bullet bodies darting into the same space. The clear water was stirred into a silty mess, and I was surrounded by sharks ripping a small bait bucket to pieces.

I don’t know where my girlfriend was.

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The silt settled quickly as it does at depth, and the sharks regained their composure. Now the divers left the rock amphitheater and swam amongst them. We swam with them, alongside them.

It seemed so incredibly good, so beautiful and safe and wild and good. The gentle sharks, retired from their feeding frenzy, glided amongst us, cameras going off, divers marveling at their size and shape and girth and elegant power.

And then divers began to ascend the rope. But I wanted to stay. As divers left I was on the bottom with more and more sharks- there were more of them and less of us. Finally, the last diver and myself started toward the buoy line to begin our sad ascent to the world of air and problems. I did look down one more time at them, and they were leaving.

I fear that we are losing the world. Nature. Animals. The sea. That it is already damaged beyond repair and despite our quaint efforts to save it, it is too late. And I am old. 54. So this may have been my last chance. And I did, quite selfishly, take it.

One day I will die.

If I am lying in a bed, doped by drugs and drifting in and out of life, I hope I remember them still- the beautiful sharks- and how I felt with them. How perfect and majestic and regal they were. I hope I remember them as I die of old age.

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Author Tom Demerly likes cats as well sharks, can’t help petting them both and has been all over the world.

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By Tom Demerly.

MrX10

He just appeared.

Out the back window in a pool of light at 12:34 AM. He was interested in what was inside our window. When he looked inside our house he saw two happy, healthy, well-fed cats with rooms full of toys and cat trees and water fountains and beds. He had a sad look of longing on his face.

And then he was gone.

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It was March 13 that first time we saw him. Since then he has come back many times. Sometimes he just shows up. He comes running when he sees us. Now he answers to our voice when he is around or meows outside the window to come in.

We started calling him “Mr. X”, a man with no name, no obvious place of belonging.

When Mr. X arrived the first time I was concerned. Animals show emotion on their face. After decades of living with cats I could tell Mr. X was not happy outside our house that night. He wanted a warm blanket, a cat tree, something to eat and a friend.

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We kept an eye out for him and over time he would make his way back for another visit. Then another. Finally, one day, we invited him into the back porch. It’s segregated from our two cats (inside only cats with clean health records). He was incredibly affectionate, loved to be petted, then held, then brushed. He smiled a big cat smile and purred when we gave him his own blanket. Then we bought him a water dish, a food bowl, his own litter box, a heated bed, all on his own glassed-in patio.

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We wondered where he was from. Was he someone else’s cat? Did a family move away and abandon him? There were five houses for sale on our block- he could have been from one of them- a family moved out and left him behind.

We had a special collar with our phone number made and we planned to put the bright red collar with our contact number on him so if anyone owned him they could call us when he got home. Domestic cats have relatively small territories, males larger than females, but finite territories nonetheless.

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Mr. X happily accepted the collar and went on his way. We hoped we’d find an answer to the mystery of Mr. X soon.

On April 1st at 10:57 AM I got a text message, “My cat came home with a collar that had this number on it. Did you put it on?”

Success. Mr. X had a home, and a name. His name is “Chester”. We don’t know his last name.

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As it turns out Mr. Chester lives next door. He comes and goes as he pleases. The people who own him have children who love him and take good care of him. His excellent disposition speaks to their kind treatment of him. But the person who texted me told us her husband is allergic to cats and they were looking to relocate him.

Of course, Mr. Chester has a vote in all this.

Over the next few days Chester made it clear he loves us and enjoys good food, a heated bed and a wide open back porch to lay in while the sun spills through the window during the day.

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But Mr. Chester also loves his freedom. He wakes up from his daytime naps and wanders out of the back porch at night. He plays in the yard, running around me, playing fetch, getting petted and stalking imaginary things.

Then he disappears.

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We’ll see him in the window next door. Then outside. Then back in our porch. Our cats haven’t met him except through the window and screen and by sharing scents on the back porch after he leaves. Mr. Chester needs a clean veterinarian exam before he integrates with our cats because of disease that can be transmitted from cat to cat.

