It seems with the advent of social media, more and more tourist videos of Great white sharks getting into shark cages and sharks thrashing around on baits injuring themselves as they knock against boats, are going viral with many viewers questioning the ethics of shark diving.
With Chris being involved in the Great white shark cage diving industry almost since its inception in 1993 and myself at Seal Island in False Bay since 2000 we have certainly been able to witness the progression of fledgling start-ups to a large scale commercial industry.
Thoughts of the “good old days” are ever present. The initial pros and cons are still in full force but a few more other factors are now being left to ponder.
THE FACT REMAINS THAT A GREAT WHITE SHARK IS A VERY DIFFICULT ANIMAL TO SEE UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL.
Not only is their worldwide population estimated at about a mere 3500 individual animals but their wild ocean environment doesn’t make it easy to find them.
It’s certainly not like shore-based whale watching or hiring a car to drive around The Kruger National Park. You have to get on a boat and entrust an operator to be responsible with both yourself and the animals they are working with.
Operators have to actively attract the sharks and once the sharks are up at the boat they need to handle them on bait lines and around large shark cages with divers inside.
Unfortunately the South African authorities are not strong with the enforcement of permit regulations and this means each operator is completely self-responsible for the way in which they handle the animals with no consequences whatsoever should the sharks be poorly handled.
Some cage diving operators choose to use wood and fibreglass decoys for their longevity and movement in the water resulting in many sharks losing teeth when they grab hold of it. This is completely unnecessary when a soft decoy made from carpet can be used.
Some shark cage operators also choose to use very strong mono filament line or polypropylene to attach baits to bait lines so that a Great white shark cannot easily take the bait off the line. This results in a thrashing match between shark and bait handler which most often ends in the bait handler keeping his/her bait but leaving behind a badly beat up shark. Again this can so easily be avoided when using natural fibre line that is easily broken off should a shark outsmart the bait handler. There’s no trashing and less chance of a shark injury.
GREAT WHITE SHARKS ARE SUPER-FAST, EXTREMELY POWERFUL AND SURPRISINGLY AGILE.
It’s not uncommon to lose baits to sharks no matter how hard the bait handler tries to keep it away and this is why it’s important that the bait comes off the line as easy as possible.
This doesn’t only happen in South Africa and in particular upsetting videos of Great White sharks getting into cages have been surfacing from Guadalupe where operators actually tie baits to the shark cage.
In all cases of all the videos I have seen it has been purely down to bait handler error.
The Great White sharks follow the bait and if a shark handler were to pull a bait in the direction of the cage a shark will keep following it in.
THE SHARK DOES NOT HAVE A REVERSE GEAR AND THE RESULT IS THAT EVEN WHEN THE BAIT IS PULLED OUT OF THE WATER THE SHARK KEEPS MOVING FORWARDS INTO THE CAGE.
It cannot move backward and its only option is to literally thrash its way out.
The above examples clearly show a most definite downside to the shark cage diving industry where the animals we have been entrusted to working with are definitely getting the brunt of it.
Another area to me that is of great concern is of how commercial the industry is becoming. Trips can be as short as 1.5 hours long and tourists getting in a shark cage for the experience of a lifetime are at times being reduced to nothing more than a sausage machine.
The Great white shark is one of the most iconic animals on the planet. It is also at the very top of the food chain and one of earth’s greatest predators. Many operators sell the experience as an adrenalin thrill whereas in reality seeing a great white shark is perhaps one of the most amazing wildlife experiences one can ever have. The sharks deserve our respect and we as operators play a very important role as to how the animal is portrayed and in doing so creating new ambassadors for sharks each time we have the opportunity of showing someone a great white shark for the very first time.
And here is where the overwhelming positives come in for the Great white shark industry, when things are done correctly and responsibly that is!
Great white sharks can be highly localised to feeding at seal colonies and in well-known inshore areas. I have already mentioned that South African authorities lack enforcement in the industry and the same goes for looking after our protected species. Absolutely no effort goes into anti-poaching, illegal fishing and general harassment of great white sharks. Remember South Africa is a country that openly condones the world’s largest great white shark culling operation which is the Natal Sharks Board!
As the industry has a vested interest in keeping the great white sharks alive it is ultimately the only watch dog out there for the supposedly protected great white shark and this is a vital role that we as operators currently play.
As I already mentioned The Great White Shark Diving Industry is big business. It’s in the top 3 attractions in Cape Town and its estimated 150,000 people go cage diving with sharks every year. Perhaps the greatest example of sustainable utilisation of a species is Gansbaai. This once sleepy little fishing village is now the Shark Diving Capitol of the world. The industry here as well as in False Bay and Mossel Bay sustains hotels, guest houses, restaurants and gift stores. And this is not including job creation within the industry which is one of South Africa’s primary goals.
It doesn’t matter who you speak to, just about everyone has an opinion on sharks. Sharks are either passionately loved or feared. The word “shark” evokes intense emotion from people of all walks of life. Let’s face it sharks are iconic animals that many people would like to see and the shark cage diving industry gives people the opportunity of this experience.
Guests that come out to face their fear of a great white shark are always turned around once they see a great white shark in its natural environment and gain a true understanding.
GUESTS LEAVE AS NEWLY CONVERTED SHARK LOVERS AND GO FORTH TO SPREAD THE POSITIVE AWARENESS OF A MAGNIFICENT SUPER PREDATOR.
For many others it is a life dream to see a great white shark in the flesh and to be able to realise this dream is an absolute life highlight.
With so many people each year being able to have this wildlife experience the positive awareness of sharks is growing all the time and this is definitely playing a very important role in the conservation of this species.
Many natural history film teams, shark documentary crews and wildlife photographers have the opportunity to film and photograph sharks each year. Their reach is ultimately achieving the same results and the tide is turning. Through exposure and awareness of sharks more and more people are becoming accepting of the very important place that sharks have on our planet.
It’s my opinion that the shark cage diving industry is vital to the survival of the species. It is also my hope that with the awareness of the down side of the industry we can all work towards improvement so that the positives can shine through and we can truly celebrate the privilege of the presence of great white sharks in our oceans and around our eco-tourism vessels.