By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Business rewards bastards. And Seton Claggett was never a bastard.

TriSports.com in Tucson, Arizona is closing after 17 years of being one of the largest, and one of the first, online triathlon retailers. TriSports.com helped invent, define, and then sink the triathlon industry.

What happened to TriSports.com is happening to all of the triathlon and high-end bicycle business, and it is worth looking at.

Seton Claggett, TriSports.com founder and President, messaged me early today with insights on why the business is closing:

“We are closing because I was in litigation with the bank that caused me to go into BK11 4+ years ago. We went to trial on breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and fraud. The judge ruled last week that the bank committed all of these but ultimately did not cause us any damages. I now owe them the original $1.8M (most of this would have been paid off by now) plus millions in attorney fees and costs.”

There will be a rush to judgment about what caused TriSports.com to close. Set against Claggett’s disclosure of bank litigation I’ll suggest it was not any singular reason that TriSports.com is closing, but rather a creeping, gradual, decade-long “death by a thousand cuts” that pervades an industry populated by people who like bikes and triathlons first, and do business second. Even though Claggett was not that man- he is a formally trained and gifted businessman- the rest of the industry weighed on pricing and distribution strategies. The Internet experts will have their say, but it’s unlikely many of them will understand the real reasons TriSports.com is closing and the industry as a whole is suffering.

The people still in the bike and triathlon business will pay no heed as the industry continues to contract and fails to adapt under the ruthless crush of economic reality and accelerating business change. I know because I have been one of those people- a business owner, and I did not change, so I know firsthand.

You can’t tell a small business owner anything. I’ve tried with four businesses I worked for; people tried it with me when I owned my own business before that. We never listen.

Until we lose everything, you can’t tell us anything.

I’ve seen five other bicycle and triathlon retailers ride their businesses into the ground. TriSports.com is just the biggest of us to close. It’s the 9/11, the Black Tuesday, the Automotive Recession, the Chernobyl, the Fukushima and the Three-Mile Island of the triathlon retail industry. Once the fallout clears, the industry will be radioactive for years and will only be habitable by ego-driven mutants of the small business world deformed by their bizarre and nonsensical toxic obsession with a sport and a “business” that eats its young, then consumes itself as their internal voice tells them, “I am the one who can get this right”.

They’re wrong. The triathlon business is no longer viable on any significant scale beyond hobby. There are a lot of reasons for that, enough to fill a book.

If you want a single narrative to the complex issue of triathlon business failings, then call it the same thing triathletes suffer from as a culture: hubris. I will, however, suggest that in the case of Seton Claggett and TriSports.com, he is a rare man largely immune to hubris.

I worked at TriSports.com for over two years in their bicycle, then marketing department. One memory of many defines the experience:

The employees of TriSports.com are high in the Arizona mountains outside the sleepy town of Show Low, Arizona. It’s a town named after a bet two prospectors made over a gold strike in the area. Both of them lost. We’re putting on the annual Deuces Wild Triathlon Festival, a series of endurance races in the high, wooded area surrounding Show Low.

Most of the about-50-person staff from TriSports.com drove from Tucson to Show Low, Arizona to help put on the Show Low Triathlon Festival. It’s a massive annual multisport event with kids’ races, various distance triathlons, an off-road triathlon and an orgy of the triathletes’ favorite endurance activity, getting free stuff. The event concludes with a giant raffle benefitting charity where tons, and I mean tons, of triathlon gear and schwag are given away for a charity donation- about the same volume of stuff sold in a small triathlon store in a year. But this is TriSports.com, and we are the largest. So, we can afford to give away tons of stuff for free people probably would have bought at full price anyway.

After the festivities are over it is time to clean up.

It’s hot out and Seton Claggett is addressing us while standing chest deep in disgusting, reeking garbage inside a trash hauling semi-trailer. Every one of us is exhausted, filthy, smelly, sore, hungry and sleep deprived.

