Words and photography by Daniel Eidsmoe
People are fascinated by the predators of the sea, but most people lack any real-life shark or eel experiences. Others actively seek interaction with them. Tavernier, in the Upper Keys, is one of the few places in the United States where certified scuba divers can swim and interact in the open sea with sharks and moray eels.
Since 1978, local scuba legend Spencer Slate has offered dive trips featuring uncaged interaction. His trip, known as the “Creature Feature,” takes place a few miles from shore at a dive site known as Pleasure Reef.
Slate, 72, has been a guide for divers for more than 40 years. Every Friday and Sunday he takes divers from his dive shop, Captain Slate’s Scuba Adventures, at mile marker 90.
Slate has been featured on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet; in 2004, he was inducted into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame. He is also the only dive guide legally allowed to hand-feed sharks and eels in Florida waters. Slate, the grandfather of Florida scuba diving, has been grandfathered in to these encounter dives. Although Slate has been accidentally bitten by sharks and eels several times, he said it is rare that one of his customers gets bit. When they do, Slate says, they were doing something stupid like trying to ride on the back of a shark or grabbing an eel.
Slate’s Creature Feature dive consists of two parts, both in 20 to 30 feet of water. In the first dive, Slate’s guides lead divers to a sandy bottom
area where divers wait on their knees in a circle as Slate slowly descends with his chum bucket. Even before he reaches the bottom, eels and nurse sharks circle the dive boat. The creatures have seen this show before and know when the star has arrived. Once Slate hits the ocean floor the real show begins as eight-foot-long green moray eels and six-foot nurse sharks appear from their hiding places and fight for his attention along the coral wall.
Slate pushes off large and aggressive nurse sharks like a linebacker pushes off blockers. By creating space from the nurse sharks, he can feed the more shy and reclusive eels. He feeds the eels so often he has individual names for them and collectively refers to them as his “green babies.”
At many points during the mesmerizing feeding frenzy, Slate may be intertwined between five or six moray eels and several opportunistic nurse sharks. It is easy to lose sight of him in this big ball of fins, tails and churned-up sand.
Even with chainmail gloves, a hood and a thick wetsuit, it is not uncommon for Slate to have some nicks and bites following the 20-minute feeding. Before the dive, he warns divers of the dangers of touching eels by showing his battle scars from more than 40 years of doing the dives. Even when the chum bucket is empty, the eels and sharks still aggressively circle the divers for another 30 minutes after Slate has returned to the dive boat.
In many respects, Slate is a caricature of what you might perceive an underwater wrangler to be. He is confident, charismatic, blunt, rough around the edges and scarred. His loyal customers and longtime employees seem to appreciate his gruff style, including his long audible belches after a particularly good dive.
Slate doesn’t take part in the second dive, which features nurse sharks. Lots of nurse sharks. The dive site, Spanky Reef, is only a couple minutes’ boat journey from the first dive site. Photographers below can capture eerie silhouettes of sharks circling the boat in anticipation of the feeding.
Although this dive is advertised as a nurse shark encounter, there is no guarantee what type of sharks will crash the party. Nurse sharks are docile, but to the inexperienced observer they can look threatening. They can grow up to 10 feet in length and have incredibly strong jaws with thousands of teeth capable of crushing conch shells.
The featured guide of the second act is Hannah Wright, the 22-year-old antithesis of Captain Slate. The McMinnville, Tennessee native is a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee who envisioned herself having a career as a criminal profiler for the FBI. As is the case with many Keys residents, she came to the islands on a vacation and never wanted to leave.
She chops up frozen fish, dumps them in a bucket, and then jumps into the Atlantic wearing a wetsuit, mask, tanks, custom-made chainmail gloves and flippers with “Go Vols” spray-painted on the bottoms. She drags the bucket behind her while descending with the swarming sharks. The sharks can smell the fish blood in the bucket, but they can’t get any fish because the holes in the bucket are too small. She swims to divers waiting for her on the ocean floor, about 25 feet below. By the time she reaches the divers with the bucket, the sharks are whipped into a feeding frenzy.
There are many ways to make a living on the water in the Keys but being the “chum bucket girl” may be one of the craziest. Although Wright loves her job, she has been bitten twice. For one of the scars on her arm she has incorporated a tattoo commemorating the attack. Wright says that each of the bites was a “mistake” by the shark and demonstrated inexperience on her part. “The sharks are always excited to see me. When I started this, I didn’t know how to read their body language. In this incident I was holding the chum bucket in my left hand and when I swung it around, Sugar missed the bucket and grabbed my forearm instead.”
“Sugar” is the name Wright gave to the nurse shark who bit her arm. She often recognizes Sugar on these dives and makes a point of giving her extra food.
Despite the bite, Wright has no regrets about her career choice. “The only thing I have reconsidered is what my next tattoo will be when I am bitten.”
Dive encounters such as this are not without critics. Kee Bligh, a senior marine biologist with Aquarium Encounters in Marathon, feels that the thrill of open water interactions with sharks and other wild animals such as eels is outweighed by the risks. “Wild animals that begin associating humans with food can become very problematic, not only for the health of that animal but for the potential risk that it also poses to people,” Bligh says.
Bligh questions whether the food in the chum buckets is healthy for the wild sea creatures. “Nurse sharks are a benthic species naturally feeding on invertebrates such as conchs and lobsters,” Bligh says. “If the sharks are filling up on chum, they may lose interest in feeding naturally, potentially losing out on important nutritional value from prey.”
In addition, Bligh is concerned about wild animals becoming desensitized towards humans. “Wild animals,” she says, “should have a healthy fear of people.”
According to the University of Florida Shark Attack file (floridamuseum.ufl.edu/shark-attacks); reported and documented attacks by nurse sharks are rare. Typically, when they do attack it was the swimmer’s fault for either hugging or grabbing the animal. In the last three years there have been three documented nurse shark attacks, two in the Bahamas and one in Jensen Beach. With the latter, the juvenile nurse shark would not let go of the swimmer’s arm even when he walked out of the water onto the beach. Rescue workers had to kill the shark in order to get him to release his grip on the man’s arm.
Incidents that happen during shark encounter dives such as Slate’s Creature Feature are clearly not added to the University of Florida list. Both Slate and Wright would like to keep it that way. According to Wright, the animals are not to blame and the risks of injury running the dive are outweighed by the benefits.
“Every weekend I get to show a boat full of people that sharks are not the vicious, man-eating monsters that Hollywood portrays them to be,” Wright says. “Sharks are apex predators, but they shouldn’t inspire fear, only respect and love.”
Following his first dive with Slate in December, Michigan resident Todd Carter said that the Creature Feature dive may have been the best diving experience of his life. “If I were to rate this on a scale of 10, this would be an 11.
“When we first started, I was really conscious about keeping my hands and fists crossed on my body for protection from the eels and sharks,” he said after the dive. As the dive wore on, he lost his fear and gained respect for the beauty of the animals.”
At the end of the dive, Carter volunteered to hand-feed one of the sharks and posted the video on his Facebook page. He didn’t put the fish in the shark’s mouth as he hoped to. “The shark broke to the surface to get the fish and made a loud noise like air blowing out,” he said. “I dropped the fish too early and pulled my hand back quickly to make sure I still had all my fingers. It scared the hell out of me.”
Slate and Wright truly enjoy giving divers the show of a lifetime.
“I will do this job for as long as it brings me joy,” Slate says, “and it brings joy to others. At the end of the day, I sit on the bow of the boat, look at the ocean and the Keys and think about my interactions with these beautiful sea creatures. Any stress that I may have had melts away. I think anyone who is doing what they love can relate.”