Shark-diving tourism can be a controversial issue. Images of svelte, swimming females fending off assertive tiger sharks, armored divers hand -feeding bull sharks for tourists, and shots of white sharks slamming into cages: these scenes are not aways favorable for the average diver, or even the sharks.
However, shark diving, when done responsibly and with appropriate safety measures, is generally not harmful to sharks, and can be safe for humans to experience seeing them up close. However, there are potential risks associated with shark diving that can harm humans, and even harm sharks if the experience is not managed properly.
It is no surprise that humans have been harmed or even killed while voluntarily entering the water with large sharks. They are after all, the ocean’s apex predator, and predators by nature can be territorial, defensive, and aggressive.
Unfortunately, when divers are harmed in the process of shark diving, often the shark gets the blame. There are numerous cases of divers who have been injured or even killed while participating in shark tourism activities, particularly involving bait, chum or hand-feeding sharks. While such incidents are relatively rare, they can occur due to a variety of factors, including human error, equipment failure, or unpredictable shark behavior.
Some of the most common types of injuries that divers can sustain during shark tourism activities include bites or lacerations from the sharks’ teeth, and bites on the hands or leg. In some cases, for example with tiger sharks, injuries have been sustained from sharks grasping and wresting cameras or diving equipment. In others cases, divers have also been injured by other hazards associated with the diving environment, such as strong currents or rough sea conditions.
Sharks can also suffer harm from human interactions, and methods used to attract or view them can cause harm. One risk to the shark is the use of bait to attract them, which can disrupt their natural feeding behaviors and potentially cause them to become dependent on humans for food. This may also lead to habituation, where sharks begin to associate humans with food and may become more aggressive in their interactions with people. Habituation to humans can also make sharks more vulnerable to fishing and damage from propellors, as they become more likely to approach boats in search of food.
Another risk is physical harm to sharks caused by interactions with divers. Divers who get too close to sharks or try to touch them can accidentally harm them by removing a protective barrier on their skin, causing physically damage to sensitive organs or interfere with their natural behaviors. Bright strobes, or the natural response of a shark to protect their eyes through nictitating membranes (in the case of tiger and reef sharks) or eyes rolling back (in the case of white sharks), can cause temporary vision impairment leading to a shark blindly striking an object or person.
In some cases, such as with watching white sharks, cages used to protect divers malfunction or fail. Several cases of cage rupture or sharks wedging into spaces for cameras have resulted in sharks partially intruding or getting stuck and injuring themselves. At Guadalupe island, Baja MX, a popular white shark viewing area, sharks have actually entered an occupied cage through the top, and in at least one case, wedged into the cage and died after freeing itself. An industry earning over USD 20 million dollars/year, the Mexican National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP), shut all tourism down at the island, based on concerns around negative impacts on the protected white shark population and surrounding environs.
In other cases inexperienced or uncaring operators have also led to uncaged divers being harmed while viewing or touching sharks. In other incidents, tourists have been observed jumping on whales sharks and manta ray’s backs or attempting to ride them. Also, inexperienced or poorly trained divers may unintentionally damage delicate coral reefs or other marine habitats while their attention is focused on the sharks or photography.
Finally, there is the risk that shark diving can contribute to overfishing or other harmful activities that threaten shark populations by attracting and aggregating sharks to a buoy or area where sharks are fed. While responsible shark diving operations aim to support conservation efforts, some operators may prioritize profit over sustainability and contribute to the depletion of shark populations.
There are several examples of shark diving tourism activities that could be considered hazardous, depending on the specific circumstances and conditions involved. Here are a few examples:
- Open Water Shark Diving: This involves diving in open water, without the protection of a cage or other barrier, to observe or interact with sharks. This is generally considered to be one of the riskier forms of shark diving, as it exposes divers to the full potential danger of the sharks, and far from immediate first aid. However, with proper safety measures in place and experienced guides, it can still be a relatively safe and thrilling experience.
- Shark Feeding Dives: These dives involve attracting sharks to a specific location by chumming the water or using other bait, and then feeding the sharks by hand or from a bait box. This can be dangerous if the sharks become overly aggressive or associate humans with food, which can lead to more frequent and aggressive interactions, bites and even fatalities by tiger sharks and other species.
- Bull and Tiger Shark Dives: These sharks are known to be one of the more aggressive shark species, and dives that specifically target them can be considered more hazardous than other types of shark diving. However, with proper safety measures and experienced guides, these dives can still be conducted relatively safely.
- Cage diving using chum and/or bait: Most cage diving involves the most dangerous of sharks, and focus on great white sharks. Four major loci of white shark cage diving exist around the world in South Africa, in South Australia, in California and until 2022, in Baja California Mexico. A new operation has been introduced in Nova Scotia in 2023. Over concerns of over stimulated sharks ramming cages and the potential effects on the ecosystem in marine protected areas, the use of attractant including fish oil, bait and chum was banned by the sharks 2006 the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary for the recreational cage industry at SE Farallon Island off San Francisco. In 2023 the Mexican Department of Nature and the Environment banned all cage diving in the Guadalupe Island Marine Park citing among other things, sharks colliding with cages or boats, causing injury and death due to attractant and practices.
Diving with sharks can help protect them in several ways:
- Promoting ecotourism: By offering shark diving experiences, ecotourism operators can generate revenue that supports the conservation of sharks and their habitats. This economic incentive can encourage local communities to protect sharks and their habitats rather than engage in harmful activities like shark fishing or habitat destruction.
- Increasing public awareness: Diving with sharks can be a transformative experience that helps people appreciate the beauty and importance of these animals. It can also raise awareness about the threats that sharks face, such as overfishing, bycatch, and habitat destruction.
- Providing opportunities for scientific research: Diving, or topside viewing of sharks can provide opportunities for scientists to conduct research on shark behavior, population dynamics, and habitat use. Often supported by the industry itself, the research can help inform conservation efforts and apply better management policies.
- Encouraging responsible behavior: Diving with sharks can promote responsible behavior and awareness among divers through onboard education, emphasizing the importance of minimizing our impact on sharks and their habitats. For example, dive operators can encourage divers to avoid touching or feeding sharks, and to follow guidelines for responsible wildlife viewing.
Overall, while shark diving can be a valuable tool for promoting conservation and raising awareness about these amazing animals, it is important that it is done responsibly and with appropriate safety and sustainability measures in place to avoid any potential harm to sharks or their habitats.
Shark diving can be dangerous, as with any activity that involves interacting with wild animals. Sharks are powerful predators with sharp teeth and a strong instinct to hunt, and they can pose a threat to humans if they feel threatened or provoked. However, many shark diving experiences are conducted with safety measures in place, such as using cages or other barriers to separate divers from the sharks. It is important to choose a reputable and experienced shark diving operator, follow all safety instructions, and respect the sharks as wild animals in their natural habitat. Ultimately, the level of danger involved in shark diving depends on a variety of factors, including the species of shark, the location and conditions of the dive, and the behavior of the diver.
It is important to note, however, that the vast majority of shark tourism activities are conducted safely, with experienced operators who take every precaution to minimize the risk of injury to both the divers, and the sharks. By following all safety guidelines and choosing a reputable operator with a proven track record of safe operations, divers can minimize their risk of injury and enjoy a thrilling and unforgettable experience. Shark ecotourism can also increase awareness on the plight of sharks and their importance to marine ecosystems and enhance marine protection. Shark tourism can also provide alternative livelihoods to fishermen, support local economies on small islands and ensure long term protection for sharks.
In June 2023 Shark Stewards will be publishing a report evaluating and examining the economics of shark diving tourism annually.
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