But there is more: As it turns out the man next door isn’t the only one allergic to cats though. Jan Mack is also allergic, and she takes a coal shovel full of prescriptions every day to moderate her allergies to our two cats, MiMi and Vice-Admiral Malcom Fredrick Davis III. So the full integration of Mr. Chester into our home may never be possible for three reasons; Jan is allergic, and a third cat may add to the symptoms, Mr. Chester may not want to live inside permanently, and outside cats can put inside cats at risk for transmitted disease. Lastly, MiMi and the Vice-Admiral may not want a new cat. They are curious about Mr. Chester’s visits, but reserved about him being a permanent resident.

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So, as it turns out, Mr. Chester is the decider in this matter. If he decides he wants to move from next door to our house, he is welcome as long as we can moderate the issues of Jan’s allergies and integrate him with MiMi and the Vice-Admiral. But those factors also weigh heavily on the matter.

For now, Mr. Chester is enjoying the benefits of two households and seems quite pleased about it. A veterinarian visit is in his future, and we worry about his exposure to traffic and other animals outside, but he appears to be a clever man who has made his way so far.

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By Tom Demerly.

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Happy customers, shiny new bikes, talk of rides and races to come on warm mornings and long days. Sunny Saturdays in the bike shop are always fun. We sell toys for grown-ups, and our store is a bright and cheerful place.

Until someone asks about that bike.

It hangs in the back corner of our store, out of the way, near the restrooms. It’s above the drinking fountain over old shoes and helmets marked down for clearance.

Sometimes we lie to people about it.

Because the truth is too frightening.

18 July 1995.

11:46 AM Local, Tuesday, Route Nationale 618, Outside Audressein, South West France.

He’s a fine looking lad.

Eyes look wide apart because a champion pro cyclist has to be so skinny. Dark hair, wavy- like a statue of an athlete in a museum. He’s a hero in his hometown of Como, Italy. This is what boys are supposed to do- grow up to be great athletes. He’s already an Olympic Gold Medalist, 1992 Barcelona. He won the crowning bike event there, the Men’s Road Race. All of Italy went wild.

Fabio Casartelli became their son after that- all of Italy’s son. Their great promise. A rising hero. Italy loves their heroes and Fabio Casartelli is a worthy idol.

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Casartalli wins the Olympic Gold Medal in the Men’s Road Race in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain.

Now he is hurtling down a mountain on his team Motorola racing bike in the first hour of Stage 15 in the Tour de France. He is descending the Col de Portet d’Aspet in the French Pyrenees.

Top professional cyclists routinely reach speeds over 50 MPH on mountain descents, and the narrow, spastic roads of the Haute-Garonne region seem to have been planned by a man having a seizure. They wind like a venomous snake held by the tail trying to bite its captor.

Scott Parr is used to this. He sits back seat in a team car that can’t keep pace with descending cyclists in the 15th stage of this Tour de France. The bikes are faster than the team cars going down the mountains, so the cars have to back off.

Parr is an elite level pro team mechanic. The cycling equivalent of a one-man Formula 1 pit crew. He rides in a suped-up Fiat support car for the Motorola Cycling Team. In the car with him are spare wheels, custom tools he’s made just for servicing race bikes, the team director and, a relatively new development in the Tour de France, two-way radios.

Car tires screech on the descent. You can smell brakes and hot rubber. The sports car disc brakes on the Fiat are too hot to touch now as the car heels side to side on the twisted descent. Parr braces himself in the back seat like a pilot in a dogfighting jet.

The two-way radio carries French commentary of the race and official announcements. It’s the usual traffic. News of the leaders, positions of the vehicles in the support caravan. Then the two words that turn warm blood to ice water come over the radio:

“Chute! Chute brutale…!”

Parr is ready. It’s a well-drilled routine. The car will pull to the right. He will have already opened the door when it skids to a halt. Like a bicycle service SWAT team he will run from the back of the car, one front wheel and one rear wheel in hand. He can change a rear wheel in less than eight seconds, a front even faster.