“If we leave this mess here it goes against everything we stand for.” He tells our downtrodden mass of long-faced employee volunteers as the sun sags. It’s like a scene in a book about forced labor camps. This is the triathlon industry gulag, and I am exiled here like a less-intellectual retail Solzhenitsyn banished to the labor camps for my own personal failings in this business. Like Cool Hand Luke, I gotta get my mind right.

A key tenant of TriSports.com is environmental responsibility, and cramming all this garbage into the back of a couple semis to dump in a landfill is against Seton Claggett’s molecular make-up as an environmentalist, former boy scout, parent and business owner. It is against the Little Red Book of TriSports.com doctrine.

Despite the sickening, nose-permeating stench of rotting banana peels under the high Arizona sun, dirty bottles filled with congealing sports drinks, discarded race equipment soaked in athlete urine, changed diapers from spectators’ toddlers and all the other disgusting offal produced by a couple thousand athletes and their closest friends, Seton wants us to sort the garbage by hand into bins for environmentally responsible recycling and processing.

Claggett is clamped onto the ethos of environmental responsibility like the face-hugger in “Alien”. The Claggetts have two kids, and Seton’s life mission is to leave the world a better place than he found it for those kids, and for everyone else. Seton and Debbie Claggett’s unswerving attachment to environmentalism isn’t corporate feel-good window dressing. They own it. Environmental responsibility and a doctrine of leaving things better than you found them is in Claggett’s DNA, and he has cloned it into the corporate DNA of TriSports.com and its culture. Not to sell more stuff, but because Claggett doesn’t just believe it’s the right thing to do, he knows it is the right thing to do.

And now he stands chest deep is piss-smelling filth to prove it. And prove it he does.

One by one employees slowly churn into action, pulling trash bags out of the back of the disgusting mess, opening the garbage bags, pulling out discarded wet wipes with… something brown on them. It’s not just gross, it’s fucking gross. But Claggett somehow walks the walk with enough conviction he inspires the entire staff to wade into the offal and begin sorting the revolting mess into neatly organized recycling barrels.

Claggett somehow inspires a crew of tired, volunteer employees to sort filthy garbage by hand in the dark after consecutive 14-hour workdays. Show me a leader strong enough to inspire that, and I will show you Seton Claggett.

A couple hours later, in the dark, we stink like hell and the world is a slightly better place. Claggett himself is covered in filth, and the last to stop working. I have found a new hero.

The Claggetts defined themselves repeatedly with acts of generosity and kindness both large and small. When Seton saw me riding my bike to an airshow loaded down with camera equipment early one weekend morning he secured a pass for me to the Air Force base and took me with him to a private air show during the Heritage Flight Conference at Davis-Monthan AFB. When my cat Frederick died of old age Debbie had every employee sign a sympathy card for me. I still have that card.

The charity and giving doctrine of the Claggetts was infectious. It spread like a smiley-faced plague through the building. After riding my bike to work one day in a rare Tucson downpour the Human Resource Director, a woman named Susan, found dry clothes for me to put on and a towel. When I obsessively worked 70-hour weeks she counseled me for working too many hours.

But heroes are fallible and complex, and Seton Claggett is no exception. Claggett was oddly fixated on loading the dishwasher in the employee kitchen correctly. He produced a YouTube tutorial video on the correct procedure, lectured employees at meetings on the correct process and even installed a video camera over the dishwasher to verify compliance. Where did that come from? I chalk it up to Claggett’s penchant for clear thinking and process. He is a smart man, a man of organized thought, spreadsheets and analytical problem solving. To him it is incomprehensible that a person could not load a dishwasher correctly, and that detail mattered. It was a teachable moment.

The dishwasher conundrum.

The story of TriSports.com and the rise and fall of the triathlon industry deserves to be told. It’s a complex story not well suited for Internet chat room fodder. It is more complex, both worse, and better. It doesn’t fit in a 1300 word blog.

