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July 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 28, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
What's this?

Shark Baiting and Feeding

what’s so wrong with it, John Bantin asks

from the July, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Recently, on a liveaboard in the Maldives, I happened to show some close-up shark pictures that were on my computer from my previous trip. "We don't believe in shark feeding," the dive guides commented rather snootily. We then spent 30 dives seeing plenty of sharks but only at the periphery of our vision and certainly none close enough to photograph.

Our last dive was a night dive. The dive guides dropped in a punctured can of fish cleanings, and two dozen nurse sharks and numerous assorted big rays competed for what smelled like a free meal. It was frenetic and the best dive of the trip, but what was it if it was not shark feeding?

It seems that many modern-day divers have very mixed feelings about methods to get close-up and personal with sharks. They want to say they have dived with sharks but many don't want them close enough to see properly or for them to feel it's they that have been seen by the sharks. Dive guides in the Red Sea will protest that they get plenty of close-up interaction with sharks without baiting. But these are oceanic white-tip sharks that are ocean wanderers and opportunistic feeders. They will make a close pass at anything including a diver to see if it's a potential meal. Interactions are exciting but brief in the extreme.

These sharks are regularly fed because they follow the busy shipping movements on the Red Sea, a main route between Asia and Europe. All the trash is thrown overboard from these vessels. They've been doing this for more than 100 years. The bigger dive liveaboards now in evidence make the same noises and ring the dinner bell for these animals. On the other hand, the big populations of grey reef sharks and other reef species have generally long since gone from Egyptian waters. Most sharks are cautious. That's how they get to grow old in a shark-eat-shark world, and size matters. Divers are usually bigger in comparison to most sharks, and sharks usually prefer to stay away from them rather than risk injury from what might be another large predator.

I was once on a long liveaboard trip in the Sudan. The divers seemed obsessed with the chance of seeing a shark. We did a dive at Sha'ab Rumi, a reef that used to be famous for its shark healthy population -- famous that is before the Yemeni fisherman found out about it. There were no sharks in evidence, and everyone returned to our liveaboard disappointed. I decided to do something about that, so on the following dive, I covertly took down a bit of dead fish in a screw-top jar. Releasing the smell into the current attracted half a dozen grey reef sharks up from the depths. Everyone was overjoyed and returned to our vessel full of the experience of having these animals circling round us. On the third dive, they noticed what I did. The sharks came round but many of the passengers complained to the captain afterwards that I was feeding the sharks. My response was, "Did you want to see sharks or not? The sharks weren't going to come up from the depths and get close to divers just because they were curious."

As one of the young shark feeders from Stuart Cove's famous shark diving operation in the Bahamas laughingly put it, "How else do you get sharks in unless they are being fed? They are not like dolphins; you cannot simply do yoga on the back of the boat and expect them to come!"

Of course, there are many different ways to do it. Bearing in mind that sharks tend to be big animals with mouths full of sharp teeth, my opinion of the different methods I have seen around the world is quite variable, from the orderly method of using one piece of bait at a time at the end of a short spear, as developed by Stuart Cove, to the rather risky methods I witnessed in French Polynesia. There, the dive guide carried a severed mahi-mahi head under his BC and would cut bits off with a knife, offering it in his bare hand to passing hungry sharks. I questioned if this was not just a bit too risky. I think he finally agreed after he had his hand sewn back together later.

It's not my job to tell people how to do it, and different folks play different strokes, but I take great exception to the British dive tour operator who is, on the one hand, vociferously against any kind of shark feeding, but on the other, sells trips to dive with the bull sharks at Jardines de la Reina in Cuba. How does he think they attract the sharks?

In the Bahamas, shark diving has become an important industry all on its own. The money it generates for the economy (provided you go with a Bahamas-based operation) has ensured that the healthy shark population there has endured. Thousands of people have been given the opportunity to see these magnificent animals close up, and have gone away with a different view of sharks to that propagated by the media, and that's got to be a good thing. In the Bahamas, a live shark is worth a lot more than a dead one with its fins cut off.

"Many passengers complained to the captain
that I was feeding the sharks. My response
was, 'Did you want to see sharks or not?' "

I recently spoke about the latest generation of shark-feeders with David Graham Cove, Stuart Cove's cousin, who used to feed sharks for the benefit of my camera when he was a young man. He went in protected only by chainmail gloves and arms, offering the bait at the end of a short spear. Today, the feeders at Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas do the same, but wear full chainmail suits and helmets.

