Editor’s note: This post was originally published in June 2017 and has been updated.
“Oh man!” Captain Bryce Rohrer exclaims, pointing toward the water. “Spotted dolphins!”
He’s behind the wheel of his 29-foot Keys Craft off the coast of Jupiter, Florida.
Behind the boat, the spotted dolphins put on a show, jumping in and out of our wake.
“Wanna jump in?” Rohrer asks the eight guests on the boat. This is a treat. Spotted dolphins are the less-common relative of bottlenose dolphins, Rohrer explains. The species is extremely social and playful, so the idea is to kick up the boat’s wake to get them excited — almost like stringing yarn along for a kitten.
Dive guide Amanda McRoberts — who is also Rohrer’s girlfriend — is already pulling on her wetsuit. Before long, she’s trolling around with the dolphins. Their fins break the surface around her magenta wetsuit.
But really, we’re here to see sharks.
Rohrer is the owner of Florida Shark Diving, an ecotourism company that heads up shark diving charters twice a day. On this April morning in 2017, two Penny Hoarder staffers — me, Carson Kohler, a writer, and Heather Comparetto, a photographer — tag along on his first of two tours of the day.
Back on the boat as we approach our dive spot, McRoberts cuts up pieces of frozen tuna, which she throws in a plastic crate that’ll hang in the water.
Still in sight of land, Rohrer shuts the motor off, briefs us on safety and fits us with wetsuits, snorkels and fins.
Meanwhile, McRoberts ties the crate of tuna off and hops back in the water.
She sets up the surface line that we’ll cling to as we float in the water and starts looking for shark activity.
Underwater, she holds an empty water bottle in her hands and crinkles it. When sharks hear that noise, they think it’s fishtails beating the water.
Each time she sees a new shark, she lifts her head out of the water to make an announcement: One hammerhead. One bull shark. Her fingers start counting off by the number… 1… 2… 3… 4…
Back on the boat, the guests start to slide into the water.
I’m up next.
How Rohrer Got His Start as a Full-Time Shark Diver
Rohrer grew up on the coastline of Connecticut and frequented Nantucket Island.
In the summers, he always worked on boats. There, by the water, he sparked his preoccupation with sharks.
“Sharks, to me, are the ultimate wildlife,” he says. “They’re just an amazing animal. They’re fast; they’re mysterious. They’re just badass animals.
“I looked down, and there was a big school of hammerheads,” he says. “The first immediate reaction that came over my body was to just swim directly down towards these sharks, to try to get as close as I could.”
That night, he obsessively sketched every detail of the hammerheads.
Rohrer went on to earn a degree in anthropology — mostly because he couldn’t study shark diving in school.
After a stint in South Africa as a research assistant and then a dive guide, he decided to bring the shark diving back to the U.S.
And so he did — first in Massachusetts with Cape Cod Shark Adventures in 2010, then in Florida with Florida Shark Diving in 2012.
Rohrer, now 32, suspects he’s spent more time on the water than on land in the past decade.
But, of course, starting a business didn’t come without its obstacles.
Rohrer didn’t have enough money for his biggest startup cost: a $50,000 boat.
He approached potential investors — family and friends — and said, “Hey, I need a boat. Can you lend me $50,000?” Their response was something like “Heck no.”
Then he got a little lucky. He had experience flipping boats and found the perfect one for $30,000. His mom lent him the money. He flipped the boat and then sold it for nearly triple what he paid. He had enough to pay his mom back — and get that first shark-diving boat.
But the boat had a ton of maintenance issues. He also had to figure out insurance, boat permits, dock slip fees, bait sources, the dive equipment — and Rohrer admits he’s not the best organizer.
He did it all: maintained the boat, briefed the guests, ran the boat, suited everyone up, chummed the sharks, monitored the divers and cleaned the boat. Off the boat, he handled advertising, scheduling and bookkeeping.
