by Matt Cory editor, Photography by Maggi Stivers
Even the word sounds ominous. (Admit it, you’re playing the theme from “Jaws” in your head right now.)
Sharks conjure up images of fins gliding above the surface, with razor sharp teeth below; of Robert Shaw frantically trying to fend off “Bruce” and failing, bitingly. There I go referencing “Jaws” again.
I admit, I’m a bit of a shark-ophile. I’ve been obsessed with sharks ever since the summer of 1975 and that aforementioned movie. The flick inspired countless trips to the school and public libraries, poring over countless stories and photographs. My office today is ordained with shark posters, stuffed shark toys, figurines, shark bottle openers, shark books. . .
Sharks, sharks, sharks.
Is there a better week than Shark Week? No.
Sharks, sharks, sharks.
There’s Makos, Tigers, Bulls, Hammerheads, Black Tip, White Tip, Nurse sharks and the biggie, the Great White.
But I’ve never been in the water with sharks. Don’t worry, it’s on the bucket list.
So I was excited when I learned about Dan Carlson, who, along with wife, Michelle, has run The Dive Depot in Bemidji for the past 15 years. The Dive Depot offers certified instruction in scuba diving and snorkeling, as well as equipment and travel experiences to area lakes and even to diving hot spots like Florida, the Caribbean, Cozumel, Mexico and Roatan, Honduras.
Originally from Lancaster, Minn., Carlson found and fell in love with diving while in the U.S. Navy after high school. I sat down recently to talk to him about diving, and specifically diving with sharks.
Dan tells this funny story before our interview officially starts, about a time when he was diving in Florida with a group that included two teenage girls and they encountered a reef shark.
“It may have been that shark or another in that area that when we first hit the water and, made the splashing noise, one girl said started screaming “There’s a shark, coming right at you, coming right at you” and I looked down underwater; it came from behind me and it went right between my fins. The girls were going “Are we getting back in the boat” No, I said, ‘Let’s go diving.’
in: How long have you been diving?
DC: 25 years now.
in: What got you into diving?
DC: I’m originally from Lancaster, Minn., right up on the Canadian border. Right after high school, I joined the Navy and I was fortunate to get stationed in Hawaii So, I was stationed in Hawaii for three years, three of my six years. And that’s where I really started diving.
in: How many times have you dove or been in the water when sharks are present?
DC: Diving in Cozumel, we see a lot of nurse sharks there; so those will be more docile, they aren’t free-swimming, typically sitting in a spot. Then diving in Hawaii, there are lot of sharks around, but the whole time I was there (in the Navy), I never saw a shark. I was on dives where people saw sharks and even had a buddy signal to me that he saw a shark, but. . . Diving in the Florida Keys, we saw sharks down there, mostly reef sharks. Probably 100 or more times (he’s been in the water with sharks in the area).
in: Have you ever come across the Bull Sharks, the Great Whites or Makos?
DC: In Hawaii, they would have been around, there’s more variety of sharks there, but I just didn’t see them. Different places we go, they have the shark-feeding dives. I am not a fan of those. I don’t promote them, I don’t go on them. We have had people go on those, but it is a very structured dive; and I am not a fan of associating food with divers. For me it is training a shark to associate food with scuba divers. Florida did it for awhile, people started getting bit, and then they banned it. And I am up here in northern Minnesota going “We don’t feed bears.”. . . There are some places that are doing it right and educating people intelligently about the sharks but there are still a lot of places that are gonna open up and charge hundreds of dollars for not a well-run… There are places in Florida that will charge you $500 a person to go out and see a shark.
in: What was the first shark you saw?
DC: It would have been around 2000. For me, it is an excitement of seeing this animal in its habitat, and I don’t see sharks as a threat. They are not accustomed to eating something that’s blowing bubbles, making all kinds of noise. They don’t go after scuba divers. And so for me it is really thrilling to see something like that; it’s thrilling to see a large animal like that — being able to experience that and to see them, they are just incredible to watch.
in: When you are taking people on diving trips, what kinds of things are you instructing them if there are sharks in the water?
DC: The most important thing, and what I really stress in my classes, is good diving techniques — having good habits… of keeping your hands in, because they are really ineffective underwater anyway; kicking nice and slow with your fins and having good buoyancy control, where you are just floating in the water. If you have bad buoyancy control and are used to using your hands, you look like something that’s in distress in the water. If you don’t have the good skills, you can appear to be prey in the water; something that… and that’s going to attract and it’s going to trigger a feeding instinct in a shark. The most important thing is having good habits.
in: How do people react when seeing a shark? What have you seen over the years?
DC: I’ve seen the full range — of people being reckless: ‘I’m going to go up and touch the shark,” which I wouldn’t do. I’ll go look at them, but I’m not going to provoke them or something — to people telling me they will not go scuba diving because of sharks. And an interesting note, it’s diving history now, is that one of the biggest impacts to recreational diving when it was really getting going in the ’70s, and was becoming more and more popular, and then the movie “Jaws” came out. It had a huge impact that people did not want to go diving because of that movie.
in: Overall, you’ve had positive experiences with sharks. No trepidation about diving with them?
DC: None. I look forward to capturing a shark on video, catching a photo or video. I guess I don’t seek them out, where I am paying extra to make sure I am seeing a shark.