When Lucas Ransom was fatally attacked by a great white shark last Friday, as he was bodyboarding off Central California, Amos Nachoum was concluding a week-long diving expedition off Mexico, during which he and nine others in his group ventured outside steel cages and swam freely with the top-level predators.
The obvious question is ... why?
Nachoum, who runs Big Animals Expeditions, heard about the Ransom incident from aboard a boat at Guadalupe Island west of Baja California. In an email to media representatives he wrote that he was saddened by the attack but also by the "media going wild" over an extremely rare event -- and by the lack of attention his "positive, peaceful encounters" are receiving.
Guadalupe is a seasonal gathering place for adult great whites, which prey on seals and sea lions, as they do off California. There are a handful of commercial cage-diving operations, California- or Mexico-based, that allow divers up-close encounters from within submersed cages.
Though some operators take bigger risks than others, only Nachoum openly advertises outside-the-cage diving.
Patric Douglas, whose Shark Diver company has been operating at Guadalupe since 2002, describes what Nachoum is doing as "insanity" and says that if a diver is killed or even bitten, Mexico will close the island down.
"What's going on here is not sustainable over the long haul and is a disrespect to the Biosphere rules and regulations, Mexico, and ultimately the sharks," Douglas said.
Since the dive operators are the only reliable watchdogs, such a ban could open Guadalupe's remote waters -- the island is 165 miles from shore -- to poachers, who could easily decimate the island's shark population.
Nachoum believes that scuba divers, if they are calm, can safely swim with white sharks at their level in the water column, under certain conditions. He dictates whether conditions are suitable -- if there aren't too many sharks and if they're not acting aggressively -- and which clients will be allowed outside the submerged cages.
"These 20 divers I have introduced this season for the Everest of diving become the best ambassadors for aquatic wildlife," Nachoum stated in the email. Alluding to Friday's attack on Ransom, Nachoum added: "Are you going to join us and learn first-hand rather than from the newspaper or TV reporters that have no appreciation or understanding of the ocean and its wildlife?"
My answer would be, "Thanks, but no thanks." I've been to Guadalupe twice and have leaned from wide gaps in the cage bars to obtain proper angles for photos and observation. Though the water is stunningly clear and I could see sharks approaching from far off, I was astonished at how some of the sharks would mysteriously vanish and then reappear directly behind me.
Some outfitters allow professional photographers with extensive diving experience to venture outside the cages, but for the most part they keep their clients behind bars or at least within ducking range -- one outfitter allows clients to stand atop his cages.
The perception of other outfitters, based on interviews, is that Nachoum has raised the bar to a ridiculously dangerous level to create his own niche in a highly competitive market. Nachoum, however, believes his unique adventures are doing more to dispel "the myth of danger and hype" often associated with the world's most notorious predator.
This was his second season. Would you want to join him for a third?
-- Pete Thomas
-- Images courtesy of Amos Nachoum
-- Editor's note: This post also appears on the GrindTv.com outdoors blog