Shark Diving as a Conservation Strategy: How Shark Tourism is Protecting Global Shark Populations

whale shark diving

More than a half-century ago I learned to dive and began what would become my diving career, in the cold, murky waters of the Chesapeake Bay. To be honest, though, most of my diving didn’t take place in the Bay but in nearby freshwater quarries and lakes. But a special treat was the occasional excursion to the New Jersey or Delmarva coast to dive in the ocean. One such dive was my absolute favorite and it took place around an old unidentified shipwreck on an offshore site called Fenwick Shoals. Timing was an important factor in that August was the prime season to dive Fenwick. Otherwise, it was an unremarkable site where, aside from the scattered remains of the shipwreck and a few tautaugs (Tautoga onitis), there wasn’t much else but an endless sandy bottom. But the reason diving this underwater desert still ranks as one of my favorites is that during August it became Grand Central Station for some very special critters — sand tiger sharks (Carcharias taurus).

Like clockwork, every August a large school of sand tigers would show up and remain there for several weeks. Little was known in the 1970s about the seasonal schooling of sharks (now termed aggregations), so we never fully appreciated how special it was to dive with dozens or more of these magnificent, snaggly-toothed creatures. Of course, my non-diving friends thought I was absolutely crazy to actually seek out the company of sharks rather than avoid them (especially during the summer of 1975 after release of the mega-hit movie, Jaws).

In 1979 my diving career took me away from the mid-Atlantic and my beloved sand tigers. But about 20 years later, I had a chance to return to Fenwick Shoals. Much to my disappointment, while the tautaugs remained, the sharks were gone — and only the most long-in-the-tooth divers onboard remembered the late summer rendezvous of sand tigers. I learned later that commercial shark fishers had wiped out the aggregation several years prior. But while the sharks were long gone, what never left me was my love for diving with sharks and, clearly, I’m not alone in my fondness for what are unquestionably some of the most remarkable animals on our planet.

scuba diver and sharks

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Shark Diving Comes of Age

It probably comes as no surprise to any diver today that shark diving is now a major feature of the dive tourism industry. At last count more than 80 dive operations in 30 different countries are now devoted exclusively to shark encounters, and more than 200 more offer some form of shark or manta ray experience in addition to their regular itinerary. According to data from a 2013 report on shark ecotourism conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust, in that year alone, worldwide shark diving generated more than $300 million, supporting more than 10,000 jobs involving 590,000 customers (divers and snorkelers). Moreover, projections are that in 20 years shark diving will double, generating more than $785 million annually. The Pew study also found that at destinations where shark diving was popular and where accurate fisheries data was available, diving with sharks generated an average of $6.5 million per year — in many cases surpassing the landed value of shark fishing. In some instances, such as in French Polynesia, the ecotourism value of shark diving is 800 times greater than its landed value to local fishers! The economic impact from shark diving in other regions is also quite substantial.

While a solid income base is essential to maintaining any endeavor like shark diving, what’s even better news is what shark diving can do for shark conservation. Done properly, shark diving is truly a win-win situation.

One often-cited source maintains that each year at least 73 million sharks are killed. But even that source cautions and admits, once illegal and unreported fishing is considered, it easily could be twice that number or more. To me, the more gut-wrenching figure is that each hour of the day at least 11,000 sharks are killed. This occurs both intentionally (primarily, though not exclusively, for their fins) and unintentionally as by-catch, primarily in the long-line fishing industry. Clearly, if such destruction continues, the only outcome for many species of sharks will be extinction.

The conservation effort for sharks is doubly plagued by what has to be the worst PR image in the animal kingdom. While any normal human would be appalled by the industrialized killing of pandas or manatees, the assumption that “the only good shark is a dead shark” still exists in the minds of many. So the killing goes on unabated. Shark diving proves that the best antidote for ignorance or apathy is first-hand experience — getting in the water with them. As explained by the organization, Shark Angels, “Shark tourism is an act of conservation because it creates a strong economic incentive to protect sharks rather than kill them. Seeing sharks on a dive is the number one desired attraction among divers, according to research. That’s because sharks are fascinating — a perfect predator that is elegant, intelligent, awe-inspiring, beautiful…and increasingly rare.”

The more gut-wrenching figure is that each hour of the day at least 11,000 sharks are killed.

But make no mistake. Not all shark diving experiences are equal and they range widely from caged diving to natural sightings. And the targets involve many different species from the largest predatory fish — the great white — to the largest fish of all — the whale shark. Some excursions are limited to scuba divers only, while others only require snorkeling. Of course, exactly how shark diving takes place depends on the species encountered. However, there is one other controversial distinction: Some shark operators intentionally use food as an attractant, while others do not (and the controversy will be the subject of a future article). But regardless of the specific features of a shark encounter, the overall requirement for a good experience is the ethics and responsible practice of the operator.

whale shark diving

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Shark Diving Operator Considerations

If shark diving is to have the desired outcome of aiding the conservation status and preventing the senseless killing of some of the oldest living vertebrates on the planet, then it must be done for the right way for the right reasons. And “right” means doing it both responsibly and ethically. One issue is that some participants are attracted to shark diving solely because of the adrenaline rush. Operators who hype the “danger factor” to drum up business do serious disservice to conservation by adopting the “Jaws mentality.” In an effort to please thrill-seekers, they might be willing to engage in daring practices that can create a higher risk of injury. A better choice is to seek out shark diving operators that aim to help divers move from fear to fascination and appreciation of the creatures by educating them about sharks’ natural behavior.

