FREEPORT, Bahamas -- With a gentle stroke of his hand, Perry Johnson hypnotized the 8-foot Caribbean reef shark and then carefully lifted it off the sandy ocean bottom while 30 of its brethren circled overhead.
Holding it by the dorsal fin -- the emblem of terror for worldwide -- he carried the 700-pound animal over to six tourists, who, protected only by scuba gear, stroked its tail. Once each diver had felt the rough, leathery skin, Johnson pulled his hand away from the shark's snout, prompting it to swim away.
Johnson then shifted his focus to a larger shark. Pulling a fish carcass from a container, he waved it like a matador's cape. The shark opened its jaws and shut its eyes in anticipation. Johnson released the carcass just in front of its mouth and it disappeared in a sudden gray and white blur.
The tourists -- among more than 25,000 people who pay to swim with wild sharks every year -- sigh into their mouthpieces in awe. Johnson hypnotized four more sharks and fed a half dozen more before the 35-minute dive ended.
''These aren't animals you can go down and play with, but at the same time they are not bloodthirsty monsters of the deep,'' said the 45-year-old native of Nassau, the top shark feeder at Xanadu Undersea Adventures. Just in case an animal gets too frisky, Johnson wears a 22-pound body suit of stainless-steel chain mail on the dives.
Shark specials on television, the growth of adventure tourism and the simplicity of modern scuba equipment have combined to make shark-diving a popular pursuit around the world.
People observe great white sharks from inside steel cages in South Africa and Australia, swim with hammerheads around the Galapagos Islands and snorkel with harmless, 40-foot whale sharks in Hawaii.
So far, there have been no reports of tourists being seriously injured, but in an odd role reversal, experts worry about the sharks' safety and the way the tours may be changing their behavior.
Johnson has made more than 800 shark dives in the last eight years, and was among the pioneers of what has become a huge moneymaker for the Bahamian diving industry. Besides taking a few stitches for some minor bites, he has never been seriously injured.
''I've had scrapes and things like that,'' Johnson said. ''A carpenter is going to bang his finger every now and again. If you are going to feed sharks, you are going to get bitten every now and again.''
On the ocean bottom off Grand Bahama, Louis and Caroline Saavedra from Santa Clara, Calif., kneeled with their arms crossed, just as Johnson instructed, lifting their hands only when presented with the shark's tail.
''When the shark was in a trance, that was very impressive and the size and how close they were, hmm,'' Caroline said later on the boat, wringing the sea water from her hair. ''They were very gentle.''
Johnson hypnotizes the sharks using his stainless steel gloves. While the process is not well understood, sharks have electromagnetic senses on their snouts which are used to detect prey.
Some experts hypothesize that the stainless steel interferes with that sixth sense, placing them in a trance.
''As long as they allow us to do it, we must assume that they like it,'' Johnson said.
While Caribbean reef sharks have been known to attack people -- mostly spearfishing divers carrying dead fish, according to the International Shark Attack File -- dive operators say their willingness to approach people for food is what makes the Bahamas the world headquarters for shark tourism. Most of the other 400 shark species flee from people.
''You can't cultivate a tiger shark dive or a hammerhead dive,'' said Neal Watson, president of the Bahamas Diving Association and owner of Undersea Adventures. ''These are the only animals that will come in and interact with humans on these dives.''
Watson said that before feeding programs developed, a diver could make 1,000 dives without seeing a shark. He said the dives provide people with a safe and educational experience that was unimaginable 10 years ago.
The Underwater Explorer's Society in Port Lucaya offers experienced divers a four-day, $1,500 shark-feeder course that includes the chance to put on the chain mail suit.
''The learning curve is steep,'' said Ollie Ferguson, vice president for training at UNEXSO. ''You have to really get down there and be very respectful and in no way confrontational. The sharks are always in control.''
But George Burgess, a shark expert at the University of Florida, said the sharks fed on the dives are not behaving normally.
''They have never gathered in large groups before now,'' said Burgess, who maintains the shark attack file, a record of shark attacks over the last 400 years. ''Right or wrong, you are changing the dynamics of the shark population.''
Indeed, the sharks respond to the sound of ship engines like cats to a can opener, circling the boat before the divers have a chance to hit the water. Burgess argued that just as people should not feed bears, they shouldn't be feeding sharks.
The feeding dives, he said, are turning the sharks into ''performing animals, and that has resulted in ecological disruption.''
