The risk of injury, let alone death, while diving with sharks is incredibly low.
In contrast, more common leisure activities such as biking, swimming and boating result in a significant number of injuries and fatalities each year. True, In the US alone, the risk of death by drowning is approximately 3,000 times greater than being bitten by a shark, and the number of fatalities from boating accidents is more than 300 times greater. The comparatively low risk posed by diving with sharks is far outweighed by the reward. It enables people to develop a healthy respect and passion for a critical role player in the health of our oceans that is majestic, yet misunderstood.
In terms of relative risks, in California [the U. S. state with the second highest incidence of shark attacks in the country], there is only one shark attack for every one million surfing days, according to the Surfrider Foundation. Your chances of drowning when entering the water in the US are 1 in 3.5 million. Your chances of being attacked by a shark are 1 in 11.5 million and your chances of dying are 0 in 264.1 million…
Myth, media, and sensationalism have created and perpetuated an irrational and inaccurate fear that sharks as ruthless killing machines. The statistical reality is that sharks do not want to eat people. Shark incidents are extremely rare and those incidents even more rarely result in death. With hundreds of millions of people living near the shore, and even more who travel, these are infinitesimal numbers when considering the potential interactions vs. the actual interactions.
The reality stands that people just are not a natural or desired source of food for sharks. Shark bites happen, but they are infrequent and there are a variety of theories regarding why sharks bite - ranging from defensive posturing, to curiosity, to competition, to mistaken identity. From our experience, this varies by species, conditions, and even the individual animal. Suffice it to say, this is not a statistically frequent occurrence.
Save Our Seas recently posted some good information about white sharks and why they may bite. The first and most commonly accepted explanation is that they are accidental, exploratory bites - a case of mistaken identity. Secondly, sharks, who don’t have hands, use their mouths to investigate objects they are innately curious about. Finally, it is believed that certain types of sharks defend their personal space by communicating through body posturing and biting. http://saveourseas.com/articles/why_do_white_sharks_bite_people.
Regardless of why a shark bite occurs, most sharks will typically bite once, realize that we are not a source of food, and leave. The rare fatality is usually due to loss of blood after that exploratory bite. Given the advanced predatory skills of sharks, if humans were a perceived food source, there would be almost as many fatalities as there are shark incidents, and many more incidents.
Remember - sharks are large wild animals. Stepping into their habitat has some risks. With the proper safety protocols, a high level of diving experience, and guidance from reputable dive operations, the risk is small when compared to the reward of an up-close encounter with one of the great co-inhabitants of our earth.
It is often argued that baiting or feeding sharks will condition them to associate people or specific locations with food and thereby increase the risk of attack. Typically, when a fatality occurs in an area that supports shark tourism, blame is directed at the shark diving industry. However, it is erroneous to associate shark diving with increased aggression from sharks.
It should first be noted that shark diving operations are not the first to attract or feed sharks, nor the worst offenders. For hundreds of years, all around the world, sharks have been fed intentionally or inadvertently. Millions of fishing boats chum and bait the water, while others clean their catch or throw back considerable amounts of injured or dead bycatch. Some shark tourism operations have even started in areas where sharks have been attracted by fishing boats that frequently use the area.
With that being said, in our collective decades of shark diving we have never witnessed a threatening scenario or a shark displaying aggression towards the individuals baiting them, let alone the other divers. Furthermore, in our experience, the sharks do not stay around after the bait has been removed. While true that human interaction can potentially alter the behavior of a wild animal, that does not mean a shark conditioned to approach bait will also become conditioned to act increasingly aggressive towards humans, whether temporarily or long term. In fact, no scientific evidence exists that provides a link between feeding and changes in the sharks’ behavior towards humans. On the contrary, several studies exist that prove sharks are intelligent animals – not mindless “eating machines”.
