Saturday, July 26, 2014

Neal Watson - King of Hypocrites

Neal Watson, President of the Bahamas Divers' Association and owner of Undersea Adventures, has done it again: He used the recent fatal dive accident in the Bahamas (Tiger Beach) once more to blast the foreign competition  -   US live-aboards that take divers to Tiger Beach - to promote Bahamian shark diving operations which include his own.

Why does Mr.Watson have to go public and talk about "negligence" and "incompetence" on the part of the US shark operator, Jim Abernethy, when it hasn't been clearly established yet what caused the death of the diver? 

Does Mr. Watson, undoubtedly a very experienced diver, not realize that whilst diving, with or without sharks, has become a perfectly safe sport / hobby, "shit can still happen" as bluntly stated by Mike Neumann in a related blog?

I know Jim Abernethy, and I know that he runs a very tight ship, literally. A bit too tight for me, to be honest, as he would not allow me to free-dive at Tiger Beach. Because of this restriction I never went diving with him.   

I certainly don't wish Neal Watson a fatal accident on one of his trips, but I wonder how he would handle such a mishap...  But that is a moot question.

What really bugs me, though, is that Mr. Watson is now doing precisely what he vociferously accused other shark-dive operators, obviously all competitors of him,  of: 'Recklessly putting his guests' lives at risk' by diving cage-less with "potentially dangerous" sharks such as big hammerheads, lemon sharks (!!), and, of course, tiger sharks which in my (and many others') opinion are "potentially" no more dangerous than a well maintained car.


Caribbean Reef Shark - in Neal Watson's opinion not a "potentially" dangerous shark...
Photo: Wolfgang Leander (Bahamas 2003)
Click to enlarge


Only Neal Watson knows what made him change his mind, and I don't want to speculate upon it, although it wouldn't surprise me at all that money, money, money was the motive to go cage-less so as to not lose the business to the competition. He must have recognized that nobody wants to be behind bars watching sharks, except when they  happen to be great whites.

I called Mr. Watson a "vulture"*)  when he maliciously tried to sink Jim Abernethy and his tiger shark operation after the most unfortunate Markus Groh accident back in early 2008. 

I now appoint Neal Watson "King of Hypocrites" in the shark dive industry. However, despite my utter displeasure at his two-faced attitude, I wish him well  -   he is an old fart, and as such deserves some empathy from a fart his age.  :-) 

Thus: "Long live the King of Hypocrites!!".... 

Also, to be fair: Watson is probably sincere trying to establish some standard safety guidelines within the boundaries of the Bahamian waters. However, and to finish this here, I just can't escape the feeling that envy is the other, equally strong driving force behind his campaign against the gringo rivals.

 






*) These are the open letters I wrote to Mr. Watson back in 2008




From: Wolfgang Leander <wolfgang@oceanicdreams.comDate: Feb 27, 2008 11:14 PM

Subject: Shark incident / Jim Abernethy



Dear Mr. Watson:

You keep lashing out at Jim Abernethy - not only do you do the shark haters a huge favor but you discredit yourself and the association you preside over.

You would like to have others regard you as some sort of a diving "legend".

Well, let me tell you what you are: You are just an old vicious man without the slightest feeling for basic decency in a time when solidarity and compassion for both the vicitim`s relatives and your colleague Jim would be the appropiate behavior. Instead, you behave worse than a vulture. You maliciously feed the sensationalist press that is hungry for "Jaws" food.

Your classification of 'dangerous' sharks (Jim's sharks) versus 'safe' sharks (your sharks) is not only ludicrous, but shows quite clearly what your ulterior motives are.

Everybody in the trade suspects that you are using this most unfortunate incident to promote your shark operations with 'safe' Caribbean Reef Sharks while trying to eliminate a highly successful and internationally acclaimed competitor.

Shame on you!

Wolfgang Leander




---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Wolfgang Leander, wolfgang@oceanicdreams.com;
Date: Feb 25, 2008 9:12 PM
Subject: Shark incident / Jim Abernethy
To: 
Neal@nealwatson.com 

Dear Mr. Watson:

I was appalled at your published statements below:

"Most operators do a safe dive behind cages. But Abernathy, for whatever
reason, simply refused to comply with the safe diving practices in violation
of our standards in the Bahamas," said Watson, who operates a diving company
out of Fort Lauderdale.
It is tempting to offer a cageless option to customers: both the photographs
and personal experience would be enhanced. But the risks are too great,
Watson said.
"Him working with tiger sharks and bull sharks uncaged is totally
irresponsible and dangerous," he said. "It wasn't a matter of 'if,' it was a
matter of 'when.

Instead of expressing solidarity with the victim's relatives and your colleagues, you lash out at them callously and unsportingly, and seem to relish at the fact that this incident "proves" you right.

I know Jim Abernethy, and I can tell you that he is probably the most professional shark dive operator out there. His safety record has been flawless - until this last Sunday.

