Just thinking about it gave me an adrenaline rush. Take a boat ride out into “Shark Alley.” Get in a cage and stay there until a great white shark – yeah, like the one in “Jaws” -- comes by. Then… what? Hang out? See if the shark tries to take a bite out of my leg? Cool!
Diving for great whites is becoming all the rage, especially in places like South Africa, where I recently spent eight days on holiday, as well as Honduras and the Bahamas. It’s also becoming one of the most controversial tourist experiences around, and with good reason: sharks attack more people where shark diving occurs. Is shark diving to blame?
Shark “diving” is actually a bit of a misnomer, since no real diving occurs. Instead, a “diver” gets on a boat, puts on a wet suit, and climbs into a large cage that’s made from strong, galvanized steel. The cage is then lowered into the water next to the dive boat, and the diver, breathing underwater through a hose attached to air tanks that remain on the boat, waits for a shark to swim by. It’s against the law for tour operators to feed the sharks, but it’s not unusual for the boat’s captain or staff to throw fish oil, blood, and even tuna heads overboard to attract sharks to the cage.
In South Africa, most of the shark diving happens two hours or so southeast of Capetown, in a corridor of the Atlantic Ocean known as Shark Alley because so many sharks ply the waters feeding on the thousands of fur seals that also swim there. Some YouTube videos show sharks getting pretty feisty with the cages and the divers, but for the most part, divers generally have a thrilling, rather than deadly experience. I was pretty sure that, if I got in that cage, I’d get out again, all in one piece.
My bigger concern was whether this type of attraction – which costs around $200 per diver, by the way -- somehow encourages sharks to prey on people who aren’t protected by a cage, like swimmers and surfers. There is growing evidence that it does.
From 2000 to 2008, McClatchy Newspapers reported, 27 shark attacks, two of them fatal, occurred in South Africa. In 2009 and 2010 alone, there were 14 attacks in South Africa. Six people died, proportionally more than the five to 15 people who die every year from shark attacks in the entire rest of the world. Surfers for Responsible Cage Shark Diving also has compiled data indicating that there has been an increase in Great White Shark attacks on people since 1991, which it links to the feeding that goes on to entice sharks to come to the cages. When you stop and think about it, that makes sense. Sharks are supposed to be among the smartest animals in the world. How long would it take them to associate people with food, whether the people were in a cage or not?
To their credit, many of the companies that offer shark diving also advocate shark conservation. That’s good, since there may only be as few as 3,500 great whites left in the wild. Some tour operators provide informative pre-diving programs to educate their clients about the threats sharks face and why they deserve to be protected, especially as they are increasingly hunted for their fins, a delicacy in some Asian soup pots, and their meat. Other diving enterprises donate a percentage of their profits to support scientific research about sharks and other aquatic wildlife.
Still, some conservationists believe that acquainting sharks with humans, even those suited up and protected in a cage, is a mistake.
“I worry about it,” says Professor Chris Palmer, Director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University in Washington, D.C., and the author of Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom (Sierra Club Books, 2010).
“In general, people are intruding upon and disturbing wild animals far too much. We need to leave them alone and in peace far more than we do. Shark cage diving is a good example of how we are messing around with great white sharks too much, habituating them to people, having them associate chum (bait) with people, and drawing them to locations where surfers and divers are recreating.“
That said, Palmer also acknowledged that “There is potentially an upside. If tourists return home and become outspoken advocates for shark conservation, then that is a plus for shark cage diving. But,” he adds, “I’m skeptical. The people who do this are already shark aficionados and are already shark conservation advocates.”
“We need someone with no dog in this fight to rigorously analyze the costs and benefits of shark cage diving to see if the negatives are acceptable. “
I actually swam with a nurse shark in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula years ago, but it was a captive animal in a large enclosed pen, where it was regularly fed so it would not look at me and think, “dinner.” I also went diving in the Galapagos Islands, where hammerhead sharks are common. But hammerheads are not human predators. Even if they became accustomed to human divers, they weren’t likely to eat them.
With great whites, it’s different. Though “Jaws” portrayed great white sharks in the worst possible light, it is absolutely true that this is an “opportunistic” animal that wouldn’t hesitate to eat a human snack. Why give it any incentive to do so?
There are fewer shark-related fatalities than there are deaths due to lightning strikes, choking or even falling down a flight of stairs. Still, when a shark attack happens, the news travels around the world, fueling a fervor that breeds fear of sharks and support for their killing.
On my trip to Capetown, I ultimately decided against going shark diving. Not for my sake. For the shark’s.