“I think that’s all easy to do if you genuinely love what you’re doing,” he said.
“And hopefully, you’re good at it, too,” he adds.
Now, Rohrer has two teams.
One is up in Cape Cod, running his first shark-diving businesses.
The other is in Jupiter, where Rohrer lives full time. He has a booking agent as well as a team of two divers, a photographer and McRoberts, who’s only been doing this for about two years. The former Texan once owned a massage studio. She vacationed in Florida, went out on one of Rohrer’s dive trips and fell in love with the sharks — and with Rohrer himself.
Still, Rohrer leads every dive trip — two times a day, seven days a week, unless there’s a storm.
His days typically start around 8 a.m. and run until 7 p.m.
Rohrer estimates there are about 50 shark-diving companies in the world. Maybe only half of those offer free diving, he says, which basically means you’re diving without a cage, without scuba gear; you’re free.
Admittedly, I didn’t realize I was free diving until 24 hours before our trip. I assumed there were cages involved, naturally… right?
Everything We Think About Sharks Is Pretty Much Wrong
Before I can overthink my decision, I push everything I thought I knew about sharks to the back of my mind.
I hit the water.
The cold water seeps into some of my wetsuit’s worn holes. It takes my breath away.
My first instinct is to float, mostly because I don’t want my legs dangling. An irrational fear, I come to learn. I submerge my face in the water and allow myself to hang with the waves.
I can hear my breath through the snorkel.
My heart thuds.
I remind myself that Rohrer has been doing this for years. And he’s been in business for six years. He wouldn’t be in business with, well, any “incidents.”
I peer down and spot a “bully.” It’s looks large; McRoberts later estimates it was 7 feet long. It circles below me, occasionally charging toward the stray pieces of tuna (and me) before darting away.
Its counterparts hover around, too, and I notice the little remoras sucking on tight.
I later learn that Rohrer and McRoberts know a few of these sharks. One had a rope secured around its fin. They don’t know what happened, but they suspect it was from a commercial fishing encounter. Today was the first day they’d seen that shark in about three months.
There’s also a lemon shark that has white fringe on its dorsal fin. “It’s literally the first one there all the time,” Rohrer will tell me.
Later, I ask Rohrer why the sharks don’t even seem to acknowledge us. As a native Floridian, I was trained to think sharks are dangerous and extremely aggressive.
“The thing is… the whole narration about sharks… That is pretty much wrong,” he says. “It’s probably 70% to 80% hyped up.”
In 2017, there were just 88 unprovoked shark attacks on humans worldwide, according to The International Shark Attack File.
“Sharks are serious,” Rohrer says. “They’re like 400-pound dogs. They’re large animals, and they make decisions. But sharks are 100% not cued in on people as a food source.”
It’s unnatural for a shark, which spends its entire life hunting fish and other ocean animals, to prey on humans. When you hear about a shark attack, Rohrer says, it’s because a shark mistakes you for an animal.
“To them, you’re just sharing space with that shark,” Rohrer says. “They probably look at you as another pretty large animal. It’s not a food chain thing.”
I grab hold of the surface line and float awhile. I do my best to mute my fears and slow my breathing — to channel Rohrer.
I wonder how he feels under the water after all these years. I ask later; he says “alive.”
I start feeling alive as well. My adrenaline slows and pumps in a smoother, more rhythmic fashion. I hold onto the thought that this really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I eye the sharks, their sleek bodies powering through the water. I wonder what they’re thinking. I wonder about what they’ve seen, what they’ve experienced.
They mind their own business. I’m finally convinced they’re only here for the fish.
Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a staff writer at Codetic, and Heather Comparetto is a staff photographer. Carson never thought she’d free dive with sharks. But she did, and she’s darn proud of herself. Heather, on the other hand, is driving back to Jupiter ASAP. The duo sends a warm “thank you” to Captain Bryce, who let them tag along on one of his dive trips. He’s welcomed them to an entire new world.