If Seton Claggett had opened a software company, an app developer, a social media outlet or any other emerging business I’ll suggest we would mention his name alongside Gates, Jobs, Buffett and Zuckerberg. Claggett is a tirelessly hard-working man with a Masters in business and a deep, analytical mindset and strong stomach for risk. Unfortunately for him his first round of entrepreneurship was spent on an industry filled largely by people long on enthusiasm for the sport, too quick to give a discount and short on business acumen.

I wager Seton Claggett’s next round at business will conclude very differently.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

According to a report on social media and later confirmation from a leading industry insider late Wednesday, August 23, 2017, prominent triathlon retailer TriSports.com of Tucson, Arizona, is closing.

The specifics of the business closure have not yet been announced.

TriSports.com was founded in Spring of 2000 according to their website. Seton and Debbie Claggett of Tucson, Arizona founded the predominantly e-commerce triathlon specialty retailer. The business grew quickly as participation in triathlon expanded and local bicycle retailers were slow to adapt to the triathlon market.

During its history TriSports.com grew to become one of the largest triathlon retailers in the industry. They practiced a corporate philosophy of charity and sustainability that included corporate initiatives like paying employees to commute to work on bicycles and converting their corporate campus to entirely sustainable energy through a solar power and water reclamation project. The company and its leadership were also active in event and athlete sponsorship and community philanthropy including frequent projects to benefit Tucson’s large homeless population.

Founders Seton and Debbie Claggett were lauded as leaders in the triathlon industry.

Starting as a home business in early 2000, the company later leased space in an industrial park, continued to grow, then moved to a larger industrial space on the outskirts of Tucson near Davis-Monthan AFB. In summer of 2012 TriSports.com opened an additional, second retail storefront location in Tempe, Arizona. The Tempe store closed soon after opening. Following the closure of the second retail location in Tempe, Arizona, on June 14, 2013, TriSports.com filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code.

TriSports.com emerged from Chapter 11 reorganization later in 2013 and continued operations until news of the business closure was leaked on social media by one of their sponsored athletes today, August 23, 2017.

No official announcements of the closure, the reasons for it or when it will be effective have been released, although industry confirmation of the closure suggests the reports are accurate.

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

It’s Saturday at Motor City Powersports in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Their large parking lot is blocked off to cars. A half dozen new motorcycle owners negotiate a series of traffic cones and practice skills under the watchful eye of a certified motorcycle instructor who teaches the new riders the skills they need to survive in traffic and to get their Michigan Driver’s License motorcycle endorsement.

It’s Saturday at Motor City SCUBA in Novi, Michigan. Students sit in the dedicated classroom at the SCUBA retailer taking a written test to earn their basic open water diver certification so they can be SCUBA divers. Before they can buy their own regulator or SCUBA tank, before they can rent equipment and before they can go out on a boat to SCUBA dive while on vacation, they must pass this written test and the practical pool examination of underwater skills.

It’s Thursday night at Target Sports in Royal Oak, Michigan. A crowd of people is in a classroom near an indoor shooting range learning basic firearms safety before they are given instruction in practical firearms handling with unloaded weapons. Before any of the people can carry a firearm in public they must past a Concealed Carry License written test and practical firearms safety instruction course.

The motorcycle, SCUBA and shooting sports industries have all taken proactive responsibility for teaching and certifying their customers for competence and safety before they allow them to use their products. Each of these three industries also has some type of state or commercially mandated licensure that tests competence prior to practice and collects revenue to provide for safer end user experiences through advocacy.

Each of these three industries also incurs significant risk to users. Each has proactively managed the user-risk experience. As a result, business in each category is doing well.

And then there is the bike industry. We just sell you a bike and turn you loose. As a result, the road cycling industry is tanking.

The bike industry’s answer to sagging road bike sales has been to introduce more bike categories. That creates more sales and marketing expense within the industry. It also relies heavily on non-paved riding areas to continue to grow when, in fact, gravel roads used for automotive travel are usually destined to be paved when populations and traffic in their region inevitably become large enough. As it is, cyclists are squeezed into a smaller and smaller artificially sustained environment of rails-to-trails and bike path/park settings that cost big money to maintain, require travel to access and, while growing in some regions, aren’t yet reliable enough to sustain the sport and likely never will be without some organized contribution from the bike industry.