Now, we all know that shark diving is not entirely risk-free - what sport is? Skiing? Mountain-climbing? Bike-riding? Would anyone try to ban these activities because people can get injured or even die practising them?

You are a seasoned diver, as am I (I started diving back in 1955) - you should be a bit more relaxed. Stuart Cove has not had an accident, not that I know of, and he must have organized thousands of shark dives with Caribbean Reef Sharks in baited situations. So, Mr. Watson, what is your problem??

I have freedived both in Tiger Beach and Aliwal Shoal (South Africa) with tiger sharks - no cages. I have to say that I NEVER felt threatened by these magnificent creatures in any way. Now, you could say, why does an old fart like me (I am 67) freedive with tiger sharks? Well, that is what I love to do. And let me tell you: I am not a dare-devil; I just enjoy swimming with sharks as do countless other ocean enthusiasts.

I would never ever dive within the confinement of a cage, not with tiger sharks, not with whites sharks. I would not even scuba dive with sharks - I only freedive with them.

People should decide for themselves what they want to do. If they want to take risks - fine. But who are you to tell others what to do, and how to do it?

I have to ask you again: Why are you so much against cage-free shark diving? And why are you crusading against it? Many thousands of divers dive with sharks all over the world - the safety record is as high as it can be. Unfortunatley, Markus Groh got bitten and died from the wounds.

As much as we are saddened by this deplorable accident, we should neither demonize the sharks nor should we blame people like Jim Abernethy who have done more than most in introducing thousands and thousands of divers to the realm of the lords of the sea.

Whoever has the privilege to dive with sharks becomes a shark conservationist. Shark conservation is, to Jim, more than just a fashionable slogan: He has dedicated his life to it by taking people out to swim with sharks so they can feel closer to nature which is what shark diving is all about.

We are disconnected from nature, and sharks represent, in a way, the paradise we have lost a long time ago.

Best regards,

Wolfgang Leander
Cochabamba / Bolivia
wolf@oceanicdreams.com









Friday, July 04, 2014

Is my Underwater Photography "Art"?



A craft, perhaps, but Ila France-Porcher considers my shark photography to be artistic.

I have to admit, false modesty aside, that I feel quite flattered by it, as I admire multi-talented Ila for being an accomplished author and a sensitive painter*), a very professional and competent non-academic shark ethologist, and, last not least, a deeply passionate shark lover and eloquent shark advocate.

So, having her review my work is indeed a much valued privilege, and it fills me with honor. I cannot say it any other way.

If you, dear Reader, haven't heard of Ila France-Porcher, you ought to know also that she is one of those rare shark people who have such a healthy ego that it doesn't have to be constantly pumped up like a cracked bicycle tire... She has neither an organization behind her, nor is she her own PR-manager; she is she, and doesn't need to be more than that.  

Here is Ila's article as published in the latest international issue of the prestigious X-Ray-Magazine. 

*) I have one of Ila's Tiger Shark paintings that captured the essence of tiger sharks far better than any of the best photographs of these incredibly expressive, strong, yet most gentle creatures I have ever seen - including my own images, of course...   :-)  :-)





Saturday, June 21, 2014

Jean-Francois Avenier - known to everybody as "Jifa" (1947 - 2014)


Jifa and Machin, Hermanus 2010


I am very sorry and sad to have to report that Jifa has died from a cancer he fought most courageously and discreetly during the last months.

The illness was diagnosed in August 2013, and although the prognosis didn't look good at that time, there was some hope that with the usual palliative therapies (chemo and radiation), to which Jifa was subjected, he could still have a few relatively good years to look forward to. 

Both Jifa and I developed a deep friendship even though we have met only twice, in South Africa (in 2008 and 2010).

We knew that becoming very close and congenial friends at our age had to be something special as it happens in general rarely, if at all, in the autumn of life. 

We were already over sixty, me closer to seventy, when we began to communicate electronically on a shark platform with each other, both staunch individualists and not really gregarious, except with folks that we liked and felt close to. Grandiloquent people could not only not impress us in the least   -  we avoided them like the plague. 

We did not always agree on issues that seemed important to us but we fully respected each other's opinions.  That type of tolerance and mutual appreciation of diverging points of view is what basically constituted our friendship, as any solid relationship.

Apart from having shared many passions such as photography and diving with sharks, what really made us soul brothers was our self-deprecating sense of humor and an abhorrence for conceited, pathologically ego-driven individuals within, and without, the international shark community. 

Rather than writing a "real" obituary, which I know Jifa would have totally disapproved of, here are three blogs I wrote in 2008 and in 2010 after our last encounter which I believe pretty much describe this intelligent, sensitive, yet extremely strong-minded and life-loving human being. 


