Divers attempt rescue despite tiger sharks

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They retrieve several bodies from an overturned boat as 12-foot tiger sharks circle nearby

They retrieve several bodies from an overturned boat as 12-foot tiger sharks circle nearby

Capt. Rob MacDonald was ready to anchor the dive boat Gulf Stream Eagle for the night off Grand BahamaIsland’s West End. “The sun was setting, and we were finished [looking for] dolphins,” says MacDonald.

A Coast Guard helicopter searching for a missing sailboat had discovered an overturned vessel south of Memory Rock, a small island 15 miles north of West End, says MacDonald. The Coast Guard needed assistance, but a local rescue boat — operated by the Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association — was low on fuel and needed to return to port. The Gulf Stream Eagle, a 100-foot aluminum boat with 21 guests and a crew of five on board, answered the Memorial Day weekend call.

“We asked BASRA if we could help,” says MacDonald, 41, who has been running the dive boat for 16 years. “They agreed, and the Coast Guard told us where the boat was.”

The Coast Guard chopper was already on site and had lowered a swimmer onto the boat when Gulf Stream Eagle arrived. The swimmer knocked on the overturned hull to check for survivors, but he dared not go into the water because of a pair of 12-foot tiger sharks patrolling the area. But one of the dive boat crewmembers, 26-year-old Jonathan Rose, also a captain, went in the water, anyway. “We knew there were sharks there,” says MacDonald. “If we didn’t do something and the Coast Guard wouldn’t go in the water, the boat would have drifted away. We wanted to see for ourselves if there were survivors.”

MacDonald motored up to the capsized vessel, a 27-foot walkaround with twin outboards. Clad in scuba gear, Rose dove under the boat and discovered two bodies in the cabin. There were two others — a man and a woman — floating just below the surface outside the boat. The man was wearing a life jacket and was floating away from the boat; the woman was caught in some fishing line alongside it. After Rose informed the dive boat crew he had seen bodies, MacDonald ordered the passengers off the deck and into the main saloon.

As Rose continued to investigate, a dorsal fin appeared, and a shark attacked the body wearing the life jacket. The water erupted, and the body soon was gone. So was the shark. Half of the PFD remained. “I saw all the thrashing and the body, and I knew it was time to get Jon out of there,” says MacDonald.

Scott Sansenbach, 45, one of the passengers and a freelance photographer, witnessed the entire episode. “We noticed a great thrashing and observed a large tiger shark attacking what we thought was a buoy,” says Sansenbach, of Huntington Beach, Calif. “I grabbed my camera and started shooting. I suddenly … came to the sickening realization that it was not a buoy.”

MacDonald quickly swung his vessel around and picked up Rose, though not before the diver had freed the body caught in the fishing line. “We grabbed her so the shark wouldn’t get her,” says MacDonald.

With one body recovered and Rose safely back aboard, it was time to regroup. MacDonald and crew devised a plan to recover the other bodies. “These people had families,” he says. “We went back in so the family members could get closure. I would hope that someone would get my body out of there if it were me. Besides, we were there, we could do it, and we were qualified to do it.”

Rose, a rock climber, jury-rigged a harness, and crewmember Scotty Gray lowered him onto the hull. Rose tied a line to the boat, and the crew pulled it to the stern of the Gulf Stream Eagle, now anchored. MacDonald suited up, and he and Rose entered the water. Rose retrieved the two other victims, both male, but it was tough work. MacDonald helped with the recovery when he could, but his primary task was to watch for sharks. The plan was to use a pole spear (with no tip) to push away sharks if they emerged. None did.

The four victims likely were Haitian nationals, and it is suspected they were being smuggled into the United States, according to Basil Rahming, chief superintendent of the Royal Bahamas Police. “The vessel overturned in rough seas, resulting in them drowning,” says Rahming. “Due to the large amount of sharks seen in the area, it is believed that more persons were aboard … when it overturned but were consumed by the sharks before officials arrived on the scene.”

MacDonald says the victims didn’t look like poor refugees fleeing their country. “They were dressed nicely, with jewelry,” he says. “One man had on a gold watch and ring. The woman’s toenails were painted.”

A few days after the boat was discovered, a Bahamian court charged three men and one woman — all residents of the Bahamas — with manslaughter by negligence in connection with the drowning deaths of the three unidentified people, according to Rahming. He says the suspects will remain in prison until the case continues in January 2009.

A calculated risk

Jonathan Rose’s father, Mark Rose, owns the dive boat. Built by Camcraft in Louisiana, the vessel was designed and used as a supply vessel for work in the Gulf of Mexico, ferrying personnel and materials to offshore oil rigs. Mark Rose bought the boat in 1989 and converted it to a liveaboard dive vessel for trips in the Bahamas. A pair of Detroit Diesel 1271s push Gulf Stream Eagle to a cruise speed of about 15 knots.

The crew was taking a group on a snorkeling trip to see dolphins when they found the capsized walkaround. They had left Riviera Beach, Fla., May 24, enduring nothing but rough weather. The following day, it was too choppy for snorkeling, so MacDonald spent the waning hours of daylight looking for schools of dolphin his passengers could see the next day. Meanwhile, the dive boat crew watched for the missing sailboat the Coast Guard was searching for.

“When I thought I had beat up my passengers enough, I decided to call it a day,” MacDonald says. It was about 7 p.m. when the captain charted a course for Sandy Cay, where they would drop the hook for the night. When the Coast Guard called for help 30 minutes later, the crew responded in routine fashion.

“Helping with search and rescue comes with the territory,” says McDonald. “The Coast Guard knows us quite well. We’ve made plenty of rescues, but nothing like this.”

However, MacDonald and Rose are qualified for the job. After all, they also run the Eagle’s trips that let guests swim with and feed sharks. “We hang a chum tube in the water and add juicy bait to encourage the sharks to come close to the boat,” says the company Web site (www.gseagle.com). “The photo ops are nearly endless. Hand-feeding is always another thrill-packed trip highlight.”

But shark trips have come under criticism after the death in February of a 49-year-old Austrian lawyer. Markus Groh, shark diving in the Bahamas, was bitten by a tiger shark on the leg and died a day later.

Diving in waters with tiger or bull sharks, especially when they are feeding, is dangerous, says Dr. Bob Hueter, director of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Shark Research in Sarasota, Fla. “It’s like playing with fire,” he says.

“Tiger sharks are omnivorous types of sharks, and they feed on a wide range of prey — and large prey,” says Hueter. “They also feed on mammals if given the chance.”

Any kind of odor from a mammal or fish could stimulate the shark’s hunger and feeding motivation, causing it to “bite, attack and feed,” says Hueter.

Despite the imminent danger, he says, Rose and MacDonald probably made the right decision. “I think they were brave in that they took a calculated risk based on their experience,” he says. “It sounds like they knew what they were doing.”