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Islander survives raft challenge, will spend summer tuna fishing

By Staff | May 20, 2015

Elliot Sudal recently appeared on a National Geographic program. PHOTO PROVIDED

Elliot Sudal has toppled another challenge. The islander who gained instant celebrity tussling with beached sharks, later affixing tracking devices to them, was this month featured in National Geographic’s “The Raft.” The show’s premise is strangers surviving a Caribbean disaster aboard rafts. Raftmates were to find food and water, get along under the stress or tap out. With lots of bleeped out language, cameras over a week recorded the melodrama in several rafts. There was plenty of social media commentary to accompany the show.

But Sudal on “The Raft” seemed like he was on a picnic, pulling fish from the sea, steaming them in sun-heated bags, passing a jug of condensed water to Justin, his raftmate. Salt and sun caused severe red eye because sunglasses were prohibited, he said, his only setback.

It was pure Elliot Sudal, the internet sensation coming to our attention splashing into the ocean and yanking ashore a hooked shark — by the tail. He has since tagged sharks with government markers that trace migration.

“I think I was portrayed honestly,” Sudal said of his appearance on “The Raft.” “The producers put the cooler things in there.”

Sudal became a celebrity as the so-called Shark Wrestler/Tagger, a moniker he earned in New England pulling a shark ashore. And not a baby shark, but a monster. That cellphone video filmed by a cousin went viral in 2011 and Sudal, an average kid from Connecticut regularly in Sanibel with his folks, became an instant brand. He landed and tagged some 90 sharks in Sanibel this season.

“The Raft” was filmed near Puerto Rico, some 20 miles from shore, he said. He was offered the role after a Skype interview, spent a rainy week in the US Virgin Islands before a long boat ride to his raft in the Caribbean.

In a world of social media sensations and characters, Sudal would probably land in the top tier. At age 26 he has appeared in YouTube videos, logged radio and television guest spots. He’s also a deckhand for a Captiva daycruiser. 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 carnival sideshow, entertaining strangers at his makeshift shark camp, his eyes darting to rod tips at the first hint of a strike. He patiently answers the same questions about sharks twisting around to bite him. He bounds around like a kid, enjoying his time at the beach. Critics have argued that he’s self-promotional, certainly harming the shark he returns to the sea with a tag affixed to its fin.

“The shark is a robust animal,” he said recently about shark tagging in Sanibel. “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 220,00 tagged sharks — what could be better?”

Sudal will spend the summer in New England captaining a tuna boat, returning to Sanibel in the fall. He hopes that another television opportunity will place him back at sea.