Rather than working to sell what we already have and support that end-user experience through responsible instruction, the bike industry just keeps trying to sell a new category every few years. The recent contraction in bicycle sales suggest this approach is not working. But in SCUBA, motorsports and shooting sports, selling what they have through responsible instruction and advocacy has worked.

The bicycle industry has not been proactive in offering even basic cycling instruction to new cyclists buying performance-oriented road and triathlon bikes. Set against the backdrop of a recent influx of brand new cyclists entering the sport mostly as a result of triathlons, the bike industry has done an abysmal job of leveraging rider instruction as a safety benefit and a sales tool.

Motorsports, SCUBA diving and shooting sports have all had success with that marketing script. In fact, in the case of shooting sports, it helped keep that sport alive in the face of a divisive national argument over firearms ownership rights. What if cycling had an industry and user lobby as powerful as the NRA?

The impetus for teaching new cyclists how to use their bike safely has been on cycling clubs and national governing bodies like USA Triathlon and USA Cycling. But in a click-to-own culture it is a big leap to expect a new bike buyer to buy a bike on Saturday and seek out 3rd party instruction and certification before using their new bike.

In fact, most cyclists and triathlete revel in fact that buying a racing bicycle is one of the few things a person can do that is free from licensure, formal instruction or user certification. Think about this: what if you loved airplanes or high performance race cars and could just show up and buy one then use it that afternoon without instruction or certification? That analogy isn’t a stretch since going from a decrepit hybrid in your first triathlon to a narrow-tire, performance oriented bike in your next one is tantamount to transitioning from a passenger car to a NASCAR.

Here Is What The Bike Industry Could Do:

As an industry, cycling needs to organize. As with SCUBA, shooting sports and the motorsports industry, both the retailer and the brand level, need to shoulder the burden- and opportunity- to sustain the sport and take responsibility for the cyclists’ end user competence and experience.

The bike industry, bike brands and bike shops, needs to start teaching cycling, including bike handling skills, safe routes for cyclists, basic maintenance and other skills that build a safe, sustainable, responsible culture of new cyclists. It is likely this single opportunity, simple in proposal but labor-intensive and significant in execution, is cycling’s greatest hope not just from prosperity and growth, but survival.

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

It used to be that triathletes were a blank check to the bicycle retailer. They were affluent, upwardly mobile and ready to spend without asking for a discount.

The bike industry’s bad habits on both the bike brand and the dealer level have brought all that to a screaming halt over the last two years. As a result, the triathlon bike business has taken a massive hit from the days of, “Triathletes are willing to spend anything to go faster and always pay full price.”

The script used to be: hype a new superbike with teasers and white papers, launch it with “preorders”, sell out of the first production run early and try to fill orders through the early season with the bikes being gone entirely by May or June. Those were also the days when Ironman races sold out in minutes. Buyers were ready to spend, often sight unseen, and ready to enter expensive events a year in advance.

Most of that has changed as the demographic of the sport has evolved to decidedly down-market and entry-level. Now, the “superbike” is a super flop.

Triathlon filled from the bottom. While there have been a few impressive age group performances the vast population of triathletes, especially at longer distances, have filled the sport in the back 90% of finishing times. It has become an “every(wo)man” sport. And in the case of the fastest 10% of athletes at big races like Ironman, those people are not paying retail for a bike anyway.

It’s the bottom 90% of the sport where any remaining business may exist.

As that population of citizen-athletes entered the sport they were largely ignored by a bicycle industry locked into a repetitive script of developing new bicycles that spiraled upward in price and complexity. The tired script of, “Tested lowest in drag, developed in the wind tunnel” rings hollow on the only remaining full price consumer, the entry-level triathlon consumer. The market has not followed the sport downward in price while it spiraled upward in hype.

“The greatest failing of the bike industry has been to look at bikes in triathlon, not people in triathlon.”