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Top pro team mechanic, author of “Tales from the Toolbox” and founder of The Bike & Tri Shop, Scott Parr, works on one of the Motorola Team bikes at the Tour de France.

“This radio call was something different” Scott Parr tells me. “Usually they announce the team name involved in the crash. On this one, there was nothing. It was weird.” Scott is glancing around the room now. Uncomfortable recounting that day. Face turning red. Unusual for him.

With a cool head and a steady hand Parr will make a wheel change, bend something back into place, help a rider remount and give him a quick push to get him going again. That’s how it usually goes.

But this stop is different.

The crash scene is a wide, sweeping left-hander on excellent pavement. Bright green trees on either side of the road. Brilliant sunshine. The terrain to the right of the road plummets almost vertically off a cliff through tangled brush. No guardrail, but rather, a series of white concrete blocks about a foot high spaced six feet apart. There is no run-off area. You miss the turn, you go off the cliff.

It is a melee’. Five men are down. Only four are on the road though. That’s important.

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The crash scene: A. Unknown rider. B. Kelme rider Juan Cesar Aguirre. C. Motorola rider Fabio Casartelli. D. German rider Dirk Baldinger.

The first man is frozen in shock. He seems to be comfortably seated on the road facing outward, as if to take in the view off the cliff. He sits oddly still, no reaction. At his feet is a tangle of racing bikes.

The second man seems comfortably lying in a ball, as if exhausted and sleeping, his legs drawn up with left arm over them. It looks like a position a cat might sleep in, except he is lying in the middle of a mountain road with bike racers and race team cars hurtling within inches of him. He’s motionless.

An expanding slick of bright red blood pours down the slope of the road from his head. So much blood…

The third man is still in the fight. He has gone into the battle drill of a crashed cyclist. He is standing, signaling for a new bike from his team car, he grips his left thigh, presumably where he landed. His only motive is to rejoin the race. Team cars barely miss him hurtling down the descent, horns bleating above the chaos.

The fourth man, it’s hard to tell from grainy race video 21 years later, appears to be sorting out his bike on the pavement.

Four men. Someone is missing.

French rider Dante Rezze of the Aki cycling team.

Rezze is not a handsome man. Compared to the darling Fabio Casartelli, Rezze looks like a boxer who has suffered the blows of a dubious career. His black olive hair stands too high in an awkward pompadour.

Rezze carried too much speed into this wide left-hander, missed the turn entirely and soared off the cliff in an arcing trajectory into open space. The only thing that stopped his freefall were the branches of trees below. Miraculously, he survives. His left leg is broken.

Back up on the road German rider Dirk Baldinger’s face is drawn into a tight grimace. Baldinger’s leg, or hip, are fractured from the crash. He will abandon the race due to his injuries.

Modest Columbian support rider Juan Cesar Aguirre of the Kelme team is also down, less seriously injured perhaps but entirely demoralized by the ordeal. He abandons the race here. He was the waving man, initially fighting to get back into the race.

Rezze and Baldinger are med-evaced by ground ambulance to treat their fractures. An ad-hoc recovery team has discovered the fallen Dante Rezze and is brainstorming recovery techniques for pulling him up the cliff.

But back on the road there is horror.

Dr. Gerard Porte is on the scene now, the official medical director of the Tour de France. Dr. Porte is skilled in the emergency treatment of injured cyclists. He follows the race in a specially equipped medical support car. He is kneeling in an expanding slick of blood streaming from Casartelli’s battered head.

Porte has never seen a cycling crash like this.

Quoted in the New York Times by famous cycling journalist Samuel Abt, Dr. Porte told journalists, “I arrived 10 seconds after the fall. I could tell it was a serious injury. Casartelli had cuts that were bleeding badly. We did everything in the best conditions and as fast as we could. But he had very serious cuts, and when there’s such heavy bleeding you know it was [a] very powerful impact.”

Casartelli was not wearing a helmet.

A French-built Eurocopter AS350 Écureuil helicopter is summoned via emergency radio to evacuate Casartelli to the hospital. Reports say his heart stopped in the medevac helicopter en route to the hospital.

