MIAMI -- Jim Abernethy firmly believes that anyone who really gets to know a shark will switch from fearing the animal to wanting to protect it.
"They're not man-eaters. They're like dogs. They have different personalities," Abernethy said.
Abernethy, a well-known shark diving pioneer and photographer who operates live-aboard and day-trip dive boats in Palm Beach County, has just published a book full of breathtaking photos and informative text aimed at turning shark haters into shark advocates.
Sharks Up Close explains in simple terms why sharks are important to the health of oceans worldwide and exhorts the reader to get involved with organizations dedicated to protecting these apex predators.
"I wrote it because I knew sharks were headed for extinction," Abernethy, 52, said in a telephone interview. "I'm worried the oceans are going to collapse one at a time because of the loss of apex predators."
According to Abernethy and other shark experts, the animals play a vital role in the marine environment by preying on sick or weak marine creatures. This culling process strengthens gene pools and helps to curb disease outbreaks.
But people worldwide are catching and killing sharks faster than the species can reproduce, mainly under the false but lucrative assumption that shark fins and livers are valuable as aphrodisiacs or medicines.
Backed by information from the World Health Organization, Abernethy writes that shark meat has such high concentrations of mercury--a heavy metal that, once ingested, never leaves the body--that it is widely considered unsafe for human consumption. Mercury poisoning can cause birth defects, neurological problems and even sexual dysfunction.
Abernethy believes people should either leave sharks alone, or like him, visit them in their natural environment to observe how they behave.
"Sharks are smart, graceful, interesting ..." he wrote. "Sharks are COOL!"
Abernethy said that the animals' reputation as a threat to people is false, citing statistics that, on average, less than one person per year is killed by a shark in U.S. waters. Deer, he writes, kill an average of 130 people per year.
Abernethy said shark bites are usually a mistake; the animals do not seek out people as a food source. But on his dive boat two years ago, Austrian tourist Markus Groh was fatally injured when a shark bit him during an underwater feeding in the Bahamas. "It was an accident, a mistake," Abernethy said. "I've never seen a shark attack anyone."
As an illustration, a photo in the book shows a tiger shark investigating a wad of seaweed by biting it, even though seaweed is not part of its diet.
Abernethy hopes his book will become a staple of marine education programs in schools and a favorite of nature lovers.