Sanabel's Elliot Sudal fishes to advance wildlife awareness; critics not so sure
It’s just past another sunrise and a Sanibel beach crowd is assembling to watch Elliot Sudal perform. Encircling the 27-year-old islander is the hodgepodge of beachgoers he seems to attract when he fishes for sharks― vacationers in T-shirts, shell-combers, always a few pretty girls, honeymooners and shy children whose hands their mothers hold. There are those who know Sudal, wave and keep moving, his friends in dark sunglasses talking up the locals. There are fat fish poles with reels as big as coffee cans anchored in the sand. And, of course, fussy locals who scowl and get testy when strangers clog their shoreline.
It’s like the circus has come to normally placid Sanibel. As the salty breeze stiffens and birds peck at the sand, the wait begins. “This is great,” Sudal says to no one in particular, his head swiveling to gaze at the pole tips as they dip and pull with the stiff wind and
curling waves. He’s maybe 5-foot-10, his physique honed by exercise, browned by life in the sun.
Sudal is the so-called Shark Tagger, a social media nickname he accepts with a grimace, that describes his volunteer work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. Volunteers around the nation affix numbered NOAA tags on the dorsal fin of sharks. Sudal has landed hundreds of sharks, a sort of crazy cow-tipping hobby that has morphed into a save-the-sharks campaign. He likes to lecture on sharks, seems to know the species and its survivability, that they’re more endangered as society finds weirder generalizations for killing them. Sudal’s shtick has been to hook a shark―the bigger the better―reel it to shore, race into the surf and yank it by the tail to dry ground. He concedes some don’t survive the roughhousing. There’s no question that Sudal has enjoyed side benefits to his fame, with television appearances and the recent filming of a reality show on Sanibel. His elevated profile also allows Sudal to land sponsorships for fishing gear and sportswear. Depending upon who is asked or what is written on social media, Sudal is the socially aware wildlife advocate―or an opportunist looking to cash in. His critics are vocal, saying he does more harm than good. Eli Martinez was editor of the former
“ELLIOT WILL BE BACK TO CATCH A SHARK. IT’S WHAT HE DOES.” —FISHING FRIEND BRITTNEY BURT
Shark Diver Magazine and is a shark advocate appearing on Blue Water Savages on the Outdoor Channel. He says Sudal and others like him “are really using the science to justify the thrill of the hunt and their machismo. They want to feel good about themselves.” Martinez also asserts that beach fishing for sharks is dangerous for those in shoreline waters. “It’s an accident waiting to happen,” he says of mixing splashing swimmers among shark anglers.
Sudal’s girlfriend, Marisa Butler, has even received threats on social media for her role in shark-tagging at beaches in New England and Florida, Sudal says. His mother says the harshness of the critics is unfair. “Elliot,” Gari Lewis says, “is very saddened by the things people say about him,” noting that her son practiced catch-and-release fishing as a child in Connecticut.
This morning, however, there’s a heightened buzz. A network television celebrity has come from New York to film Sudal at the beach, to understand his fame. Sudal’s exploits are dangerous and he seems to relish the hunt with a boyish enthusiasm― splashing about, racing his kayak well into the Gulf to drop bait, chatting up his fans and exuding a disarming self- awareness―which is why the Today show’s Dylan Dreyer has arrived. She wants to document Sudal, she says, curious about the adventurer, his appearance on National Geographic and a reality show based on his zany hobby.
Dreyer is the Today show’s weather forecaster. She’s here with her husband and with a camerawoman. Dreyer is excited at the idea of perhaps touching a beached shark, Sudal hauling one ashore amid its thrashing and snapping jaws. She’s never seen a shark, she says, her eyes gleaming at the idea. Dreyer’s also excited to meet Sudal, a hulking and self-effacing invention of the Technology Age.
Sudal’s mother is among this morning’s beach grouping. She is with her Jack Russell terrier, telling others she hopes her son’s hobby translates into a career―Elliot crews on excursion and charter boats, or is often in New England to support Marisa Butler, a beauty contestant in Maine.