Responsible shark diving is a two-way street, as both the diver and the operator have obligations to be ethical and responsible. Fortunately, doing the “right thing” needn’t be difficult nor onerous because over the last several years a vast amount of information, research and guidelines have been published on exactly what constitutes ethical, responsible shark diving.

Let’s look at a few considerations when choosing a shark diving operator.

Perhaps most critically, a shark dive should never include more participants than guides can supervise and control. Likewise, the operation and staff must be thoroughly trained and equipped to ensure a safe dive and be able to respond to any emergency that might arise.

Shark dive operators should employ only knowledgeable and experienced shark handlers. Guides should provide both a thorough briefing prior to diving and — from entry to exit — close supervision once in the water. While in the water, clear separation between sharks and tourists is essential, including a strict policy of absolutely no contact with the animals of any kind. To avoid confusion in the water, operational procedures should be standardized and never altered on the fly. You should consider these as bare minimum guidelines, which can vary greatly depending on the location and species involved.


Assessing Your Shark Diving Operator

When planning a shark dive, here’s what to look for in an ethical, responsible shark ecotourism operator:

Educational Information — The operator provides thorough briefings on diving conditions and diver safety with emphasis on animal behavior: detailed guidelines on animal interactions.

In-water Safety — The operator demonstrates effective communications, including providing detailed entry/exit and dive safety protocols.

Animal Treatment — Operators should avoid handling or manipulating animals: divers should be advised not to touch animals.

Environmental Sustainability — Operators use local bait that is natural prey of animals and ideally source the bait from fishers or restaurant surplus (or use no bait): gear is specifically designed to be low-impact: vessel is certified fuel-efficient and low emission: local community is involved in the operation (such as, jobs).

Conservation Ethic — Operation demonstrates a conservation-based approach regarding resources, animals, communities and waters.

SOURCE: Adapted from: Gallagher AJ, Vianna GMS, Papastamatiou YP, Macdonald C, Guttridge TL, Hammerschlag N. (2015). Biological effects, conservation potential, and research priorities of shark diving tourism. Biological Conservation 184:365-379

great white shark cage

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Shark Diver Considerations

Shark diving has become a tremendously popular activity, but it’s not without its critics. In particular, controversy centers on the issue of safety. But it’s not just about the safety of the diver — it’s also about the safety of the sharks.

As always, the key to safety is prevention. As much as possible, try to make sure all safety precautions are considered well before entering the water. First, be sure you’re up for the dive. Don’t dive if you feel it’s beyond your capability or comfort zone. A shark dive is not the time to push your limits, overcome your fears or encounter diving conditions you’ve never before experienced. In addition, make sure there is adequate consideration and the necessary equipment available in case of an emergency. A standard first aid kit and merely calling for assistance on channel 16, isn’t going to cut it in the case of a significant shark bite. The emergency assistance plan should be much more robust than for a normal diving operation.

Also avoid diving in limited visibility or at dusk and dawn, a time when sharks are especially active. Many shark dive operators suggest, or require, that you dive fully covered (including a hood and gloves). Some even advise, specifically, that you wear only a black exposure suit (although several creative new suits available are designed to make sharks less curious about divers). Some operators even caution against wearing white or yellow fins. However, there is skepticism over the long-held idea that sharks are attracted to what’s been termed “yum-yum yellow,” as all species studied so far are either colorblind or can see only green. Of course, you should be completely familiar with, and have dived previously with, all your equipment. And, if on a feeding dive, never handle or expose your equipment to bait prior to entering the water.

Some operators may suggest or require that you carry a “shark stick” or “billy” to serve as a barrier between you and any shark that may get a little too close for comfort. The billy is normally a piece of PVC pipe — it should never be a spear or “bang stick” (a device designed to hold and activate a round of ammunition). If a billy is part of the dive plan, listen carefully to instructions and use the device only when and how you’re directed.

Enter the water as quietly as possible. While under water be attentive to the guide and follow all instructions to the letter. At all times, remain where the guide can observe you. Kick slowly and purposefully. Avoid fast, erratic fin kicking as this may sound similar to a wounded fish, which could attract unwanted attention of sharks. Most critically, remain attentive. As any good squad leader would tell his troops, “keep your head on a swivel” — maintain a constant 360-degree view of your surroundings. Likewise, with large predatory sharks especially, make eye contact to let the animal know you see it. There is evidence that some shark species are aware when they’re being observed and may approach closer when a diver is not looking. And like any good diver, keep an eye out for your buddy, as well. If you’re not holding a shark stick or camera keep your hands close to your body. Wearing gloves is a good idea, as bare hands may be interpreted by sharks as pieces of bait or small fish. Under no circumstance touch a shark and, obviously, never chase, poke, prod or in any way antagonize sharks. Generally, avoid sudden movement of any kind.

