Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Is Diving With Sharks Unethical or is it Educational?

Me (to the shark's left) diving with a Lemon Shark offshore from Jupiter Florida June 18, 2017 (Image by Catherine Hayslett using a Go Pro)

Who among us didn't grow up being told fairy tales about scary animals?  Stories like Goldilocks and the Three Bears put me on alert about the dangers of bears when I was only three years old. Later my parents read to me the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf and I was instantly petrified of wolves.  It didn't matter that there is only one documented, scientifically-proven, instance of a non-rabid wolf attacking a human being (that was in Latvia in 1917), after hearing about the travails of Little Red Riding Hood I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with wolves.  You could shoot them all as far as I was concerned and I would be a very happy, not to mention safe, camper.

If an unfounded fear of bears and wolves wasn't bad enough, in 1975, the movie Jaws, a fictional story about a Great White Shark menacing summer tourists off the New England coast, convinced me that to simply put a toe in the ocean water would cause me to be eaten by the nearest shark. The several sequels to Jaws only reinforced my belief that certain death awaited me when I entered the ocean.

Life experience has taught me however, that bears and wolves are generally more afraid of us than we are of them.  When my two daughters were little we took them to Churchill Manitoba on three different trips where we hoped to see Polar Bears and finally on the third trip we saw five of them. We saw them from a safe distance and as we explained to my girls, if you respect the bears and don't cause them to feel cornered or unsafe they are less likely to harm you.  

The same, it turns out, applies to Gray Wolves, with or without Little Red Riding Hood's influence. The first Gray Wolf I ever saw was actually three of them that raced through my campsite on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior in hot pursuit of a young moose.  Minutes after passing 10 feet from me, the wolves killed the young moose that later became dinner.  They could have cared less about me and probably didn't notice me standing there in mortal fear as they darted past me.  A few years later, while conducting a Breeding Bird Survey in northern Wisconsin, a Gray Wolf crossed the road a few feet from me as I stood by my car counting birds.  It didn't see me until I quietly said "Good Morning Brother Wolf" at which time it hit the after burners and darted away into the forest.

In the late 1980s in Denali National Park, Alaska, I rode on the National Park Service bus to the visitor center about 60 miles from the park entrance.  Along the way we encountered 6 Grizzly Bears and one Gray Wolf.  Each of them wanted to make tracks away from humans as quickly as possible.  They wanted nothing to do with us as long as we respected them and gave them space. Those experiences and several others with bears and wolves helped to greatly reduce my unfounded fear of both animals.

The same could not be said, however, for sharks.  Not by any stretch of the imagination.

Every year one of the cable television networks sponsors a week long scare-a-thon about sharks called "Shark Week."  During that week of almost nonstop scary images of sharks attacking everything that moves, set to ominous sounding dramatic music, viewers come away with the feeling that I had - stick one toe in the ocean and you are filet of human for the next Great Hammerhead Shark to swim by.

In September 2011, I traveled to Boulder's Beach, South Africa to visit a colony of African Penguins. While there, despite the warnings of the South African government's shark awareness program, a local resident, was attacked by a Great White Shark, losing one leg and part of another.  Local authorities went out of their way to warn this man about the presence of four Great White Sharks but he persisted saying "I've swum with sharks before. I know what I'm doing."  Several days later, after surviving surgery to save his life, the victim was quoted in a front page story of the Cape Times that "It was my fault" the shark attacked him.  Yup. No doubt about that.  He didn't respect the sharks, didn't heed the warnings of others who informed him of the shark's presence and potential danger, and 1 1/2 legs later learned a huge lesson.

Don't get me wrong....there is every reason to be cautious of sharks, just like there is of wolves, and bears, and orange-tanned Republicans with an opossum for a hair piece for that matter. However if you use common sense and learn something about the creatures before running off with unfounded fears, you might discover that these creatures are inquisitive, quite docile, and an adrenaline rush to see.

When I began SCUBA diving I maintained a healthy fear of sharks. Each time I took a "giant stride" off the stern of a dive boat I imagined Jaws himself scarfing me up before I had time to deflate my buoyancy control device and descend to the bottom. In January 2017, while diving off the Florida Keys, I encountered my first shark - a Nurse Shark - which is about as dangerous as a Golden Retriever.  I could feel my anal sphincter tighten to a level not experienced since I saw my last tornado, and the shark eventually swam 5 feet beneath me.  It was "just" a Nurse Shark - but it was a shark just the same.

For the last couple of years the Sarasota (Florida) Scuba Club has offered a shark diving trip to Jupiter, Florida, where divers can have up close and personal encounters with sharks.  On these trips you are almost guaranteed to see a shark, and some shark dives off Jupiter have resulted in sightings of up to 7 species of shark including both Tiger Sharks and Bull Sharks - both of which can have a nasty attitude in the wrong situations.

The reason sharks are all but guaranteed on these trips is because the charter boat company feeds them.  Chunks of fish are placed in a chum box and those pieces of fish flesh, plus their blood, provide a tantalizing attraction for any sharks in the neighborhood.  In February 2017, I mentioned to the owner of a local dive shop in Sarasota that I was scheduled to participate in one of the Emerald Charter shark dives.  Before I could finish my sentence, the dive shop owner went apoplectic and urged me not to participate because of the artificial nature of the dives.

