Shark diving is a popular hobby in the Caribbean, where the animals are easily drawn in by the smell of bait in the water.
One group in Florida regularly dives to catalog, observe and coexist with the creatures they see as harmless fish. This time, they saw the opportunity to help a shark in need.
One day while diving, two of the divers saw a hook in a lemon shark’s mouth. While one diver took pictures, the other stroked the shark’s sensitive nose to subdue it and carefully removed the hook. (Read about a photographer who interfered to save a bald eagle.)
George Burgess, a shark scientist from the University of Florida, said the act was kind, but misguided.
“The fact of the matter is there’s a decent chance you can get bitten, and the reality is sharks are pretty tough critters, so a hook in the mouth isn’t a problem for them. It will eventually rust out on its own, so poses no danger to the shark.”
Named because of the yellow color of their backs, lemon sharks are common in the Atlantic along the east coast of the United States. They can be solitary or live in groups of up to 20, which is why Cassie Jensen, the photographer present during the incident, says there are usually large groups of lemon sharks accompanying their dives.
Jensen is usually against touching the sharks or interacting with them in any way other than observing, but she is open to lending what she sees as a helping hand.
“That kind of touching I love,” she said. “These guys around here really care about the sharks.”
Burgess advised caution. “A lemon shark is an animal with a pretty good sized mouth, and they have been known to bite people.”
Jensen admitted the diver did receive criticism from the shark diving community–not for removing the hook, but for the color of his gloves.
The contrast between the gloves and wetsuit is one shark divers usually try to avoid. Fish often have contrasting scales to help camouflage them, so the differing colors attract the sharks.
The tiger shark DJenny, who swam up to divers in a recent video, was once identified by a hook protruding from her mouth. The hook has recently come out on its own, which Burgess said would generally happen.
One thing shark scientists do recommend, if divers have easy access to sharks as they did in this circumstance, is to snip the lead hanging down from the hook. It can catch on the seafloor or cause discomfort for the shark.