There are also some special considerations relevant to shark diving photographers. First, don’t even consider taking a camera with you if you’re not completely familiar with its features and operation. This is no time to start learning underwater photography. If your camera has a strobe, remember that sharks are highly sensitive to electrical currents and, therefore, may be attracted to firing strobes. Although rare, there have been instances where a shark has taken a camera away from a diver. In this extremely unlikely event, it’s best not to put up a fight, as attempting to do so would be futile and simply agitate the offender. Finally, diving with sharks is not a good time to become too self-absorbed, as some photographers do. Be sure not to focus so closely on image-making that you lose track of what’s going on around you.

Not all, but some, operators hand-feed sharks. If they do feed, leave this to trained and experienced shark handlers. Never hand-feed a shark yourself, even if the opportunity is offered (a sure sign you may not have chosen the most ethical or informed operator). Once in the water try to orient yourself up-current, facing down-current, as sharks will likely follow a scent trail to the bait from that direction. However, don’t situate yourself between the sharks’ path and the bait. And never, ever pick up a loose or discarded piece of bait and attempt to return it to the handler or feed a shark yourself.

Probably the most vulnerable time for an unwanted shark encounter is during the ascent back to the boat or other exit point. Especially during a feeding dive, this is when sharks may be most excited as they may continue to expect food. Again, follow the dive plan and ascend as a group, not individually, and be especially vigilant.

shark diving

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Making the Choice

Safe and responsible shark diving is a matter of understanding the risks and seeking balance between that risk and how your actions may affect the image and conservation of the animals. And make no mistake — shark diving does involve some risk. Even the planktivorous whale shark can do damage simply by virtue of its massive size. And in encounters with other more predatory species, some participants, as well as guides, have incurred serious bites or worse. Yet, just as the risk of swimmers or surfers being bitten by a shark is infinitely small, so too are injuries sustained by shark divers (statistically, even less so). Encouraging evidence comes from dive operators in the Bahamas who pioneered interactive shark encounters, having put more than a million divers in the water over the past 35 years. The outstanding safety record of Bahamas Diving Association members stands as proof that there are boatloads of activities far riskier than shark diving when it’s done properly.

Still, one must ask if the pendulum of fear to fascination hasn’t swung too far from the fearful days of Jaws. The nonsense perpetrated by Shark Week notwithstanding, some of the images appearing in the media of recent, in my view, have portrayed sharks too much as harmless puppy dogs. Understand this above all: Sharks are not puppy dogs. Most sharks involved in diver encounters are predatory animals with hunting and killing skills honed by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Such a warning isn’t designed to frighten, but to remind divers that, no matter how tame or docile they may appear, you are dealing with wild animals. I encourage every diver to participate in a shark encounter dive with an experienced, reputable operator — but do so with due knowledge, responsibly and respect. You won’t be sorry you did.

Story by Alex Brylske

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Sustainable Shark Diving – sustainablesharkdiving.com

This is an excellent resource for researching shark dive operators around the world. The site allows you to search by selecting either or both a worldwide location and type of shark. Results will list all operators at that destination who offer shark encounters. If you dive with a listed operation, the site also allows you to submit a Trip Advisor-type review of the operator using the criteria described in the above section “Assessing Your Shark Diving Operator.” Yet another useful feature on the site is it makes available downloadable copies of most major shark diving best practice guidelines used throughout the world.

Shark Angels – sharkangels.com

Maintained by a dedicated and highly experienced group of shark lovers, this comprehensive site is devoted not only to shark diving, but all aspects of shark science and conservation.

Shark Business – sharkbusiness.org

This site describes itself as “a new conservation project that plans to use the economic value of marine ecotourism to help preserve shark populations.” Using the mantra “conservation through ecotourism,” they focus primarily on three important tasks: helping scientists to better understand sharks, offering alternative jobs to local people and educating the public about the value of sharks and their habitat.

Shark Research Institute – sharks.org/dive-operators

This is a superb site for general information on almost all aspects of sharks as well as shark diving. The Institute also sponsors many shark research expeditions and maintains a list of recommended shark dive operators.

Ocean Education International – oceaneducationinternational.com/our-programs.html

Specializing in educational programs and resources for divers and dive professionals, they offer a range of shark education and conservation courses and seminars. Programs range from a one-hour overview of shark issues (“In the Jaws of Extinction”), to a full-day program for professionals and passionate shark lovers called “Sharks in Depth: Ecology to Ecotourism,” addressing all aspects of shark biology, ecology, conservation, behavior and public perception.