Finlandia x Huck — No animal quite captures our imagination like sharks. In Journey From the Source: Episode III we visit Jupiter, Florida, to meet a shark diver who swims, cage-free, with the ocean's top predator every day. His advice? Never turn your back on a shark.

The average beach-goer in the US is about 10 times more likely to get struck by lightning than attacked by
a shark. Let that sink in for a minute.

It’s a stat that doesn’t reflect the fears of the beach-going public. In Florida, for example, where a quarter of the year is spent in thunderstorms, no one blinks an eye when lightning strikes. But if a shark is spotted in the bay, you can pretty much guarantee pandemonium.

It’s fair to say – and how much blame you want to place on Jaws is up to you – that sharks terrify us. But the animal, and its threat, are so wrapped up in mythology and fear it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. Because if sharks are the merciless man-eaters we have been told, how can someone like South Florida-based captain Bryce Rohrer swim with them every day? Without a cage. And never get bitten.

Determined to understand more about sharks – many species of which are endangered due to finning and overfishing – we headed to Jupiter, a little town two hours north of Miami, to meet Bryce and witness his shark-o-philia firsthand. Within two hours of arriving at U-Tiki Marina, where Bryce keeps his diving boat, I’ve already heard him described affectionately by a fellow captain as a ‘mad scientist’.

“I guess I just never fell for the mainstream hype on sharks, you know what I mean?” says Bryce, pulling ropes on deck ready for our dive. “Being out on the water you start seeing sharks for what they are, and it just becomes pretty natural to get in the water with them. All that fear and anxiety just kind of evaporates as soon as you see that shark.”

Bryce, who was born on Long Island and grew up surfing and diving, initially worked as a commercial fisherman – “salmon in Alaska, a little bit of striped bass over in Massachusetts” – but being out on the water fuelled his fascination with sharks and, after working on research boats in South Africa, Bryce realised he could start a cage-diving charter of his own in the US. That was ten years ago. And although there have been a few imitators, Bryce is now one of the most famous shark-diving operators along the East Coast.

“To me, sharks represent the peak of wildlife, so to be able to get out there and work with these animals, that’s always where I want to be,” he says. “Running a shark operation and diving, bringing people out to the water to see sharks, is all I want to do.”

Although there are over 400 species of shark in the world, the most common sharks off the coast of Florida are warm-water breeds like Bulls, Tigers, Duskys and Hammerheads. Bryce maintains they’re not dangerous to humans, but the more feisty breeds, like Bull sharks, can switch from calm to aggressive in a matter of seconds. Despite that, all kinds of people sign up to his charter – ”families, grandmothers, kids, navy seals, professional photographers, you name it, we got them”. And although many are nervous beforehand, almost 90 per cent of his customers end up diving outside of the cage. So why the hell don’t they get attacked? “Listen, you’re dealing with a wild animal, a wild environment, so you have to understand you’re in their terrain, you’re in their environment, and it’s all about respect. If you respect that animal, and you know that animal, and you feel like you can understand their behaviours, you can share space with them…. We make sure we’re not pushing the envelope too far.”

The truth is the majority of sharks have no interest in attacking humans at all. “Often when you’re in the water with sharks, it’s how you behave. That, to me, is the key,” says Dr Yannis Papastamatiou, a shark expert at Florida University. “If you start to act like potential prey, then you may be in trouble. People who know how to deal with them – they always remain calm, they don’t let the shark get behind them. Key things like that, which they have learned, means that the shark treats them in a different way.”

Over years of experience, Bryce has developed a way of understanding sharks and interacting with them safely. Obviously that is not something anyone should do on their own, but with the right sort of guide, he believes shark diving can be transformative. “You’ve got to exude confidence in the water,” he says. “A lot of these sharks make a living honing in on weakness so they can literally read your heart rate and things like that. If you’re confident in the water you can handle them, then you’re going to be in a situation where they’re going to be acting aggressive towards you… It brings me clarity and purpose. I think as much as we’re helping sharks by making them visible, the sharks are helping people, too.”

Cage diving, however, divides people in the shark community. Those opposed to it claim that the practice of baiting or ‘chumming’ – throwing bloody fish into the water – to attract sharks to the boat causes sharks to confuse humans as food. Yannis – who published a review on shark ecotourism last year – disagrees. “There’s a theory that because sharks turn up at a cage and see divers and they’re getting fed, then they therefore believe that those humans are food. I don’t think that’s true at all,” says Yannis. “But I think there is some truth in that they may associate humans with being fed. So they may see a diver come up to them and think they will feed them, which increases the chance of an interaction between a shark and a human. Potentially that could cause an issue. There are some instances of humans getting bitten around cage operations but it’s very, very rare. There’s not been some massive spike in people getting bitten, as far as I’m aware of.”

And while Yannis says there are no signs to suggest the long-term behaviour of sharks is affected by cage diving, he does acknowledge that there could be some short-term issues. In places like Cape Town, where there is a high density of Great Whites – the most dangerous type of shark in the world – beach users have noticed a huge increase of sharks close to shore, expecting to be fed. To preempt issues like this on the East Coast, Bryce only chums for sharks about three miles offshore. He changes feeding sites regularly, so the sharks don’t keep turning up to the same spots, and makes sure that conservation and education are a priority on his charters. “I think ecotourism is one of the best ways to conserve and protect a species,” he argues. “Nearly everyone that leaves my boat after a trip is pro-shark and is much more likely to sign a petition against shark finning, pressure their lawmakers to protect sharks, and go on shark tours again that at some point will show local governments how important sharks are.”

Yannis, who is quick to point out that it depends on the specific cage-diving operation, agrees that ecotourism can be a really positive thing. “If you can make a shark worth more alive than dead, then that’s going to be a very powerful driver for conservation,” he acknowledges simply.

Bryce spends about 300 days a year on the water with sharks either in Jupiter, Florida, down on the Keys, or up in Nantucket, where he runs another charter. He’s got no desire to swap it for office life anytime soon. “I’ll definitely be involved with sharks for the rest of my life, without a doubt,” he says, revving up the boat for today’s dive. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m driving a boat when I’m 70. In some fashion or another, I will be involved with sharks and the ocean and conservation and bringing people out there to see sharks; whether it’s through film, whether it’s through a charter, anything to get people out to see these things and what they’re really all about.”

This film was sponsored by Finlandia in support of 1% for the Planet. Additional special thanks to Florida Shark Diving.