At 14:39 Jean-Marie Leblanc, Director of the Tour de France, makes an announcement on internal race radio.

Motorola rider Fabio Casartelli is dead.

In a gut-punching epilogue Casartelli leaves behind his wife Annalisa who had only just given birth to their first son Marco.

It’s a terrifying contrast: one moment a rising star athlete with a fresh new family gallantly descending a mountain in the Tour de France, the next a contorted corpse in the fetal position on the hot pavement with a battered skull gushing dark blood.

21 Years Later. 

Back in our store Scott Parr tells me he was in shock that day. It’s the first time he’s talked about the crash in all the years I’ve known him. He is a quiet and controlled man, not given to emotion or embellishment.

“One by one the other team cars drove up to us, alongside our car. They all said they were sorry- offered their condolences…”

Parr looks to his right. Eyes red now. He has nothing more to say about the accident. The years of silence about the crash had broken momentarily, now the silence returns.

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A memorial stands on the route where Casartelli crashed. It’s become a shrine for cyclists around the world.

The next day he tells me “You can take some pictures of the bike if you want. Maybe it’s time to write something about it.”

The bike is an Eddy Merckx. Handmade in Belgium. One of Casartelli’s spare bikes. It is Columbus MXL cro-moly tubing. A heavy bike by today’s standards, it uses a series of lugs or joints to connect the individual frame tubes in a difficult assembly and brazing process.

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It uses Shimano Dura-Ace components, 8-speed back then. The STI brake/shift levers are old skool, with external cable routing. The stem is a quill-style. The original bike used a titanium Cinelli Grammo stem that has since been replaced.

It was repainted at the Eddy Merckx factory in Zellik, on the outskirts of Brussels, Belgium. The original bike said “Caloi” on it, a sponsor of the team at the time. The new paint is beautiful, with the Merckx logos carefully outlined.

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Many of the fasteners are special blue anodized bolts made by SRP, or Specialty Racing Products, an aftermarket manufacturer of lightweight fasteners who sponsored the Motorola cycling team.

A few of the components have been changed, the wheels, a few other things, but this is Casartelli’s frame. And it hangs as a quiet reminder. A quiet tribute. A quiet caution.

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Helmets became mandatory in professional cycling soon after the Casartelli tragedy. Even though initial reports suggested a helmet would not have prevented Casartelli’s death a subsequent report revealed that a helmet likely would have saved him. And so, today, we all wear helmets. Mostly because of Fabio.

What happens to a person as they lay dying? Do they know they’re dying? Are they trying to hold on, to tighten the grip on the only fleeting life we know? Does something welcome them? That light people talk about? Or is it just comforting darkness? It’s frightening to ponder. Sometimes when I pass it, Casartelli’s bike asks me that question. And it always reminds me to wear a helmet, be aware of my surroundings on the bike and use caution.

And Scott seldom mentions the bike, but it continues to hang above our drinking fountain.

__________________________________________

 

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Author Tom Demerly raced bicycles quite poorly in Europe with the Nike/Velo-News/Gatorade Cycling Team in 1990. Now he writes about cycling, which he finds substantially easier.

 

By Tom Demerly.

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The mysterious, abandoned Gulfstream II business jet with registration number N707KD at Roatan Airport. Photo shot on Saturday, 20 February, 2016 by the author.

 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014, approximately 1540 HRs Local, North of Roatan, Honduras in the Southern Caribbean.

Eric Emanuel Mejia Montes is sweating.

Montes is sitting in the right, co-pilot’s seat of a Gulfstream II private jet wearing registration N707KD. Only 40-feet below, and slightly behind him is a Cessna 182 single engine, prop-driven civil aviation light plane.

Flying in tight formation the two planes are on final approach to Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Manuel Gálvez, the only airport on Roatan Island, 30 miles off the Honduran coast in the southwestern Caribbean.