"Feeding sharks alters their behavior," he argued.  "Feeding habituates sharks to humans and makes them dependent on humans for their survival.  Plus it alters their behavior."  He then added, "If you have any ethics about wildlife I urge you not to go on this trip!"

As a retired wildlife biologist his argument hit home.  Its bad enough that we ascribe human qualities to wildlife (anthropomorphism), altering their behavior and habituating wildlife to humans can only make things worse.  Or so I thought until my first shark dive.

Against my better judgement and with an internal bias already at warp speed, I did a giant stride off the stern of a dive boat 5 miles offshore from Jupiter Florida on June 18, 2017.  I did so with 13 other shark divers, and 2 dive masters.  One dive master carried a camera to record the encounters, while the other carried a spear gun and a bait box to attract sharks.  We descended to 107 feet and looked around among huge schools of Bonita for a shark - any shark.  With our Nitrox supply rapidly being depleted at that depth, we finally saw (only briefly) one Blacktip Shark  that gobbled some chunks of Bonita and then disappeared into the murky waters. 

A problem with my left ear on the first dive precluded me from making the second scheduled dive.  By the time the third dive arrived, my ear issue had cleared up and we dove into 70 feet of water and drifted to the deck of a shipwreck where we positioned ourselves in front of the bait box and waited.  Actually we didn't have to wait because 11 Lemon Sharks were already there checking out the bait box that had been left at the conclusion of the second dive. Waiting with the sharks was a Goliath Grouper that easily weighed 400 pounds.  For the next 45 minutes we stayed in a collective state of awe as Lemon Sharks, some up to 8 feet long, swam by us often inches away.  One shark collided with me head first when I found myself in his path.  His reaction was to swim away from me without causing any harm.

Close encounters with Lemon Sharks are easily obtained on shark dives with Emerald Charters.  (Image by Catherine Hayslett using her Go Pro)

As I watched the swirling mass of sharks from mere inches away I was able to learn a great deal about them.  I saw one fish with scars all over its back, probably from territorial encounters with other sharks.  Another individual had a large fishing lure hanging from its lower jaw, evidence no doubt of someone's fish story about "the huge one that got away."  My only regret was that none of us could reach up and remove the hook from the shark's mouth.  Mostly, however, I learned that my fear of sharks was unfounded just like my earlier fear of wolves and bears (although I remain petrified of Republicans).  It was simply a matter of respecting the sharks, not behaving in a way that would cause them to feel threatened, and letting nature take its course. I now have a new found respect for and fascination with sharks and I can't wait for my next shark dive which will be in the Philippines in February 2018.

None of this would have occurred, of course, had we not participated in a dive where the sharks were attracted to an artificial food source. Yes the situation was artificial, but I know of 13 fellow divers who now have a newfound appreciation for sharks and a greater respect for them, and most of whom I would bet are now strong advocates for shark conservation and protection.   And it all happened because of an artificial feeding situation that allowed for such close encounters.

Check out the close-up view of the pearly white's on this Lemon Shark.  (Image by Brooke Walters, Sarasota Scuba Club)

One thing my career with the US Fish and Wildlife Service taught me is that some times keeping animals and interactions with animals away from the public is not in wildlife's best interest.   Before I moved to Nebraska in 1987, it was the agency's policy that any time a Whooping Crane arrived on the Platte River during migration, our Special Agent (law enforcement) was informed and the location of the bird(s) was kept secret out of fear that someone would harm them.  In the process very few people had a chance to learn about Whooping Cranes and develop any sense of ownership of them.

That policy changed after my arrival in Grand Island, Nebraska where (without obtaining permission beforehand) the arrival of a Whooping Crane was instantly transmitted to the television, radio, and newspaper media (and especially the Grand Island Independent)  Regularly the arrival of a Whooping Crane was front page news (in about 80 font) complete with pictures.  Soon it was not uncommon to have up to 1,000 people lined up along a rural highway watching in awe as one of the rarest birds on earth strutted around in a corn field in font of them. By the time I transferred from Grand Island in 1993, local residents were referring to Whooping Cranes as "my cranes" and the Platte River as "my river" and woe be to anyone who even considered bringing harm to either. 

The same effect, I'm now convinced, can happen for sharks and shark conservation. If people are provided with an opportunity to feel a sense of kinship with the creatures, a sense of "ownership" of sharks, then they are just as likely to be protective of them as Nebraskans are of Whooping Cranes.  And if it takes artificial feeding of sharks to elicit that sense of ownership and protection for sharks then so be it.  

I'm all for it, and the owner of the local dive shop in Sarasota is completely wrong.


  1. Great article. I still prefer to take my chances on land, tho'...

  2. Jaws was a movie in 1974. Youngsters nowadays are not afraid of a 50 year old plastic movie prop. The only folks that sell the 'Jaws' myth are the creeps that make a buck on sharks.

    'com·mod·i·fy To treat something (that cannot be owned or that everyone has a right to) like a product that can be bought and sold.'

    'Conservation' Published on January 9, 2017