This Guy Hangs Out With Sharks for a Living — and He Let Us Tag Along

This Guy Hangs Out With Sharks for a Living — and He Let Us Tag Along
Bryce Rohrer, owner of Florida Shark Diving in Jupiter, Fla., spends 365 days a year on the water. Rohrer specializes in getting people up close and personal with sharks. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder.

“Oh man!” Captain Bryce Rohrer exclaims as he points toward the water. “Spotted dolphins!”

He’s behind the wheel of his 29-foot Keys Craft as it rocks and rolls off the coast of Jupiter, Florida. It’s a Tuesday morning in late April, but, for Rohrer, it’s just another day on the job.

“See them?” he says. He has a booming voice. And he’s amped.

Behind the boat, in our wake, the spotted dolphins put on a show, jumping in and out of the wake.

Rohrer jerks the boat’s wheel to the right and circles around. He describes the species as extremely social and playful, so the idea is to kick up the wake to get them excited — almost like stringing yarn along for a kitten.

“Wanna jump in?” Rohrer asks his boat of eight guests. Really, we’re here to see sharks, but this is a treat. Spotted dolphins are the less common relative of the bottlenose dolphins, Rohrer explains.

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.

Dive guide Amanda McRoberts wastes no time jumping in to visit with spotted dolphins. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder.

“Here! Grab the GoPro, babe!” Rohrer shouts, as he hangs over the side of the boat.

In the frenzy, Rohrer takes out his phone and shoots a video for an Instagram story. He narrates the scene and pans the phone around.

He tends to end these videos with, Florida Shark Diving. Come join us!”

He’s beaming.

After the dolphins disperse and as we power farther away from shore, Rohrer checks his phone for the time.

“All before noon… You never know what you’re going to get!”

How Captain Bryce 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, whether it was a fishing boat, diving boat or charter boat.

There, by the water, his preoccupation with sharks sparked.

“I’ve just always loved wildlife,” he explains. “Sharks, to me, are the ultimate wildlife. They’re just an amazing animal. They’re fast; they’re mysterious. They’re just badass animals.”

He remembers his first close-up encounter. He was 15 or 16 years old, and he was in the Galápagos Islands for a scuba-certification class.

“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, now 31, suspects he’s spent more time on the water than on land in the past decade.

Florida Shark Diving

Rohrer looks out across the ocean as he determines exactly where to take divers. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder.

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.

“I learned a lot over there in terms of shark diving and ecotourism, and I just said, ‘You know what? I can bring this over to the United States.’”

And so he did — first in Massachusetts with Cape Cod Shark Adventures in 2010, then in Florida with Florida Shark Diving in 2012.

But, of course, starting a business didn’t come without its obstacles.

The Difficulties of Starting a Shark-Diving Business

Rohrer earned a degree in anthropology — mostly because he couldn’t study shark diving in school.

At about 25, Rohrer found himself sitting on his couch in Connecticut, definitely not wanting to be there. He had a now-or-never revelation.

“I had zero doubt in my mind it wouldn’t work,” Rohrer says.

But Rohrer didn’t have enough money for his biggest startup cost, the most essential piece of equipment: $50,000 for a boat.

When 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.” (Except Rohrer remembers it in a more profane way.)

You see, shark diving wasn’t a big to-do in Connecticut, so others had a hard time understanding Rohrer’s dreams. He laughs and says he just had a conversation with his dad about this the other day. “He thought I was going to fail,” Rohrer says.

But he got a little lucky. He had experience flipping boats and found the perfect one for $30,000. His mom loaned him the money, he flipped the boat and then sold it for nearly triple. He had enough to pay his mom back — and get that first shark-diving boat.

Excited and nervous divers are masked and ready for their first experience swimming with sharks. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder.

Rohrer continued to approach his business like that — with an extremely determined and bull-headed mindset.

And let’s get this out of the way: When asked what shark best represents him, Rohrer said a great white. And it makes sense. According to Rohrer, great white sharks are calculating and cautious, but when they make a decision to go after something, it’s all out — unstoppable.

That’s how his shark-diving businesses have stemmed and thrived. “It was just always forward momentum the entire time,” Rohrer says.

Even when he faced an “avalanche” of expenses.

As soon as Rohrer secured his first dive boat, it had a ton of maintenance issues. He vividly remembers a moment when he had his head stuck in the engine room. He was trying to fix something he had no idea how to fix. As the sun was setting, he was on the phone with someone over in California, racing the clock to fix whatever it was.

He also had to figure out insurance, boat permits, dock slip fees, bait sources, the dive equipment… all of that. And Rohrer admits he’s not the best organizer, so just getting his tasks in order was a challenge.

“I just kept taking it one by one and knocking it out because I loved what I was doing, and I was so excited and ready,” he says. “Nothing about it was a bummer.”

Rohrer describes the operation as a one-man show. And it stayed that way for about three years.

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 the business side of the operation. The advertising, the scheduling, the bookkeeping…  

“But 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.

Spending the Day Free Diving with Sharks

Penny Hoarder writer Carson Kohler floats on the water’s surface while looking for sharks. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder.

Now, Rohrer has a team.

One is up in Cape Cod, running his first shark-diving businesses. They’re all self sufficient.