The Cessna’s maximum speed is 173 MPH. The Gulfstream II’s minimum stall speed is 121 MPH. Any slower and it falls out of the sky. The Cessna can’t fly any faster to keep up with the jet, now flying so slow it is a wind gust away from falling out of the sky.

The two very different aircraft, one a private executive jet designed for intercontinental travel, the other a light general aviation plane, were never intended to fly close formation with each other, let alone in bumpy tropical air near sunset on short-final approach to a small island runway with no air traffic control facilities.

On radar the two aircraft look like one because they are so close, and despite the stress of trying to hold a close formation (Montes isn’t much of a pilot, barely qualified to fly the Gulfstream) it is more important they risk a midair collision than be detected by the radar-carrying AWACS planes of the U.S. and Mexican security forces.

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The Michael Mann fictional movie “Miami Vice” depicted two drug smuggling aircraft flying in close proximity to appear as one on radar for the purpose of concealing one of the planes.

Co-Pilot Montes and his “captain” have the easier job. The man, or men, in the Cessna beneath them must wait until the last second before they steer away from the jet above them, avoid a midair collision and quickly land on the same runway behind the jet. Then Montes and Ríos will taxi the jet to a parking area, abandon it and run to the still-running Cessna light plane for a hasty take-off from Roatan. All without official clearance and mostly without detection.

The two planes and their crews followed a mysterious, untraceable path south toward Roatan. No one knows where they took off from, and there was no flight plan filed for their destination. The authorities at Juan Manuel Gálvez Airport, what authorities there are, knew nothing of the arrival of this unusual formation of aircraft.

No one knows exactly what Gulfstream II N707KD and the Cessna 182 are doing. No one knows where they came from.

Three years later what I learned poking around Roatan’s little airport, its island shops and restaurants, from taxi drivers on the island and local SCUBA divers, is that the next day the Cessna 182 that left Roatan with both flight crews- was shot down. All of the crew members were killed according to reports- what reports there are- and no accessible record of who the original Cessna pilots were, where they came from or what they were doing exists.

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A Russian-built Venezuelan Air Force Sukhoi SU-30MKK.

From other sources I learned the Cessna 182 was intercepted that next day over the jungle by a Russian-built Venezuelan Air Force Sukhoi SU-30MKV Flanker-G. The big Venezuelan fighter shot the Cessna down with a burst from its GSh-30-1 30 millimeter cannon. The charred bodies of Darimel Guerrero Ríos and Eric Emanuel Mejia Montes- the flight crew of Gulfstream II N707KD- were found inside.

But no one else was.

Reports revealed the Gulfstream II that landed without clearance the day before on Roatan and was quickly abandoned without explanation “tested positive for having carried narcotics”. It didn’t take an expert intelligence analyst to figure that out.

But what happened afterwards- the disappearance of the Cessna flight crew, the shoot-down by the Venezuelan fighter, the lack of documentation of most of the incidents and the almost complete lack of reporting on the entire incident- is perhaps the most fascinating part of the story.

Or maybe not.

In a search of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s database for fugitives the name of one, “’Mike’, Mohammed Mouied, alias EL KHATEEB and/or Mike KHATEEB” is revealed in a search for the names of Darimel Guerrero Ríos and Eric Emanuel Mejia Montes.

Mouied or El Khateeb, or Mike Khateeb- whichever alias you prefer (they’re likely all fake) is a Jordanian. There is a moderately serious criminal record for meth-amphetamine attached to his name and the directive “Do not attempt to apprehend this individual.” His activities appear unrelated to the incident of abandoning the aircraft on Roatan and the shooting-down of the Cessna the next day by the Venezuelans. But he is still somehow linked to the incident- at least in the DEA database.

The abandoned Gulfstream II, registration N707KD, remains at Juan Manuel Gálvez Airport in Roatan. If you fly onto the island for a holiday, look to your left as your plane lands. That’s it sitting north of the runway across from the small terminal. No one has claimed the half-million dollar jet. Curiously, it has not been seized and sold by authorities. It just sits.

And in the mystery of Gulfstream II N707KD there remain many more questions than there are answers.

 

 

 

All Photos and Story By Tom Demerly and Jan Mack.

