No-Cage Shark Diving

Controversial no-cage operator Jim Abernethy Credit: David Fleetham / Alamy

John Petty was stoked. In a few days, the Texas chiropractor would be swimming with tiger sharks in the Bahamas, shooting them for an ongoing project of his to photograph animals from around the world: great whites in Guadalupe, brown bears in Alaska, sea lions off San Diego. "He was an adventurous guy, and he was excited," says Bill Bussey, a friend in Petty's hometown of Longview. But when Bussey heard Petty would be in open water with the sharks, without protection, he expressed concern. "I said, 'Aren't you supposed to be in a cage?' And he said, 'Yes, but this is a different deal.'"

Over the last decade, an increasing number of audacious divers like Petty have been drawn to cage-free shark dives. "There is definitely a bucket list aspect," says Martin Graf, who conducts trips in the Bahamas and Guadalupe through his company, Shark Diver, which began offering no-cage expeditions in 2012. "When you first see the shark and make eye contact, it's definitely a wow moment. People think it would be scary, but it's a tranquil, peaceful experience."

For Petty, July 13, 2014, turned out to be less than peaceful. That day, the 63-year-old father of three, along with seven other divers, arrived at Grand Bahama island, 60 miles from their launch point in West Palm Beach, Florida. The divers spent roughly five hours in the water, and as the afternoon turned into early evening, they began heading back to the boat, the Shear Water. Only then did the crew realize Petty — last seen holding a line from the boat — had disappeared. The ship's captain reported him missing and the U.S. Coast Guard searched a 4,600-square-mile area for more than 60 hours, but Petty was nowhere to be seen. All that was found were a few pieces of his gear, including his camera and dive mask, some with bite marks.

Precisely what happened to Petty will probably never be known. Australian shark-dive operator Rodney Fox, who pioneered cage-dive expeditions in the 1960s, believes the chances that Petty died from a run-in with a shark are "extremely high." Petty's family seems to agree, having issued a statement that attributed his death to a "shark attack." Bussey insists Petty was in good health, and Petty's own website boasted that he ran two marathons in 2011, so a heart attack or drowning seems unlikely. The Coast Guard considers the case closed, though the Bahamian authorities are still investigating.

As troubling as Petty's case is, it's not the first incident for Scuba Adventures, the company that operates the Shear Water. The owner, Jim Abernethy, is a 20-year veteran of shark diving who has photographed for National Geographic, among other publications. For years Abernethy had guided without any reported accidents. Then, in 2008, a 49-year-old Austrian client swam too close to a plastic crate filled with chum, was bitten in the leg, and bled to death. In 2011, Abernethy himself was bitten by a shark, though he recovered in a matter of weeks.

The number of shark-attack deaths connected to caged or uncaged dives is low compared with other water activities, such as swimming or surfing: In 2013, 10 people died from unprovoked attacks around the world and none during shark dives. But because of a rash of shark bites, including a death during a dive in 2001, Florida banned shark feeding while diving that same year. The change forced Abernethy and others to make trips to the Bahamas, where feeding sharks is still legal. Chumming is controversial and, experts say, has to be done extremely carefully during dives to prevent a shark from mistaking a person's hand or foot for another piece of food. "Food triggers a little more frenzy and competition than just smell," says Cristina Zenato, of the Bahamian dive operator Underwater Explorers Society.

Graf's company disperses blood scent in the water rather than using chunks of cut-up fish, but Abernethy still uses fish and fish parts. Abernethy is also among the few to go cage-free with tiger sharks, second only behind great whites in attacks on humans, and he's long defended the practice. "Sharks want nothing to do with people," he said in a 2010 TV interview in Florida. (Abernethy declined to comment for this story.)

Whatever happened with Petty, companies like Abernethy's will continue to be popular among a certain set of divers. Graf counts seven boats that now make trips to the Bahamas for no-cage dives, compared with three a decade ago. It's a small but growing niche in a shark-diving industry that has pumped more than $800 million into the Bahamas since 1987.

To its defenders, the shark-diving industry, in addition to providing an economic boon, has helped correct stereotypes about the fish. "For all intents and purposes, shark-dive operators got rid of the Jaws clichés," says Zenato. "Sharks are beautiful creatures, and watching them is mesmerizing."

But as with any thrill-seeking sport, critics will naturally question if the risks are worth the thrill. "Sharks are eating machines, and nobody's told them not to eat us," says Fox.

As for Petty's friends and family, who have not announced any legal action against Abernethy, they're left trying to focus on his adventurous life, not its mysterious end. "I try not to think about it," says Bussey. "What happened would have been horrible."