The excitement and thrill of Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” is completely lost to Cuban exile Elicier Castillo, a former heavyweight boxing champion.
“I get goosebumps when I see something with sharks and immediately turn it off,” he once told The New York Times.
The Cuban boxer and four partners, including his two brothers, lashed together an inner tube and canvas raft in 1994, jumped aboard and paddled north into the Gulf Stream as part of a small fleet of similar floating structures filled with equally desperate Cubans who tried to flee Fidel Castro’s communist regime.
As usual, sharks followed and circled the rafts within hours. The currents carried the rickety rafter fleet away from the US and Castillo spent five days at sea.
He remembers how many of the rafts around him capsized and fell apart from the waves. The sharks would rush in immediately, their patience and diligence paid off. Castillo would see the water foam white and then red as his fellow rafters screamed for help.
“But what could anyone do?” he remembered.
“Being attacked by a shark is perhaps the scariest event in nature!” a Discovery Channel narrator gasped during Shark Week a few years ago. “Australia recorded 56 deadly shark attacks between 1956 and 2008!” he panted again. “Discover what it’s like from people who have lived to tell the story!”
So the Discovery Channel went back more than half a century to a distant continent to interview the victims and dramatize the attacks. But why the distant timeline and setting? Just ask many South Florians.
“The Florida Strait probably records 56 deadly shark attacks every few years,” said Matt Lawrence, who spent years flying the strait to rescue desperate Cuban trusses.
Probably every month in the early 1990s,” adds late Bay of Pigs vet Arturo Cobo, who ran the rafter rescue center in Key West and heard the sobbing, heartbreaking details of these attacks almost daily for years.
“I will never forget the case of the two teenagers who came ashore, sunburnt, malnourished as usual, but also in a state of near hysteria,” recalls Cobo. “After a while, they were finally able to explain how their father, in a delirious state of thirst and exposure, ended up jumping into the water.
“They threw him a rope attached to the raft and he grabbed it. So they turned around for a moment, somewhat relieved – but only to see a huge shark approach, and then another. Soon a whole school was gathered around their raft.
“And almost before they could react, the sharks tore into their father from all sides. From what they told me days later at the local hospital, what erupted around their little raft was a feeding frenzy, as you see at those shark shows where they lure for hours in the water to attract the sharks. The water turned red when their father was eaten alive. …
“I can tell you from decades and heartbreaking work from our center here in Key West that in the Florida Strait was shark week every week.”
One of Lawrence’s colleagues recalled a harrowing rescue:
“Something moved in this raft,” the rescuer recalled. “So I went lower. The water around the raft turned red. … the cloud is spreading. Then I saw the shark – about as long as the raft. The rafter was in fact a Cuban woman in her early twenties.
“On her rescue, we discovered she had two gunshot wounds to her legs from the Castro Border Patrol Police. Everyone else in the raft, including two babies, had died, as had the shark — from being repeatedly stabbed by the pointed end of a broken leash by Maria. The shark had bitten the leash in half when Maria hit it.
“After that, I started flying rescue missions full-time.”
The waters around Cuba are famous for their hordes of sharks. Yet a quarter to a half million Cubans seeking American freedom have crossed these waters with little between them and the sharks other than thin rubber or canvas, knowing that there was a nearly 50-50 chance their craft would topple or crumble.
In 2015, Discovery Channel finally visited Cuba. But throughout this blockbuster episode of “Searching for Monstrous Sharks Near Cuba”—produced in conjunction with Cuba’s totalitarian propaganda ministry in a place where there have probably been more deadly attacks than anywhere else—the producers haven’t mentioned a single shark. who molested a single human being.
Humberto Fontova is the author of “Uncovering the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him.”