Diving with Jaws: The implications of shark-related tourism

At the time of publication, North and South Carolina are in the midst of Shark Summer, 10 people attacked thus far. Some are making an eerie connection between this string of incidents and the true story that inspired Jaws, the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 wherein four people were killed, and a fifth injured, during a series of attacks along the coast of New Jersey over 12 days in July.

It was 40 years ago this summer that the story was turned into Jaws, Peter Benchley’s blockbuster tale with an iconic score that still sends shivers up our spines. Our dark, unrelenting fascination with these creatures continues — so much so that there is a flourishing tourism business around it.

Why are we drawn to creatures that terrify us? Biologist E.O. Wilson sums it up best, “In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters.” But what is the implication of tourism couched in this curiosity? This question is trickier to answer.

Shark diving is the safari of the sea: a safe, controlled environment in which to observe and snap photos of animals we’re rarely meant to encounter. And there have never been more ways to see them. Shark-related tourism brings in $78-million a year to the Bahamas alone where people flock to cage dive with tiger sharks and lemon sharks. One can also dive with gentle giant whale sharks off the coast of Tanzania and Mexico. Or go to Gansbaai, South Africa, where shark diving was invented in the early 1990s, Northern California, Hawaii, Mexico, New England or South Australia and dive with the shark of all sharks, the Great White, in its natural environment.

Great White shark. Photo by Jan Fidler

Shark tourism operators claim they replace fear with fascination and that Great Whites are the darlings of shark tourism, drawing a thrill like nothing else. South Africa’s Marine Dynamic’s Shark Tours boasts, ”Shark cage diving offers the opportunity for us to witness sharks in their own territory and to come closer to acknowledging that there is more to these animals than meets the eye.” For about R1,600 ($165), they’ll do just that: Once customers are loaded on to a boat, they drive 20 minutes from Gansbaai to Dyer Island and drop anchor for two hours of Great White action, tossing buckets of chum into the waters to bring guests within centimetres of those legendary jaws. The intent is that this up-close-and-personal encounter will help people overcome their “irrational fear of the Great White” as they describe it, and help understand their beauty and grace.

There is debate as to whether this is helping or hurting the ocean in general, and Great Whites in particular. Surfers around the world have lobbied against chumming on shark dives. Just as a dog can learn the “sit” command through Pavlovian reinforcement, their concern is that sharks will associate a boat filled with people as a meal. According to a 2011 study by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation of Australia chumming is changing how Great Whites behave: By continually using bait to lure sharks into encounters, we are training them to think that we are a food source. One Bahamas-based shark diving company boasts, “The sharks will follow you throughout the dive because we are close to our feeding site and they know the dinner bell will ring soon.”

Shark tourism can have its benefits, however, Dr. Gregory Skomal, senior marine fisheries scientist for Maine Marine Fisheries in Massachusetts, and a preeminent researcher on Atlantic sharks, explains that there has been a change in attitude over the past 50 years or so, from an outright fear and pressure to cull Great Whites to an appreciation of them. “When done correctly, cage diving can foster this [change in attitude],” he says. “It is a great debate, but I’d say that the positives outweigh the negatives. You have the full spectrum of shark dive operators out there, but if you’re going with a reputable, responsible company, it can be enlightening, engaging and educational.”

George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research and International Shark Attack File is the guy whose phone rings first when there is an attack anywhere in the world. He maintains that shark diving tourism is preferable to overfishing them into extinction, but he has some serious reservations. “I liken it to throwing bird seed in your backyard. You end up with a high density of birds that wouldn’t normally be found there.”

Surfer Dude

Burgess believes shark tourism can dramatically upset the ecosystem, “Sharks are normally fearful of people, and we’re naturalizing that fear out of them; and by feeding sharks, we’re altering their reality.” Burgess explains the ripple effect: “When we draw dense populations of sharks into one area for tourism, we don’t know what happens to the area that they came from. Do sharks repopulate there, and in the areas we’ve drawn them to? It changes the ecosystem.”

Additionally, shark tourism isn’t as natural or as conservationist-minded as some diving operators sell it to be. “If the basic tenet of ecotourism is to not leave a footprint behind, shark tourism blazes a trail,” Burgess says.

Here are some important things to consider before grab your wetsuit and searching for sharks:

Are these “natural” experiences really natural?  When chum is dumped into the water, it forces an interaction between sharks and people that isn’t meant to happen. Sharks aren’t social beings. By nature, they are timid and rarely seen (ask any diver or any shark attack survivor: No one ever sees them coming).

Is your tour operator helping or hurting the ocean?  Are shark tourism operators donating a portion of their proceeds to ocean preservation efforts? Are they randomly chumming or going to the same area, training sharks to wait for dinner? Like any travel experience, it’s important to weigh the footprint you make on the environment you’re in. Ask questions and make fastidious choices.

Are you scaring yourself out of the ocean?  If you are looking to cultivate an appreciation for the ocean, climbing into a cage alongside sharks might not be the only, or most effective means, to do so. Some tours sell the fear factor and watching a Great White take down a half-ton seal might have you never dipping a toe into the water again.

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