Perhaps the greatest failing of the triathlon bike industry has been to look at bikes in triathlon, not people in triathlon. As a result the industry has failed to address the single largest market opportunity in the sport, an entry price-point bicycle that does double-duty as a road bike and a triathlon bike, a “multisport bike”, in the sub-$2000 price category.

While bike brands have added new sub-category after sub-category of mountain bikes with different wheel sizes, “gravel grinders”, disc brake road bikes, fat bikes, e-bikes, high head tube comfort road bikes and a host of emerging categories they utterly missed the low-hanging fruit of the entry-level triathlete.

Because the industry missed the entry-level demand from triathletes and wound up filling it by bolting aerobars on road bikes, a poorly conceived workaround, they alienated their consumership with the narrative that triathletes are always up-scale big spenders. Now triathlon bike retailers, and bike brands, are stuck with a lot of expensive bikes. But they have no practical, sub-$2000 bikes to sell at full margin that are specifically intended for entry-level triathletes.

The largest single remaining opportunity for bike retailers is the relatively entry- level, full price, non-discount customer: the new triathlete.

New triathletes need their own bike, a “Volksbike” that is inexpensive, comfortable, safe, looks cool and is easy for triathletes to ride. They don’t need another $15,000.00 superbike that takes hours to sell, feeds the “sponsored athlete” discount narrative and eats up three months of rent from the retailer just to gather dust on the sales floor and eventually die a quiet retail death on an anonymous eBay auction or “sponsorship” deal to the local hotshot that the bottom 90% of triathletes never see.

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

What will be the eventual outcome of the current perceived brinkmanship between the United States and North Korea?

For students of history in the region the answer is conspicuous. The outcome will rise from the historical template of national evolution in the region. This history is among the most ancient of civilized man. As a result of this deep historical context and precedent, the script is likely already written, but the acts will unfold on a new stage of hyper-fast media that can exert a dangerous influence.

To the laymen and popular media consumer there will continue to be a forward facing game of media sensationalized military brinkmanship played out above a very subtle, quiet and deliberate process of diplomacy. The likely outcome will be an asymmetrical win-win that will benefit all parties in the broad spectrum, but more so North Korea than any other party. Part of this asymmetry in benefit is earned by North Korea’s increased tolerance for risk in this era.

North Korea finally realizes a need to enter the “Functioning Core” of the world community. Unencumbered by a radical religious mantra their only divinity is servitude to state. They are long overdue from becoming a modern nation state in nearly every way.

Author and scholar Thomas P.M. Barnett broadly divided the nations and governing ideologies of the world into two categories; the “Functioning Core” and the “Non-Integrated Gap”. Barnett’s theory was presented into a now-famous Powerpoint delivered at the Pentagon called “The Pentagon’s New Map”. In his thesis Barnett describes how nations and cultures of the Non-Integrated Gap who are not perverted by idealogical distortion eventually realize they could have things better; they could have easy access to clean water, they could have dependable electricity, safe and abundant food and adequate clothing and shelter. In the greater evolution they could have access to the world community via the Internet. Once that social evolution is complete the citizenry can cross borders at the speed of the Internet, unencumbered by national dogma and censorship. This is their express ticket to the world economy.

North Korea realizes the pitfalls of the Arab Spring.  They are smart enough to have learned from the Middle East, where most countries are worse off following the Arab Spring. Russia and the U.S. are mostly the only ones to benefit during the near term in the Middle East and left with the lion’s share of plunder- albeit at great cost. But the countries and people in the Arab Spring are left destitute, trapped in a vacuum that is a breeding ground for messy, infectious radicalism as difficult to kill as a stubborn mold in a dank cellar. Kim Jung Un has been quiet witness to this phenomenon, and seeks to avoid becoming the next Syria, Libya or Iraq.