There’s a palpable excitement as the circus-like scene unfolds, Sudal’s fishing poles planted in the sand, bait fish on hooks the size of a big man’s curled finger about 200 yards offshore. Everyone anticipates the singing of a reel a shark generates at
DEPENDING UPON WHO IS ASKED OR WHAT IS WRITTEN ON SOCIAL MEDIA, SUDAL IS THE SOCIALLY AWARE WILDLIFE ADVOCATE— OR AN OPPORTUNIST LOOKING TO CASH IN.
first strike. “Isn’t this exciting,” Dreyer asks while observing Sudal in swim trunks, a pullover and his always-present sunglasses. “It’s fascinating to me.”
It doesn’t take much to understand Elliot Sudal, at least according to his mother. Elliot, she says, has always been drawn to the sea, to fishing, to the outdoors, “releasing fish back in the pond” as a child in suburban Connecticut, she says. “He has always been very kind to nature.”
Sudal is an only child born to older parents, his mother says. His father, Walter, died of cancer when his son was 4. Walter Sudal’s graduate thesis was on large-mouth bass and he taught anatomy at a Connecticut nursing school. Walter Sudal also consumed shark cartilage as part of a cancer therapy, his wife says. Elliot as a child was bursting with energy, loved dinosaurs and had a great passion for being outside; in fact, “giving up naps” to do so, she says. “I would read to him every single day,” Lewis says of her son.
One of Sudal’s more absorbing phases was in the role of survivor on a reality program called The Raft. Contestants are paired up on rafts and left to the elements. The premise is strangers surviving a Caribbean disaster. Perhaps because he’s an only child, or just self-directed, Sudal on the show seemed like he was on a picnic, pulling fish from the sea with a fish line and hook, steaming them in sun-heated bags, passing a jug of condensed water to a raftmate who spends much of the segment complaining. It was pure always-prepared Elliot Sudal―and perhaps why he wasn’t invited back to a second season.
Sudal started to get noticed in 2011, with a cousin using a cell phone to film Sudal splashing into a New England surf, grappling with a huge shark and wrestling it ashore. Just like that, Sudal had left his quiet life to become the Shark Wrestler, later the Tagger. That event was followed by his appearance on The Raft, which was filmed near Puerto Rico, some 20 miles from shore. He was offered the role after a Skype interview, spent a rainy week in the U.S. Virgin Islands before a long boat ride to his raft in the Caribbean.
In a world of social media characters, Sudal would probably land in the top tier. At age 27 he has appeared in YouTube videos, logged radio and television guest spots. Despite the spotlight, Sudal, listing the digital Bible and hot sauce as his Facebook favorites, seems genuine, at ease in interviews, still concerned about criticism he’s too rough with sharks.
On the beach in Sanibel, he’s like a five-star concierge, entertaining strangers at his makeshift shark camp, listening to each story with unflinching patience, while his eyes dart to rod tips at the first hint of a strike. He answers the same questions about the possibility of sharks twisting around to bite him (hasn’t happened). He bounds around like a kid, enjoying his time at the beach. Critics have argued that he’s selfpromotional, certainly harming the shark he returns to the sea with a tag affixed to its fin. “The shark is a robust animal,” Sudal countered in one interview. “It can handle five minutes of fighting. And if what I do helps them in the long run―and it’s endorsed by the government for 50 years and 220,000 tagged sharks―what could be better.”
Visitors at the Sanibel beach are trickling away as Sudal has failed to land a shark. Dreyer must catch a flight back to New York. It feels as if the beach air has stilled. Yet Sudal remains upbeat, perhaps better than anyone understanding the ratio of time fished versus landing his prey. And his friends remain buoyant, as if grasping the old idiom of fishing, that there’s always another day. “Elliot,” his friend Brittney Burt says, “will be back to catch a shark. It’s what he does.”
Elliot Sudal affixes a tracking tag to most sharks he beaches, including these (opposite page and this page) on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts.
Sudal’s mother says he gave up naps as a child to be outside. Marisa Butler (right) has taken the role of a wildlife advocate, helping her boyfriend capture and tag sharks.