On Seafari with Amos Nachoum, Even the Deadliest Creatures of the Deep Turn Lovable

updated 07/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On Australia's Great Barrier Reef, 10 scuba divers are playfully passing around a sea snake. One coils it around her wrist and the writhing creature becomes a living iridescent bracelet. Another turns it into a necklace, then a headband. Even the most timid diver gently strokes it. What they know, and yet seem all too willing to forget, is that the snake, Enhydrina schistosa, is one of the deadliest creatures in the sea.

These underwater snake handlers are the customers of Amos Nachoum, 33, Israeli-born founder and president of New York-based La Mer. Since 1978 he has been organizing "Seafaris" to such scuba hot spots as the Red Sea, the Galápagos Islands and the Gulf of California "to show how friendly and enjoyable are the supposedly fierce sea creatures." Some of his Seafari adventurers—avid photographers and filmmakers mostly—pay as much as $7,000 per head to ride on the back of giant manta rays and swim hand in flipper by the side of seals and sea lions. This up-close treatment extends even to sharks, Nachoum's special passion. (He's organized several shark expeditions for the National Geographic Society, one of his regular clients.) Except for the great white, Jaws' role model, "sharks are not man-eaters by nature," claims Nachoum, feeding fish by hand to prove it.

While underwater, Nachoum strictly enforces certain rules. For example, no spearfishing is allowed on any of his trips. "It destroys trust and drives the fish away." Nor will he draw sharks by dumping food or dried blood in the water, which could provoke a feeding frenzy. Instead, he uses small amounts of bait or bangs his diving knife on a coral reef. Poisonous sea snakes are attracted by shiny material and the flash of camera strobes; they remain playful, Nachoum says, as long as they're not frightened—at which point they turn nasty. The closest call Nachoum has had came when an overzealous photographer got between him and a shark he was feeding. "The shark was charging to the bait and it hit her in the stomach. She was shook up but not hurt. It didn't bite her." Sort of an underwater bump-and-run.

Nachoum's love of aquatic life started at age 1 when his tough-minded father—a sixth-generation Sabra—tossed him into a pool to teach him to swim. He paddled to the surface. By age 14 he was snorkeling, sailing and spearfishing, and he further honed his underwater expertise with a hitch in the Israeli Navy. His unit suffered heavy casualties during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, after which he was so deeply shaken that "it was almost an emergency to get a change of scene." He turned to globe-trotting, which eventually brought him to New York.

When not on Seafaris, Nachoum lives in a photo-filled one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. He's on the ocean about five months a year; for each two-to three-week expedition he lives with his dozen or so clients aboard a leased 70-foot-plus boat. Perhaps the current woman in his bachelor life, Marian Rivman, understands him better than most. "All I want," she sighs, "is for him to treat me like a seal."

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