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November 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 36, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Saying “No” to South Africa’s Cage Diving

from the November, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

On Christmas Eve of 2002, the peace that normally permeates a South African surfers’ village ruptured when Craig Bovim, an engineer, was savaged by a 4m great white shark while free-diving for crayfish off Scarborough Beach. It took two years of reconstructive surgery and occupational therapy to rehabilitate Bovim’s arms and hands.

“I’ve never entertained the thought that the attack was linked to cage-diving. The shark had been severely injured, and the attack was simply opportunistic.” The incident did, however, get him thinking about the way humans interact with sharks, and led him to found the lobby group Shark Concern in 2004, which calls for a moratorium on chumming to lure sharks towards tourists in submerged cages. While South Africa’s cage-diving fraternity insists their methods are 100% safe, Bovim says “If you’re going to keep rewarding animals in the Pavlovian sense, they’re going to associate you with food, which is why you never taunt, bait or feed a wild animal. It’s one of the basic tenets of ecotourism, and yet cage diving flouts this all the time,” he says.

Cage-diving operators say sharks do not recognize humans when they are shielded by a boat or cage; that they don’t feed sharks; and that the sharks don’t incorporate people into their diet. Bovim counters: “Once a shark has picked up the chum scent, the operator will use some bait to wrangle it closer to the cage ... then pull it away just before the shark bites. Every now and then the shark will get it. So sharks are rewarded with food. Great whites also have well-developed faculties, which means they don’t have to see you to know you are there — even when you are in a cage.” The only way to proceed, he says, is to follow the precautionary principle — if in any doubt that your actions are going to harm the environment, you stop what you are doing.”

Without a viable shark eco-tourism industry, however, South Africa’s 36 species of sharks could lose their commercial value and potentially bear the brunt of declining incentives to protect them. “But there is another way, which is already exploited by some cage-diving operators — watching dawn and dusk shark predations on Cape fur seals at Seal Island in False Bay. It’s an ideal location for this type of tourism because the seals are particularly vulnerable when they enter the water. The sharks will often come shooting from the depths of the sea like a rocket. It’s a breathtaking thing to watch.”

Bovim proposes to phase out cage-diving and broaden it into predation tourism, noting that whale watching draws tourists from all over the world, who are only too delighted to view the leviathans of the seas from a distance.

From an October 3, 2010 story by Tiara Walters Johannesburg Times

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