Only a few months ago, I was toying with the idea of going back to Hermanus next year just to spend a few weeks with Jifa and his dogs "Machin" and "Cheyenne", and perhaps dive with tiger sharks, depending on his state of health. 

Not anymore, as I have no other reason to travel all the way to South Africa knowing that he won't be able to pick me up at the airport with a big grin and his 5.7 liter, 400 hp driving machine he loved so much.  

My world has become a little colder now that Jifa has left it...

A bientot, mon bon ami.


Wolf


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Tiger Beach - and an end in sight, unfortunately.


It almost hurts to state that. But, yes, I have decided that this year's November back-to-back trips to that literally breathtaking place will be my last shark dives. 

"My last shark dives"... Sounds awful to me, kind of like a terminal disease... Well, at least I can say, not proudly but anecdotally, that I have been diving on one breath of air for sixty years which probably makes me one of the oldest free-diving farts in the world. 

Sure, now that old age - hey, I am 73!! - and the aftereffects of my stomach cancer five years ago are taking their tolls, I could start switching to diving with Scuba tanks. But that would be like betraying my life-long tenet that free-diving is the only way to get closer to, and feel homier in, that incomparably magic of the blue world of silence.... 

I am thankful that I have had the incredible privilege to dive and interact with the most gracious, gentle, intelligent, and sensitive sharks during the last eight years: The tiger sharks, along with the great white sharks probably the most misunderstood and vilified "requiem" sharks.

I cannot express how excited I am knowing that I will be seeing "Emma" or "Smiley" once again, and, frankly, at the same time I don't know yet how I will cope bidding them and the other striped girls good-bye for good... All I know is that I will sorely miss them.

The trips I am on, as always aboard the legendary Dolphin Dream, spacious and comfy, are not fully booked yet, there are still a few spots open but experience has shown that those vacancies won't last long.

Thus, if someone reading this should feel the irresistible urge to accompany me to celebrate life, the ocean, and those magnificent creatures, please contact the arranger of the trips, my good old pal Dom Macan, a truly passionate diver, both cosmopolitan and British to the core.

To conclude this message fittingly, here is a moody portrait of "Smiley", the new celebrity of Tiger Beach. 



Click to enlarge

I have selected this image as it transmits  -  as 'eloquently' as a photograph can  -  the bond I would like to believe she and I have established interacting with each other, lovingly and respectfully. Just look at the way she looked at me when I took her picture - doesn't it say it all? 

And when I look at the image myself - will I, indeed, could I REALLY stick to my decision to call tiger shark diving quits?.....  :-) 
  








Sharks: To touch or not to touch them - that is not a question for Mike Neumann.

Mike Neumann will not compromise. Divers who touch sharks, worse: ride them, are, in his opinion, submarine perverts. He calls them 'Shark Molesters'. 

I have a slightly different opinion. I say: If you have a lot of experience diving with sharks, have learned to understand their distinctive body language, and, most importantly, if you love and respect these animals, actually all animals, then I believe it's OK to touch, even caress sharks.

Nurse Shark love. These sharks are very gentle if you treat them gently.
Photograph by Karin Leander (Bahamas, 2004)
Click to enlarge 

Riding them is a different story. Sharks are not horses or bulls, and even former rodeo riders should not manipulate sharks abusively, like turning them upside down or jam Go-Pro cameras on a wand into their mouths (I have seen such totally unacceptable behavior during my last tiger shark trip).

Further down is a brillant article wherein Mike puts forward his thoughts about the subject. Not only do I hold him in the highest esteem for his convincing arguments, but I really believe that his way of introducing his underwater guests to sharks as a responsible and sensible diving operator should become standard protocol in the shark diving industry. 

I am sure that after having read the interview with Mike you will agree with me that this is how shark operators should run their businesses - always allowing certain exceptions,  of course...... otherwise, how would I be able to go back to where I could caress my beloved striped girls again?.... :-)




Contrary to their bad press, tiger sharks can be as gentle as nurse sharks - if you know how to communicate with them.
Photograph by Felix Leander (Aliwal Shoal, 2008)
Click to enlarge



Friday, January 03, 2014

William Winram - New World Record 145 meters

While this may come a little late - I just saw the video below - William Winram achieved a new world record in variable weight (complete story here).  I first met William in 2008 while diving in South Africa with Tiger Sharks.  At that point my old man was in his late 60s and putting in more water time than anyone I knew - he could easily be in the water 9 hours without flinching.  I will always remember William saying - when I "grow-up" I want to be like your dad, have the energy and the passion.

It seems like William is doing just that - by no means a young buck - William continues to push the limits all while being humble.  I always liked William for those reasons, he is a good person and his mind and heart are in the right place.  Since 2008, William has also become a strong advocate for sharks.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

2014: Feel like refreshing your marriage, concubinage, platonic friendship?


Easy!  

Put on a new face every now and then... :-)


It works for us - it should work for you, too.   
(Photographed on January 1, 2014)