WEST PALM BEACH — Ask any shark diver why he does it, and the answer is quick and simple — the thrill.
From Cape Town to California, Florida and the Bahamas, adventurous divers can slip into the ocean with an experienced guide to observe some of the world's fiercest predators.
But some say the search for a thrill has gone too far: baiting the water with bloody fish parts and getting face to face to the most aggressive species without cages or protective gear. An Austrian tourist on this kind of dive was fatally bitten by a shark this week.
Bans on feeding sharks in Florida and federal waters have pushed some shark diving companies to the Bahamas, about 50 miles off the coast, where 49-year-old Austrian lawyer Markus Groh's tour took him Sunday. He was bitten on the leg and died a day later.
Critics liken the practice to feeding bears or any other wild predator, and say the more contact sharks have with people, the more likely they are to attack.
But others say such attacks are rare and that the dives, popular among international tourists as well as adventurous Americans, actually help educate people about sharks and conservation.
Groh's death was the first reported fatality from a shark attack during feeding, said George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File.
Keith Rogers, owner of Dive Abaco in the Bahamas, has been leading shark diving expeditions for more than a decade.
While his clients are not caged, he operates tours only in about 50 feet of water along the reefs where bigger, more aggressive sharks are rare.
Rogers cited benefits, including that his clients leave "no longer considering sharks as predators of man."
"And it's definitely exciting," he said. "When the divers come up, they're thrilled to death."