There is a subtle, brutal genius to Kim Jung Un’s strategy. He has avoided coups, subverted military conflict and expertly wielded nuclear brinkmanship to his advantage. He has everything to gain, and gain he will. When this is over a year or two from now, North Korea will be substantially more integrated into the global economy. The big losers in the near term will be the North Korean people. They have been subject to poverty and oppression on a titanic scale, unprecedented almost anywhere in the world today except North Africa. Their march into the modern world, from the non-integrated gap to the Functioning Core will take a decade at least, and it will be a grinding procession lubricated by more North Korean peasant blood. But war on a pan-Pacific scale will be subverted.

In the media this evolution will look and feel like brinkmanship, but on the back channels of old-world Asian diplomacy it will be business as usual, not far removed from the age of Niccolò Polo and Maffeo Polo as chronicled by their famous son, Marco Polo.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Mrs. Hawkins was my fifth grade teacher. She wore long skirts and horn-rimmed glasses. In every way, the elementary schoolmarm. I was 10-years old. At this age we form our perceptions of the world and values. When the normally deadpan Mrs. Hawkins spoke of the Battle of Dunkirk she became animated. She orated about the desperation, the fear, the heroism.

I don’t remember anything else from 5th grade or Mrs. Hawkins. I only remember her animated recounting of the Battle of Dunkirk. I was captivated.

For those thin on history, The Battle of Dunkirk was a terrifying turning point when the world began to believe Nazi Germany could not be stopped. Hitler’s army drove the free French and British to the coastal northern border of France. They had no more land to retreat to. They were trapped and likely to be rounded up in a humiliating rout, or annihilated as the Blitzkrieg, Hitler’s “lightning war”, rolled north. The implication was clear: Britain was next.

Boyhood recollections are frail and nuanced things. Would this movie honor my recollections of Mrs. Hawkins’ theatrical oration from way back in 1972 about the horrors and heroism of Dunkirk?

I remember my teacher’s recounting of The Battle of Dunkirk as a grainy black and white photo from a history filmstrip.

The Battle of Dunkirk is a uniquely British drama. Men were reserved and dignified in stoic heroism. They wore wool uniforms and held tightly to military conventions. Leaders were leaders and foot soldiers were resigned to their often-drudgerious life as ground-pounding order-takers. There were heroes in every rank, every role, but the most gallant flew the Spitfires and Hurricanes above the bloody sacrifice of land battle.

That was how I pictured Dunkirk: a tragic epic on the scale of Greek mythology. I did not want that boyhood impression sullied by some poorly executed, fast-cut, CGI remake of “Saving Private Ryan” that relied on shock and gore to impress.

Director Christopher Nolan’s film “Dunkirk” honored my boyhood impression as though it were a beautiful, lyrical poem recited by a Shakespearean actor in a quiet theater setting.

In every way, “Dunkirk” is perfect.

Tense and deeply stylized, Writer and Director Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” adds a new level of sophistication to the war movie genre and a creative new way to depict the enormity and horror of war.

Beyond its theatrical depiction of the Battle of Dunkirk in grey, somber visual and musical tones, “Dunkirk” also pays homage to the British resolve that saved the nation. Every person in England during WWII could be regarded as a guardian of freedom, unlikely heroes rising to confront the terror of war.

In “Dunkirk”, actor Mark Rylance who plays “Mr. Dawson”, is all of Great Britain. His character, and those of his sons, defines “Keep Calm and Carry On”. He also exemplifies adherence to tradition and dignity that makes Britain great. Rylance’s performance carries a significant amount of the weight in “Dunkirk”.

“Dunkirk” is completely unlike any war film, and perhaps epitomizes an elegant transition in film making to a new visual and audio feel. The film strikes an optimal balance between flow, image, sound and dialogue. The haunting soundtrack of Hans Zimmer, whom you know from the masterful score of “Blackhawk Down” and “Gladiator”, adds additionally sensory experience to the story. Its effect is trance-like and poetic, as I remember my teacher’s glassy-eyed account of the battle. With the measured use of editing the film flows beautifully, no small accomplishment in this era of movie making.

More importantly than just seeing “Dunkirk”, it is worth studying not only as a historically inspired based-on-fact accounting, but also a masterful new direction and flavor of filmmaking.

 

 

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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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