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What is left of our oceans? Is it too late to “save” our planet? Does sustainable tourism exist?

Roatan, Honduras is an island 40 miles off the coast of mainland Honduras in the western Caribbean. It is home to the largest barrier reef in the western hemisphere, the Mesoamerican Reef, second largest in the world.

My girlfriend Jan and I went to Roatan to find a place that is quiet and safe, untrampled by tourists and free from the industrial harvest of its resources. We wanted to see if there is anything left.

We found interesting- and disturbing- contrasts.

One 7,858-foot concrete airport runway serves Roatan. It’s large enough to land a Boeing 757 on- barely, and according to some sources, not quite long enough to take it off from. But Delta Airlines operates 757 service to Roatan once a week if weather permits.

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The Saturday we flew into Juan Manuel Gálvez International Airport was iffy. Low cloud and driving rain raked the island. It was February 13, 2016.

There is no modern landing approach system for Roatan’s only runway- no runway lights either. If the weather is too bad to land when you get there, you fly back home. The landing is even sketchier since your aircraft has to carry at least enough fuel to fly back to the mainland if it can’t land because of bad weather. During the fifth circle above the airport at 3,000 feet over a barely broken- and thickening- cloud layer our pilot’s announcements became increasingly tense.

“We’re going to try for it.” The pilot announced. Airline passengers are uneasy with terms like “try for it” when it comes to landing a big plane loaded with fuel on a short island runway.

Our huge Boeing caromed onto the end of runway 07/25 right on the ocean’s edge like a fighter onto an aircraft carrier. Brakes screeched hard as the thrust reversers on our twin jet engines shot an eight-foot diameter plume of spray forward of our plane. With only yards of runway left we stopped. We didn’t know when we landed we would need every inch of it for take-off a week later if it were a hot day, which is almost every day in Honduras.

Minutes later a United 737 twin-engine airliner made a similar attempt at getting into Roatan- and failed. He flew back to the mainland. We were the only flight to get onto the island that day. When we left the immigration checks, the airport closed.

They fingerprint you coming into Roatan and take your picture. There have been problems. Problems with people coming to commit fraud, sexual crimes, drug use and trafficking. It isn’t an epidemic though. The island is, based on our experience, safe and friendly. The islanders have built this line of defense against the things that make mainland Honduras, one of the most dangerous places in Central America, unsafe for tourism.

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Every islander told us that mainland Honduras milks Roatan tourism as its cash cow but returns little back to the island. Both holiday tourism from the few cruise ships that visit for day trips and slightly more adventurous “eco-tourism” for the SCUBA diver crowd. Jan and I were the later. We imagined ourselves as somehow… “better” or more authentic than the cruisers.

Our base would be Blue Island Divers, a rustic, beautiful dive center on the north coast of Sandy Bay with two cottages on the beach. Eric and Carly White run Blue Island Divers. They’re Texans, with the attendant drawl and pleasant manner. But their easy attitude belies a work ethic that is tireless. Filling SCUBA tanks, fixing plumbing, scheduling dives, maintaining boats, serving drinks, teaching new divers and improving existing ones- all done quietly behind the scenes against a backdrop of relaxed island paradise.

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What Carly and Eric have created at Blue Island Divers is a sparkling gem in a vast sea of lesser experiences. Authentic and welcoming, small and quant, this is exactly what we had hoped for- a quiet cabin on a remote beach with tropical birds and roosters for alarm clocks, sunset views and hammocks swaying under jungle palms. It looks like a movie set. Exotic reef fish swim in shallow, crystal water forty steps from where our heads hit the pillow in our cottage. You can walk the beach for kilometers in either direction. The reef sits yards off the beach, creating a calm estuary ideal for swimming, snorkeling, sunning and teaching new divers. In our front yard lies some of the best diving anywhere on earth- a two-minute small boat ride away. Some dives sites you can swim to.

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Our beach cabin at Blue Island Divers in Roatan.

