Location: Melbourne Beach, FL
Most people would not put chum in the ocean in order to attract sharks. And the subset of folks who would do so gets significantly smaller when you throw in the caveat that these sharks are not being summoned from the safety of a boat, but that the divers are actually in the water with the sharks. And now factor in doing this kind of shark bonding while freediving without the protection of any kind of cage or equipment other than a snorkel, fins, weight belt and camera. To me, just writing about this and seeing the footage of these kinds of encounters gives me heart palpitations. To Paul Byrtus, who regularly swims with sharks, this is as close to zen as he gets.
Paul has always grown up around the water. Everywhere his father, a former marine, was stationed was near water. “For as long as I can remember, I have loved the water,” Paul says. He started surfing at age five in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “I never feared the water or what was in it,” he says. All through high school in Tampa, Florida and college at the University of Central Florida, Paul surfed and enjoyed the water. He says he “always loved the beach, how the waves were always different, and the mystery of what was underneath the water.” At age 18, he took up spear fishing and free diving. He had what he calls a “healthy fear of and respect for sharks,” as is true of all surfers. He traces his fascination with them to trying to understand his fear of them and his natural curiosity about what was underneath the surface of the water.
Five years ago, Paul started seeing a lot of sharks through spear fishing. He decided to put away his spear and picked up a camera to try to document what he was seeing. “I wanted to get close enough to them so that I could face them and shoot pics of them,” he says. Paul worked on staying totally still, foregoing a scuba tank so that there would be no bubbles to mark his spot. “I just floated through the water,” he says, “and watched how the sharks move through the city of the coral reef.”
Once his shark photos and videos became popular on the internet, he met some like-minded people in South Florida who had banded together to engage in breath-hold free diving with sharks. They often plan excursions together out of Jupiter, Florida, which is the closest vantage point to deep water in the state. They travel by boat ten miles out and dive in 90 to 150 feet of water, going about 20 feet down. “We attract the sharks by putting dead fish and lobster carcasses into a milk crate,” Paul says. “We tie the milk crate to a buoy line and drop it 20 feet down to get them to come to us.”
He is never scared. “Most shark attacks are mistaken identities,” Paul says. “We are not what they eat.” He has spent a lot of time watching and documenting their behavior, and he remains fascinated by them. “I love to watch them interact,” he says, noting that “they naturally like to bump and touch other objects.” Those other objects sometimes include Paul. “I usually put my hand gently on top of their head and push them below me to redirect them under my body,” he says. “You have to be careful to not put your hand right at their mouth.”
Paul’s favorite is a shark he calls Snooty. She is well known and photographed on the Florida coast because she has a genetic mutation on her mouth that makes her look like a cartoon character that has a permanent smile on her face. “Over the years, we see her migrate here every winter,” Paul says. “As the water starts getting warmer, she leaves but always comes back.” Last year she was pregnant and now there is a small juvenile male shark Paul has spotted with the same genetic mutation that he is sure is her offspring.
He never pushes the limits of his freediving (his best friend drowned 20 years ago from training to compete in breath hold dives) and says he always surfaces with breath to spare. “This is for fun,” Paul says. “I don’t want to compete or break a record. What he wants to do is share his awe for the sharks he sees when “there is no sound or bubbles and your heartrate drops so that you are perfectly still.” He is hoping that his photographs and videos can help change public opinion about sharks. “Sharks are misunderstood,” he says. “I have enormous respect for them. We need to respect them but not fear them.”
When he is not diving with sharks, Paul is indulging his love of the ocean in other ways. He competes in surf contests for over-40 year olds and spends a lot of time in and on the water. He and his wife live on a stilt house on the water in Melbourne Beach, Florida.
“I drink my coffee on the beach every morning and watch the sunrise come up with my dogs,” he says. He has also started painting the waves that he sees from his wraparound deck or the sunset that can be seen on the other side of the house on the river.
The only time he willingly abandons his proximity to the ocean is when he heads to the mountains. Paul and a high school friend who lives in Tampa, Florida set out ten years ago to hike the entirety of the 2200-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. They do one section of 50 to 100 miles at a time whenever they can coordinate their schedules and take a week of vacation together. “I like it because you only have what is on your back,” Paul says. “And it is so relaxing to check out from all electronics. You are just out there in the wilderness.”
Whether he is going minimalist in the wilderness or freediving in the ocean with sharks, Paul has found a way to make nature a priority in his life. I can’t say I will ever join him in a shark appreciation expedition, but I do respect the way he has found a way to carve out time to do the things that have so much meaning to him. Pursuing our passions and being able to incorporate them into our daily lives is not always possible, but often it is a question of choosing to do so. When possible, go for it. Make it happen. Paul is here to tell you that you won’t regret it. Your nine to five, whatever it may be, is rendered so much more palatable when it is cushioned with diving below the surface and communing with sharks or climbing to Mother Nature’s most magnificent peaks… or whatever your version of that may look like.