Shark-behavior researcher and enthusiast Erich Ritter learns how to dive through adversity, injury and a wall of skepticism to get back in the water.
Since early childhood, I have been fascinated by water. As a child all I ever wanted was to be at Lake Zurich, Switzerland, in summer and winter. I learned how to swim when I was three years old, and got my first dive mask at five.
One day–when I was seven–I saw sharks on TV for the first time and was more than just intrigued at what I saw. I did not really understand what the narrator of that show meant when he described these animals as vicious and dangerous, since what I felt was altogether different. This first encounter with sharks on television triggered something in me that would last a life time. After one episode of Flipper when a shark got killed by the porpoise, I actually felt sorry for the shark.
From then on I collected everything ever written on sharks, but since most books were written in English–which back then was not taught at school–I pretty much had to translate everything myself. To this day I kept my dictionary which serves as a vivid reminder of those early days.
When I was 12 years old my mind was set: go to the university and study sharks. Convinced that the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich was the right school, I signed up for their biology program and was eager to get started. But what a wake-up call that was! Studying biology did not entail what I had anticipated. I still remember the frustration during a zoology lecture when my professor finally started to mention sharks, but it was over in less than 15 minutes. After class I waited for the professor and put him on the spot. He was not really sure how to react when I blurted out that these few minutes on sharks were the main reason why I went to college and signed up at the technical institute. He was dumbfounded, but managed to suggest that I should probably leave the ETH and sign up with the University of Zurich, where I could likely study “fishes.”
I signed up with the University of Zurich and believed that I finally found my way. But I was unprepared for the fact that the program was literally about “fishes”–the boney kind –and not the cartilaginous variety I wanted to study. So I asked for a meeting with the head of the department and once more, in a rather frustrated state, asked if there is any chance to do anything – anything – that would entail sharks. Although he said that he could not really help me with anything related to sharks (he was an ornithologist), he promised that I could focus on the apex predators for my master’s studies. For the first time I started to believe that I would actually get the chance to work with these incredible creatures. Of course what I had in mind was not what reality chose for me.
I was under the impression that I would start swimming with sharks, describe their behavior, develop experiments about their interactions with humans, and spend my time on islands surrounded by sharks. Granted, I was still a dreamer back then. Instead I ended up in a lab doing anatomical studies on their muscle system. But I told myself that once I have a master’s degree I would then be able to sign up at one of the universities in the US, where classes were taught by the authors of the very books I had translated as a child. But the movie JAWS was still fresh in most people’s minds, and because my ideas included studying the exact species Spielberg had turned society against, I did not receive the necessary funding. So I ended up remaining at the Zoological Museum in Zurich studying bony fishes, and I started to accept that my fascination with sharks would likely never be more than a hobby.
I kept reading everything about sharks, but no longer in the context of a possible career choice, until I learned about a program at the University of Miami (UM) and my dream swam back into the realm of possibility. A few months later, after getting the money I needed, I started my first day at UM and was convinced that this time my aspirations would finally come to pass.
However, as was becoming a theme in my quest – two steps forward, and one step back – my hopes were again dashed. The course of study did not involve hanging out with sharks, no experiments with sharks and humans, no body language evaluation, but rather catching sharks, putting tags on them and tracking where they went. But I had learned not to take no for an answer, and this time I did not settle for middle ground.
So each weekend, after my regular research, I started trying to understand how sharks interacted with humans. Back then the general opinion was that sharks are dangerous, and that because of this, no one could dive or interact with them. Well, I did it anyway and started to commune with tiger sharks, white sharks and bull sharks. My view that this was an enhancement of my knowledge base, and a continuation of my studies, was not shared by many. I got quite a bit of resistance, mainly from my peers. In fact some comments were rather nasty. I still clearly recall how I was ridiculed when I explained that the term “shark attack” is a misnomer, and should be called an “incident,” or an “accident.” But in truth I could care less. Battling ignorance was par for the course back then.
The funny thing is, today nobody wants to remember how the study of sharks started. And it is not just language that has changed since then. Attitudes have also come a long way. Sharks are the most harmless animals among the top and super predators on our planet (based on density and number of incidents), and the best proof is to be among them. So to spread the word, I started teaching everyone who wanted to learn about sharks, including those who might end up face-to-face with these magnificent animals. I launched an organization called “SharkSchool,” where I not only taught divers, surfers, swimmers, lifeguards, and even special forces, to handle close encounters, but I also built a research station in the Bahamas solely dedicated to the study of shark-human interaction. This work included incident analysis and reconstruction, as well. I had finally found my niche! But in April 2002 all of that would change when I was nearly killed by a shark during a demonstration on live television.
One of my spotters–a person designated to watch my back–did not do his job, allowing a shark to get through from behind me and bite me twice in my left leg, severing an artery. I had often worked with spotters since they could discern when a situation would get tricky, and could warn me so I could react appropriately to avoid an accident. The wound was so severe that it was a race against time to make it to a hospital before I bled out. After eight hours of surgery, and many more after that, the doctors saved my life. I had a hard time digesting the incident, not just because of my handicap, but also because some of my colleagues showed their true colors.
Back then I was not aware that my spotter failed to do his job, and that the incident could have been prevented. Because of this the situation was not portrayed as a failure of duty, but rather as a failure of my research. It was positioned as though the way I see sharks was flawed, incorrect, and that I was a fraud. The worst part was probably how some of my colleagues who had questioned my work before the accident left no opportunity to discredit me untaken. But the more bad press I got, the more they tried to disqualify what I knew was right, the more convinced I was that I had to get back in the water as quickly as possible to show everybody that they were wrong.
It was a long process since nobody seemed to want to know how it happened. They focused only on the fact that it had happened, drawing the false conclusion that because I had been bitten, sharks should be considered dangerous. So for years my top priority was to explain why the details of why it happened were important. The unbelievable part of all this was that my accident eventually opened up the doors to foundations, sponsors and philanthropists again. And the reason was always the same: how could a person who cheated death go back in the water to redo what had nearly cost him his life, and preach the same message as before?
The fact is that sharks were, and are, not how they were portrayed in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. They are in truth the very way I have always presented them – shy, cautious and smart. Most accidents are superficial and of an exploratory nature. But even given this, the research still remained a struggle. Not just because I preferred to work with wild sharks, but because data collection got more and more complicated. Eventually my research got so difficult that I needed of find a researcher who could help me make sense of all the data I collected. So I did a search on the internet and one name popped up: Professor Raid Amin from the University of West Florida.
I still remember the first meeting I had with him. I was nervous, not just because I had no clue of the kind of statistics I really needed–and doubted I would understand it–but also because I was used to meeting resistance when I presented my work. But Raid was nothing what I imagined. Like me, he thought differently, and was not only intrigued by my work, promising to support me on any future research I might conduct, but also showed me what could be done with my work when applying proper statistics and modeling.
Raid and I have since become friends and have worked on many projects together. We are establishing new methodologies, not just to make shark behavior better understood, but to examine shark incidents properly. To this date I swim and interact with sharks on a nearly daily basis, and they still fascinate me the same way they did when I first saw them on TV all those years ago.
And as attitudes change, so has my ability to spread the message that sharks are not to be feared, but to be respected. And most of all, they need to be understood. And perhaps the most important thing I have learned through all of these lessons is that when things don’t go exactly as you might have planned, don’t be scared to get back in the water – dive even deeper.