A recent study by the University of Pretoria and the Shark Research Centre of Iziko Museums(2) in South Africa concluded that where operators were adhering to local permit laws regarding chumming and baiting, a majority of the sharks spent increasingly less time with the boats as time went on, indicating a possible "negative conditioning." Because the sharks were not receiving a consistent food reward, they eventually stopped responding to what amounted to a "false promise." The study additionally concluded that the olfactory dissimilarities between a chum slick and humans, among other deviations from potentially conditioning stimuli, made it highly unlikely that chumming would create an increased threats to humans in the water.
Another study by the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (3) used tagging to track the movement of sharks that were encountered during cage diving activity. Resulting data indicated that there was no disruption to normal seasonal migration patterns and that the sharks did not follow the boats back into the harbor.
The lack of conclusive data from these studies to support the likelihood of conditioning where responsible practices are followed, or the possibility of sharks being drawn to areas outside of the specific dive location, contradicts the argument that shark diving results in any increased threat of shark interactions for snorkelers, swimmers, surfers or other water users.
Shark diving operators usually do not bait in areas where mixed-use activities in the water occur, and this is typically prevented by local laws as well. Most commonly, operators go to where the sharks already are, and generally use some form of attractant to encourage the sharks to come closer to the divers. If it were possible to simply place bait into the water anywhere and attract sharks to that area, their jobs would be much more simple. However, this is not the case.
In "Blue Water White Death" (1971), shark diving pioneer Stan Waterman took leading steps to alter public opinion on this subject by leaving his cage while in the presence of a group of Oceanic whitetip sharks that were feeding on a whale carcass. Since then, as our knowledge of sharks and their true nature has increased and the number of people who have swum with them free of cages without incident has also risen, the use of cages as a necessary safety device for most species of shark has been called into question.
Often, the people who are most afraid of sharks and feel they need to have bars between them and the sharks have yet to meet one. Those who have gone on shark dives generally describe an experience of great beauty, transcendence, and transformation. The experience usually leaves them with a strong appreciation of and even affection for these animals, describing them as intelligent and peaceful, charismatic, magnificent, and non-aggressive toward humans—the exact opposite of common perceptions of sharks as ferocious man-eaters.
Most shark divers are seeking a more personal interaction with sharks in order to learn more about a misunderstood animal that few of us know much about. They do not choose to go cage-less because they are seeking an adrenaline rush, but rather because they desire a better connection with the animals, and respect but do not fear the sharks. The caged option, where available, does not provide the same experience.
Additionally, underwater photographers and filmmakers seek to capture this experience for others. Many powerful and beautiful photographs and films produced from these expeditions free of cages have led to a better understanding and appreciation for sharks and their critical importance within ocean ecosystems.
It needs to be said, sharks are not puppies meant to be cuddled. They should be recognized and respected for what they are: perfect predators that have survived hundreds of millions of years. While most of the Shark Angels dive cage-free, choosing to interact with sharks more intimately to dispel the “Jaws” stereotype that divers need steel cages to protect them, we also acknowledge personal comfort levels and limitations. Cages, more than anything else, protect the sharks from our own egos and also make these encounters accessible to a wider range of skill sets. Their necessity in facilitating a safe encounter is most often the exception, not the rule, but the bottom line is this: dive at your comfort level and on your terms.
In most places around the world, if there were no diving with sharks, there would most likely be no sharks. Getting into the water with sharks proves they are more valuable alive than dead. 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 #1 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.
Sadly, there are only a few places remaining that people can still go to experience the magnificence of the large, charismatic sharks including tigers, oceanic white tips, makos, bulls, and hammerheads. A growing number of shark species are approaching extinction, with up to 73 million sharks killed each, and we are thankful that special places around the world enable humans to experience them. We should protect them, support them and ensure their continued existence. Shark diving, particularly in sanctuaries and protected areas, does just that.
We do not live in a perfect world. It would be wonderful if we could jump into the water and have a natural encounter with a shark. Unfortunately, there are very few places in the world where this is still possible. Furthermore, most sharks are afraid of humans and will avoid rather than approach divers. Sharply declining populations make it even more of a rarity to see a shark while diving. Because of this, to allow divers to have meaningful, thought-provoking and perspective-shifting interactions with sharks, a large majority of dive operators must take measures to attract them.