My girlfriend Jan is a new SCUBA diver and I am an old one who hasn’t been underwater in years. We took basic and refresher dive training in Michigan then went to Roatan for her open water certification dives and to explore one of the most renowned dive sites in the world.

Jan is a triathlete who had open water swim anxiety. She ‘s an Ironman finisher. It may seem odd that she was uncomfortable swimming in open water but fears of the unseen live in our minds that way. SCUBA diving is a way to understand what is really below the surface to moderate those fears.

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Our dive instructor and dive master at Blue Island Divers is Russell Nicholson, 26, originally from Newmarket, United Kingdom. Nicholson looks the part; short, Errol Flynn beard, curled hair and relaxed eyes that never waver, never suggest alarm or urgency. His voice is a laconic monotone of British accent, always spoken at a volume that politely requests attention rather than loudly demands it. His remarks about a dive site, sea conditions, dangerous sea life and submarine lesson plans are precisely spoken and trimmed of any sensation. There is the slightest hint of Ian Fleming’s James Bond when he suggests we “Just go inside, and have a nice swim-through” at an underwater cavern in 65-feet of ocean that opens over a submarine cliff dropping into a black abyss. No other dive master could have made us confident in such an expedition. Nicholson made it seem almost… pastoral. “We’ll just kip down and have a look, then we’ll decide.”

Russ Nicholson got here after finishing college, sciences and exercise physiology, in England at the height of the recession. With poor job prospects he did what any self-respecting English adventurer does, he traveled the world as a SCUBA instructor.

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Dive Instructor Russ Nicholson.

“Egypt was incredible, but the Muslim Brotherhood and the unstable government made things a bit dodgy at times…” From there to Asia, Thailand, Indonesia across the Pacific to Australia where he worked construction for a couple years. Then back on the road of undersea adventure as an expert dive instructor. Nicholson certified over 500 divers and built a reputation as one of the finest dive instructors across that part of the world. Now he sat across from us, our own private instructor and underwater guide.

Drenching rains and ocean gales pummeled the island washing rivulets of thick jungle mud through swollen rivers dumping into the ocean when we arrived. The island wore a dense, brown belt between its beaches and the reefs. Diving was nearly impossible in the salt-water muck upon our arrival.

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A short day later as the weather broke we boarded one of Blue Island Divers’ small dive skiffs from their dock and motored over peeling tubes of big waves that looked like the opening of “Hawaii Five-O”. Our boat Captain, Elden, is an islander. To him the sea has road signs on it. To us it was a dangerous tempest. He navigates the waves and reef like a commuter on a cloverleaf with a Garmin.

Elden found passage between a small island and the reef, ducking behind it then out to sea between waves. Once past the reef our dive boat rose and fell with nauseating amplitude. Combined with a grey sky, dark water and threatening rain it was a good day to lose your lunch over the rail. I dry-heaved five times in the attempt.

After Russ administered our pre-dive checklists and Jan and I did a buddy check we did a back roll entry, swam the five-foot rollers on the surface to the reef marker and deflated our buoyancy compensators for the descent.

Everything changed. A vast landscape, varied and perfect, spanned below us as we fell like underwater skydivers to the white sand sea floor. It was calm underwater. Swarms of colorful fish swam easily in relaxed processions over white sugar sand between coral arrangements the size of buildings. Instantly ten or fifteen species were in front of us. As if queued by our entry a peaceful sea turtle flew over the bottom. What was chaotic and stormy on the surface gave way to Roatan’s main paradise- the paradise beneath the waves.

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Nothing prepared us for the enormity and splendor of underwater Roatan. It’s shocking. Otherworldly. Only feet below the surface the world changes entirely. No other transition in human experience is as abrupt and dramatic. It takes billions of dollars and decades of technology to fly into outer space. It only takes a few SCUBA lessons to fly into the inner space of underwater Roatan as weightless aquanauts.

We dove on reefs and shipwrecks, to 100-foot depths and searched for fish species, cataloguing them on an underwater slate. Russell planned underwater navigation exercises for us on land, briefed and rehearsed us, then lead our dives and administered tests in underwater compass reading, distance measurement and every aspect of open-water recreational sport diving. We did two and three dives a day.