The Bahamian government, which has set up five marine sanctuaries and plans 29 more, is promoting ecological attractions. Dr. Earl Deveaux, a senior environmental official, said the government has no plans to regulate shark-diving, since no harm to the animals has been proved.
''There is a body of conservationists that feel that you shouldn't interfere at all with nature,'' Deveaux said. ''But the preponderance of the opinion is that if people have the nerve to swim with sharks and feed them, then let them do so.''
Ferguson didn't deny that the dives are changing shark behavior, but he argued that they serve a higher purpose by educating people about sharks and the problems they face.
More than 100 million sharks are killed each year by fishing boats from 125 countries, according to research presented at the International Pelagic Shark Workshop held in February.
Sharks are valued for their meat, fins, cartilage, hide, teeth and jaws, but many are caught in nets set for other fish, according to the Ocean Wildlife Campaign, a coalition of environmental groups. Overfishing has made it harder for sharks to find food.
As much as 80 percent of some shark species have been wiped out in the last 10 years and only Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States place limits on shark-fishing.
The Caribbean reef shark is not endangered, but great white sharks of ''Jaws'' fame are becoming harder to find.
Sharks play a crucial role in the ocean by thinning out weak and sick fish, much the way wolves keep deer populations healthy. But they face the same prejudice that nearly drove wolves to extinction 50 years ago.
''If you have a select group of sharks -- a minuscule number of the species -- that are acting as ambassadors for their species in the best of possible conditions ... and the species as a whole benefits from that select group of animals, then I have to ask the question: Is it so bad?'' Ferguson said.
The same question has been asked of every zoo, nature reserve or marine park that draws tourists for a peek at exotic animals, and the debate is far from over. Most people want to protect wild animals, but they also want to see them.
Before every dive, Johnson gives a talk about sharks and their plight, but feels at a disadvantage.
''If someone gets bit by a shark, that is front-page news. Someone slaughters 100 sharks, it doesn't even make the newspaper,'' he said.
Ferguson accepts the criticism is that too many people leave the dives mistakenly thinking sharks are not dangerous. The shark feeders control the tempo of the sharks by handing food out slowly, which doesn't happen in the wild.
Less petting zoo and more feeding frenzy, the Walker's Cay ''shark rodeo'' provided a more realistic view.
Once the divers were sitting on the sandy bottom, 25 feet below the boat, a 20-gallon frozen cylinder of fish scraps was attached to an anchor and thrown overboard. In an instant, blacktip, silky and Caribbean reef sharks were tearing at the ''chumsicle.''
The shark's mouths looked deceptively small at first, but the jaws have four joints: the two behind the eyes and two more between the top and bottom front teeth. The jaws also slide forward, allowing the shark to engulf objects the size of a human head.
Before long more than 80 sharks were ripping at the chumsicle with such single-minded determination that they occasionally nipped each other.
In the midst of the frenzy, dozens of foot-long yellowtail snapper flitted, feeding on the crumbs that clouded the water. Focused on the chumsicle, the sharks ignored the divers and the smaller fish.
Suddenly, two 12-foot bull sharks -- among the ocean's most dangerous -- charged the chumsicle, sending the smaller sharks scrambling.
The divers were anxious, but fascinated, realizing that in the ocean, they are not at the top of the food chain. The gaping, tooth-filled mouths triggered an exhilarating, primal fear that can only be felt when face-to-face with a superior predator.
A tank of air, which could last an hour under normal circumstances, here only lasted 45 minutes because of quickened breathing.
Within 10 minutes, every scrap of fish was gone and the curious animals began swimming closer to the divers, sometimes brushing against them. Expert assurances mean little when a shark swims inches away, appraising you with cold, greenish-yellow eyes.
Michelle Cove, a manager at Stuart Cove's Dive South Ocean near Nassau, has the dubious distinction of suffering the most serious injury sustained during a shark dive. One day she spilled the bait box and instinctively leaned over to pick up the scattered fish. A shark plunged down and bit her head, slicing open her scalp and sending a plume of blood into the water.
''It was my own stupid fault,'' said the 32-year-old, who still works with sharks for movies and television. ''I put my head in the middle of the bait box. The moment she could tell it was furry, she let go.''
Rather than sparking a frenzy like those depicted in movies, the sharks were uninterested, allowing Cove to swim safely to the surface for a trip to the emergency room. Contrary to popular myth, most people survive shark bites.
In the 10 years they have been offering shark dives, Michelle and her husband Stuart Cove have tried to feed the sharks chickens, rats, beef.
The sharks only want fish.
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