San­abel's El­liot Su­dal fishes to ad­vance wildlife aware­ness; crit­ics not so sure

RSWLiving - - Style - BY CRAIG GAR­RETT

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


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


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.

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