Sharks Up Close: Jim Abernethy's Shark Attack Experience as a Conservationist

Sharks Up Close: Jim Abernethy’s Shark Attack Experience as a Conservationist

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By Edward Zhang Marine Biologist

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Introducing Jim Abernethy

For over 40 years, Jim Abernethy has shared the wonders of the oceans with millions of people worldwide. Whether it’s through stories, photos, videos, classes, or in-person expeditions, Abernethy has always found a way to share his passion for marine, and more specifically shark, conservation. 

Though not suggesting going out and being bitten by a shark, it’s clear that personal experiences like Abernethy’s can make profound impressions and serve as significant motivators to continue the mission for marine conservation. Like Abernethy said “What we need is compassion” and what better way of finding that than to have some personal stories to tell?”

Sharks Up Close: Jim Abernethy's Shark Attack Experience as a Conservationist
Sharks Up Close: Jim Abernethy’s Shark Attack Experience as a Conservationist

The Encounter: Being Bitten by a Shark

Though he’s spent decades working with sharks, Abernethy’s experience wasn’t enough to prevent him from being attacked (albeit not critically) by one several years back. 

During one of his shark expeditions, Abernethy was bitten by a shark on the arm while tending to a baiting device he created that was damaged by frontal wind from an approaching storm. Because he was surrounded by roughly 30 sharks, Abernethy decided to focus mainly on the three tiger sharks at the bottom since the others only fed on small fish. 

Nevertheless, Abernethy was bitten rather badly at that moment by an unsuspecting shark. Surprisingly, despite there being hundreds of pounds of fish and a significant amount of blood (due to the bite) in the water, the shark then released him right away, and he returned to the boat without further incident. The rest of the guest divers also returned onto the boat without any trouble. 

Abernethy took this shark attack experience as an opportunity to realize the fact that sharks don’t become excited, attracted to, or otherwise change their behavior whatsoever when in the presence of human blood. This was seen from both him and his guests safely returning to the boat despite going through blood-infested waters, and the fact that the shark that bit him wasn’t alerted at all and didn’t try to bite him again. 

This experience also reinforced Abernethy’s idea that sharks aren’t always out to target humans, as often portrayed in the media. Instead, they’re often guided by colors or certain electrical stimuli from fish or in some cases, are provoked or agitated, hence attacks by them are typically accidental (i.e. when they confuse human actions with prey).

Advocacy and Education: A Lifelong Mission

Much of Jim Abernethy’s work focuses on his main goal of promoting and advocating for the protection of the beauty of life under the ocean, with sharks in particular. Whether it’s through his NGOs, his dive business Jim Abernethy’s Scuba Adventures Inc., or his educational presentations that he does on land (including this interview given as part of the Offshore Sailing and Cruising podcast), Abernethy has found a variety of ways to educate the public about sharks and their conservation.

Using Personal Experiences to Shape Public Perception and Conservation Policy

Jim With Emma Tiger shark
Jim With Emma Tiger shark

When it comes to experiences such as his shark attack, Jim Abernethy often uses them as a means to shape the public perception of shark behavior by using various forms of media. For example, in his podcast interview, Abernethy demonstrated that while people should avoid areas where there’s fish blood, which sharks are attracted to, they shouldn’t have to worry about surfing or otherwise entering the water with an open wound as sharks aren’t interested in human blood.

He also emphasizes from experience that sharks are attracted to things like bright colors (i.e. white colors) and fishermen, hence it’s important to know what to avoid when entering shark-infested waters. 

Throughout his dives, Abernethy has also encountered numerous sharks that have left strong impressions due to their behavior or injuries, such as Captain Ron and Emma. 

Captain Ron was a lemon shark Abernethy came across with a hook in its jaw and a missing left eye. Through a gradual process of rubbing its head and gaining its trust, Abernethy was eventually able to not only remove the hook but also befriend the shark. 

Emma, a tiger shark,is another shark that Abernethy has famously befriended. One day, while he was out on a shark expedition with Matt Gutman of ABC News, Abernethy decided to use an opportunity with Emma to demonstrate how sharks can show more affection towards humans than fish.

In this case, while Abernethy was rubbing Emma’s head, another shark known as Shredder came along and bumped Abernethy several times on the chest to indicate that he wanted to be rubbed too. When Abernethy continued to rub Emma, Shredder decided to shove Emma away twice until she understood the message and left. 

Through experiences like these, Abernethy can spread the message to the public that not only are sharks not what we often deem them to be but there are also specific things that can be done to protect sharks from dwindling populations. 

Ongoing Projects and Future Goals

Currently, Jim Abernethy is mainly running his NGOs and his dive business, which he all uses to fulfil his life’s mission of improving public awareness of both the fascinating facts within the ocean and the ever-more urgent issue of marine life conservation. He also partners with many other non-profits, such as Wild Over Wildlife, that target specific audiences (in this case kids), to collaborate on his projects.

Regarding the future, Abernethy is urging the public to make simple changes to their daily routines, such as switching to a plant-based diet, reducing plastic usage, and stopping trophy hunting, to better protect the marine ecosystems. He also hopes action can be taken on the shark fin trade, which is known for killing tens of millions (roughly 73 million) of sharks annually, which although banned in many countries, continues to run wild in others. 

His previous shark attack encounter is one of his biggest motivators to continue working. Although undoubtedly an unexpected occasion, it was more proof to Abernethy that sharks aren’t the mindless dangerous beasts movies and TV shows often portray them to be. Because of this, he’s become more inspired to protect these animals who aren’t naturally hostile to humans. He is so determined in fact, that even after being bitten by a shark, he’s only become ever more dedicated to completing his mission. 

Want to know more?

If you’ve always dreamt of the chance to interact with sharks, Jim Abernethy organizes “cage-free” expeditions, where he guides divers from around the world to safely swim alongside various shark species.