In most places around the world, if there were no diving with sharks, there would most likely be no sharks. Shark tourism is an act of conservation because it creates a strong economic incentive to protect sharks rather than kill them. People who enjoy up-close encounters with these magnificent animals outside of cages often report to having had an unforgettable and profound experience. According to research, seeing sharks on a dive is the #1 desired attraction among divers. A 2008 study by Duke University (4) asked scuba divers to rank seven marine organisms according to what they most desired to see during a dive, and sharks received the highest number of first place votes. When gauging the willingness to pay for each of these possible encounters, 71% of respondents stated that they would be willing to pay more than the average dive expense in order to increase their likelihood of seeing a shark during a dive.
With a lack of awareness, ignorance, or misunderstanding behavior being some of the dominant forces behind weak protection of sharks, the experience of diving with sharks builds that awareness and those divers become ambassadors for shark advocacy. It also helps dispel common shark myths, uniting the public around a new view of sharks – which is what the Shark Angels were founded to tackle.. By allowing people to become personally involved, we are fueling the movement to protect our seas.
It is important to understand the methods of shark attraction (baiting, chumming and feeding) to understand how they impact shark behavior. Many dive operators go to extreme lengths to avoid intentionally feeding the sharks and will use chum or bait to attract these shy and hesitant creatures for close personal encounters. Of those that do feed, responsible operators create very controlled feeding procedures during which the sharks are given a small amount of food.
"Chumming" means putting a mixture typically made of fish oil and ground fish into the water to create a slick. This activates a shark’s olfactory senses, and there is little for the shark to actually eat. The bait is used merely to attract the sharks - via smell - and to hold their interest long enough for divers to enjoy a safe experience with them in their underwater world.
"Baiting" means using small portions or pieces of fish (sometimes contained) in the water. The goal with baiting is normally to NOT feed the sharks. In some cases, to keep their interest, sharks receive small rewards. This typically varies by operator, shark species and location. For instance, in South Africa, it is illegal to feed bait to white sharks. Baiting is only intended to bring sharks within range of the boat and, when consumed, represents a small fraction of what sharks consumes daily in the wild.
“Feeding” is another means of attracting sharks, during which the sharks are deliberately given food. With carefully planned procedures and protocols, feeding can be a safe and responsible means of working with sharks. In feeding operations, only the highly trained and experienced divemaster (sometimes wearing chain mail) is permitted to feed the sharks. During these dives, the divers are normally instructed to remain in a designated area where they can have a good view of the sharks without being too close to the food.
People who are unfamiliar with shark diving often have the misconception that all shark diving operations engage in what we refer to as “uncontrolled feeding”. This is, in fact, extremely rare.
“Uncontrolled feeding”, particularly with large amounts of food and or/sharks, can create a competitive situation in which more than one shark is trying to reach the food at a given time, and can make for a somewhat hectic atmosphere. Some refer to this as a “frenzy.” Uncontrolled feeding can lead to dangerous situations and the vast majority of shark diving operations do not engage in this activity – or do so in a highly controlled manner.
Divers who want to see sharks have to rely on responsible and experienced shark diving operators to attract sharks. We encourage divers to select operators who attract with caution and concern shown for both the sharks and the divers.
As just discussed, a variety of methods of attraction are often used in shark diving because sharks would typically avoid humans if there were not something to draw them closer. Our previous explanation detailed three ways to attract sharks: baiting, feeding and chumming. There are variations and debates surrounding each of these options.
In our own personal experiences diving with sharks, both with and without bait in the water, the sharks have gone out of their way to avoid contact with humans. They clearly do not see people as prey, and even with bait in the water we have never seen a shark exhibit aggressive behavior directly towards divers. This underscores the importance that divers and operators take responsibility for safe encounters. Sharks are, after all, wild animals that must be treated with respect.
The vast majority of shark species have never been implicated in biting humans and the few species that have almost never do it. To avoid risk, we advise all divers to act responsibly.
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