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Diving With Sharks: Shark Science and Shark Ecotourism

Shark Ecotourism can help protect sharks from fishing  and even allow shark populations to recover. However, some practices attracting sharks and maintaining their presence in an area may have negative impacts on individual sharks, shark behavior and even populations.

Chumming to attract sharks with blood, large pieces of fish or unnatural food sources like chicken or other meat can have deleterious impacts on sharks and the habitat they live in.  Left over fish that decays on reefs can create an overabundance of microbes that leads to coral death or algal blooms. Some shark wrangling (eg tossing bait attached to a line and drawing the shark towards the cage or photographer) can lead to sharks striking cages and injuring themselves or the occupants of the cage. Evidence of this at Guadalupe Island has led to temporary closure of the operations, and in the case of a white shark that appeared to die after striking a cage at Guadalupe in 2019, lead to public outcry and condemnation of the practice. This industry is now highly regulated with required observers from the Mexican fishery department CONAPESCA. Photographic data by customers and scientific observers given onboard space have identified over 350 unique individuals at Guadalupe, some over 20 years.

The success of tourism ventures designed to view white sharks is reliant on attracting sharks already present in the area to within the visual range of the vessel (Laroche et al. 2007). A concern of attracting threatened species like white sharks is a negative impact on their behavior and energetics. An 2021 study of chum on white shark movements and behavior in response to berley (pieces of fish and offal in a mesh bag) was conducted in Port Lincoln in South Australia. The authors found an apparent attraction and shift in locations when berley was present, with potential habituation

A 2020 study at Guadalupe analyzing the effects of varying types of attractant (chum, frozen bait, ground bait) reported that less than 26% of sharks were at low risk of altering behavior (e.g. increased surface time,(alter their territorial behavior) and 3% of white sharks were at high risk of habituation from attractants. The authors conclude that current ecotourism has little effect on the conditioning of the white sharks, and that all baits have a similar effectiveness for attracting the sharks. 

There are obvious cost benefits to the different methods of shark attractants, and there are observable increase responses to chum than frozen or ground up baits. Chumming is banned in many locations such as the Farallon Islands off San Francisco (part of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary administered by NOAA) and at Guadalupe Island.

There is strong evidence that shark tourism protects sharks by providing alternative livelihoods as well as benefitting science and management through permit fees and citizen scientists. Income from tourism can benefit the local economy leading to better shark awareness and protection. Dive tourism contributes up to 18 Million Dollars US to the Island of Palau’s national economy. Some dive operators do attract reef sharks for their customers.

One study in French Polynesia indicates a single reef shark is worth $100,000 US a year. Alternatively, a dead shark might bring a fisherman $100 for a one time gain. In areas of Mexico and Honduras whale shark ecotourism is helping prevent poaching and building a sustainable local economy outside of fishing.

Shark tourism safety and best practices depends on the operation and the location. Below we have helped develop some suggested shark tourism guidelines that will help minimize impacts while providing opportunity to see sharks safely in the wild.

White shark pursuing a tuna chunk lure to bring shark close to cage dive tourists.
Guadalupe Island Mexico.

Top Tips for Shark Diving and Conservation

Respect the shark: maintain a respectful distance in the water. Observe the shark’s behavior and act accordingly. Avoid approaching or spooking a shark- let the shark approach you.

Dive with an expert, they can help you understand shark behavior and know what kinds of sharks will be around.

Avoid shark diving operations that use chum or excess bait to attract sharks. This practice changes the natural behavior of sharks and can be dangerous to humans.

When baiting large sharks use containers that will not harm the shark or break free, or hemp line that will degrade and not injure the shark’s mouth.

Mesh bags with fish oil or ground up fish has been demonstrated to be an effective attractant without degrading the environment, or causing aggressive or agitated behavior.

Do not touch or ride sharks unless unavoidable. Touching sharks can be dangerous and also might damage the shark’s protective skin barrier.

When boating in the ocean, slow down when sharks and other wildlife are present and avoid anchoring in sensitive coral reefs and seagrass beds.

Clear water and beaches of plastic and other litter, even if it’s not yours. Sharks and other wildlife can ingest plastic, small floats or get entangled in fishing or mooring line.

Choose to eat local and sustainable food caught with environmentally-friendly fishing gear – preferably troll or hook and line. Avoid establishments that serve shark fin soup. Do not eat sharks.

For the best experience, look to travel with a shark conservation tour or volunteer with a shark conservation project.

Reduce your carbon footprint while on vacation. Climate change affects ocean wildlife by altering their habitat and affecting their food sources.

Donate to local shark and wildlife conservation organizations where you travel.

Please email us to join us on an expedition or donate to support our work.