Roatan skies yielded to sun and calm seas. The surface conditions improved. We became more relaxed and at home in the ocean. Bobbing on the calm surface before and after a dive under warm sun was relaxing. When we surfaced we ate orange slices picked from trees the day before.

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The only contrasts came when we were back on land. Roatan is a poor island. People lead a subsistence life working in service industries. When we walked on some of the beaches toward the small tourist area visited by the cruise ships the amount of trash on the beach was disheartening. During some of our dives we collected bits of plastic bags from the reef at depths of 60-feet, deadly plastic bags that could choke a sea turtle or strangle coral.

In a strange irony the deadliest things in the ocean were plastic bags from cruise ship gift shops. The jellyfish, stingrays and sharks posed no threat. The tourist trash was killing things in front of us.

Among its dive attractions Roatan has a population of large Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezii). One dive site, “Cara a Cara”, rests on the bottom in 70 feet of water about two miles off the south coast. Cara a Cara is the farthest from shore of hundreds of popular dive sites on Roatan. The sharks gather there. And so do the adventure tourists.

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I’ve been a diver on and off almost since I was a teenager. Sharks, big sharks, have only been a rare, distant shadow in the sea that fades into the abyss after we entered the water. I learned sharks didn’t like people. Sharks ran from us. But at Cara a Cara the sharks will return each day if the divers do. The divers descend with a white plastic bucket with a few fish heads in it- not nearly enough for a meal if you’re a nine-foot shark, but enough to tempt them close enough for photography.

We rode a typical open-skiff dive boat packed with divers about two miles out to the dive site. It was rough, waves broke over the bow, we were soaked. One of the other divers, a Frenchman, joked that we looked like the opening scene from “Saving Private Ryan”. He was right.

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At the moment I back-rolled off our dive boat I had become a part of the problem. I had become a tourist hoping to grab some snapshots of something that should be regular and natural in the ocean, but is increasingly fleeting, exploited and rare.

Descending the mooring line to Cara a Cara I saw the plan form of a big reef shark below me. Gliding on his pectoral fins, he steered a patient course over the white sand 60 feet down. Circling, weaving, looking, waiting. Then there were two, then six, then twelve- then too many to count. Some were massive, the size of a kayak. None were small. Most were pristine and perfect. One trailed a length of fishing line from a hook gouged into the right corner of his mouth. All of the sharks were, curiously, female. Five of them were pregnant. A hopeful sign.

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We landed on the white sand bottom in a natural coral amphitheater at 70 feet. Two rows of divers, me on the end. Russ Nicholson dove with Jan and I on the dive. We brought our own SCUBA tanks and equipment since the shark dive operation’s compressor was broken and they had a reputation for allowing their SCUBA tanks to drain too completely for safe operation. Russ looked after us and the other divers. Only minutes after reaching the bottom Russ had to ascend with two divers whose tanks had become dangerously low on air way too quickly.

One diver ran a large video camera, the dive master on the dive administered the bait bucket and the sharks obliged with a display that reached a crescendo when they spun into a whirling feeding frenzy, sending sand flying into the water and reducing visibility. I was in the middle of a shark feeding frenzy 70-feet under heavy seas two miles off shore.

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We swam amongst the sharks. They shared their ocean with us for a few minutes. We took their picture. After about 25 minutes on the bottom the sharks began to slowly drift back to the depths and we began to slowly ascend our buoy line, each party returning to its respective worlds.

I don’t know if what we did at the shark dive was good. Am I part of the problem? Did we somehow alter the sharks’ behavior? Does our diving with them threaten them? My rationalization included a promise that I would tell the story of the Sharks of Roatan Island, and now I have.

If you are a diver, you can see them too for $100 if you think that is a good thing. The dive boat is too crowded and the sea can be rough, but the sharks are nothing short of a miracle. A miracle that I am afraid may last only slightly longer than a perfect sunset on Roatan.

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Tom Demerly has written for “Outside” magazine along with a host of others and traveled on all seven continents. He isn’t any good at catching fish though.