He himself lives in Jupiter full time. He has a booking agent as well as a team of two divers, including McRoberts and a photographer. Still, Rohrer leads every dive trip — two times a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. (Unless there’s a storm.)

His days typically start around 8 a.m. and run until 7 p.m.

However, on the day we visit, Rohrer does something extremely rare and flexes his schedule. He merges his two groups into one, so we all meet at the docks at 11 a.m.

Rohrer recognizes two faces from yesterday’s dive: Robert Peter from St. Louis and Beste Beyit from Istanbul, Turkey. They don’t know each other, but both ventured to Jupiter for the sole purpose of diving with Rohrer.

There’s also a vacationing couple, as well as a couple who drove down for the day from Tampa, Florida.

As the guests amble in, Rohrer — naturally — talks about sharks. He rattles off the sharks’ personalities and tendencies. The “Lemons” tend to be cheeky and curious. “Bullies,” or bull sharks, have been out a lot lately. They’ve also been seeing hammerheads, but they’re pretty elusive; they don’t stick around long unless you pay them a lot of attention.

After filing onto the boat, we motor through Jupiter Inlet and into the open Atlantic.

Rohrer commands the wheel while McRoberts perches on a bench in the back. Occasionally, she tilts her head up to the sun and shuts her eyes.

After her interaction with the dolphins, McRoberts makes herself busy as we approach our dive spot. She crouches at the boat and cuts up pieces of frozen tuna, which she throws in a plastic crate that’ll ultimately suspend in the water.

Dive guide McRoberts prepares tuna used to lure sharks to the boat. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder.

Chum.

Still in sight of land, Rohrer shuts the motor off, briefs us on safety and helps fit us with wetsuits, snorkels and fins.

Meanwhile, McRoberts ties the crate of tuna off and hops in the water.

She sets the surface line, which we’ll cling to as we float in the water, and starts surveying the area for 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.

Food.

Each time she sees a new shark, she lifts her head out of the water to make an announcement: One hammerhead. One “bully.” Her fingers start counting off by the number… 1… 2… 3… 4…

McRoberts looks like a natural, and she is. But she’s only been doing this for about a year. 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.

Back on the boat, the guests slide into the water.

Natalie Geraghty plunges into the ocean. Geraghty and her partner, Ciaran Hopper are from Ireland and included the shark dive in their Florida vacation. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder.

I’m up next.

Tucked tightly in my wetsuit, I feel a little more secure. Admittedly, I didn’t realize I was free diving until 24 hours before our trip. I assumed there were cages involved, naturally… right?

Free diving is a little more rare when it comes to shark diving. Basically, it means you’re diving without a cage, without scuba gear; you’re free.

Rohrer roughly estimates there are something like 50 shark-diving companies in the world. Maybe only half of those offer free diving, he says.

“I know it’s safe,” Rohrer later tells me. “Plus when you have scuba tanks on and what not, you’re blowing bubbles, and there’s this big scary loud thing in the water. Sharks don’t really dig that at all.”

Free diving it is.

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.

Despite my wetsuit, the cold water seeps into some of its 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.

Kohler floats as she looks at the bull sharks swimming below her. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder.

I can hear my breath through the snorkel.

In. Out. In. Out.

In quick succession.

My heart thuds.

I remind myself that Rohrer has been doing this for years. And he’s been in business for five years. He wouldn’t be in business with, well, any “incidents.”

I’ll be OK.

I peer down and spot a “bully.” It’s looks large; McRoberts later estimates it was about seven 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.

A bull shark glides directly below shark diving guests, just a few feet away from the boat. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder.

I later learn that Rohrer and McRoberts know a few of these sharks. There was one with a rope secured around its fin. They don’t know what happened, but they suspect it was from a commercial fishing incident. 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 later tell me.

I grab hold of the surface line and float a while. 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 more smooth, 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.

A curious shark swims below divers. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder.

They mind their own business; I’m finally convinced they’re only here for the fish.

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, 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.”

After a morning full of shark diving, participant Melissa Soderholm comes back on the boat exclaiming “Oh my gosh! They get so close!” Melissa ventured to Jupiter with her daughter to cross shark diving off her bucket list. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder.

Fighting Shark Misconceptions

Rohrer is right.

Last year in the United States, there were 53 “unprovoked” shark attacks, none of which were fatal, according to the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File.

This is what Rohrer is out here to prove — that sharks aren’t interested in attacking humans.

“Sharks are serious,” he 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.”

Rohrer remembers a common saying from a decade or so ago: “A good shark is a dead shark.”

But, really, that makes no sense. 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 your identity.

Also, put this into perspective: You’re a pretty big creature when you’re out there with fins on. “To them, you’re just sharing space with that shark,” he says. “They probably look at you as another pretty large animal. It’s not a food chain thing.”

A bull shark swims near free divers. The shark approaches, and quickly turns away after coming close to the divers. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder.

Rohrer is ultimately in the business of shattering dried-out storylines. He wants to teach people you can share space with “the most awesome animal on the plant.”

“I think if people were more centered around [wildlife], things would be better overall,” Rohrer says.

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder, and Heather Comparetto is a staff photographer. Carson never thought she’d freedive with sharks. But she did, and she’s darn proud of herself. Heather (IG:@heatheretto), 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 us to an entire new world.