I asked him what he thought about those people who were so against shark feeding. He said, "I'm sick of people living in cubicles looking at YouTube and chiming in with rubbish on things they know nothing about. It's crazy how people generate opinions not based on observation and sensible thought, but more on a 30-second spot on the Internet." I asked him if he thought that every operation was doing it in a safe way, and he replied, "I have found myself questioning it from time to time. Stuart has it down to a science, yet I find many other dive operators don't take same care or precautions to keep it safe in the long term. There are examples of lack of organization and dedication to safety and longevity of a dive area. The Tiger Beach dive site [near Grand Bahama] needs to be refined and controlled so that not just anyone can be allowed to rock up without proper safety preparation, but at the moment they are!"

What about the people doing it, the feeders themselves? Are they doing it for the thrill or the glamour? Most of them sustain a bite at some time and I've noticed they soon lose their enthusiasm for it afterwards. Graham said, "Now that the shark feeders have full suits and helmets, everyone wants to do it. Even so, when I was back at Stuart's recently, it was clear some people did not have a gift for it, though."

We hear all sorts of arguments about how sharks lose their ability to hunt naturally if they are fed. I would suggest that the amount of food offered at a typical shark feed is tiny in proportion to the number of sharks present, so it represents nothing more than a free snack. According to shark behaviorist Erich Ritter, a bull shark needs to eat four percent of its own body weight in fish each day. That means some of these animals are eating up to 30 pounds. So with 30 sharks at a feed, the feeder would need to take in 750 pounds of fish cuts to substitute for their normal feeding behaviour, when around 20 pounds is a generous estimation of what they actually use at Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas' feeds. Sharks have a hierarchy and defer to larger sharks. None want to get injured by another shark, so when dead bait is offered, there is little sense of competition among the animals.

Many years ago, I wrote an article that compared the different shark feeding operations in the Bahamas. In some cases, safety was less than assured. Spearing live fish on site sent the sharks into a frenzy, whereas dead bait left them circling round in a relaxed manner. I've noted that many of the suspect operations have changed their methods now or are no longer in business.

Sharks are not the undiscerning predators depicted by the media. Stuart Cove will tell you that he uses different types of bait for attracting different species of shark. For instance, Caribbean reef sharks love grouper heads, while great hammerheads look for stingrays in the sand. In the absence of any stingray cleanings being available, they'll use barracuda parts. For an expedition to photograph oceanic white-tips, I saw Stuart buy 500 pounds of bonito, and so on.

We also hear that shark feeding encourages sharks to associate humans with food, yet there are no facts to back this up. There are far more shark attacks off the coast of Florida, where shark-feeding has been banned for years, than almost anywhere else in the world. Fiji-based David Diley, who gave up his career to specialize in shark-awareness films, says, "Between 2001 and 2012, Florida recorded 257 attacks, Hawaii 57 and Brazil 24. Feeding is banned in each location, or at least there are no recognized feeds. In the same period, Fiji recorded 11 attacks, and the Bahamas, where feeding is a major industry, had nine."

Even so, it's an emotive subject. A recent exchange between underwater photographers on Facebook revealed a lot of passionate opinion after a well-known photographer received a minor injury from a grouper during a shark-feeding dive. However, it soon became apparent that those vehemently against it had never witnessed such a dive.

David Diley says, "The feeding discussion has been done to death, but rarely in a public medium by people qualified to discuss it with any real credibility. By that I mean behaviorists, researchers studying the effects on location-specific individual sharks, dive operators and science-based local conservation groups in areas where feeding provides economic and or ecological benefit. Feeding sharks has been happening since the first time man went to sea, and when done with correct protocols, it's perfectly acceptable and causes no harm whatsoever.

"That said, not all shark feeds are run responsibly, and not all shark feeds use proper protocols designed to ensure their well-being. Also, shark feed protocols are specie- and location-specific; some dives are riskier than others. The arguments for and against feeding seemingly center around people speaking on behalf of sharks. Unfortunately, most of those people don't understand how sharks work, their behavior or the influence of the locations, and so the arguments rely on hearsay, rumor, misunderstanding and misinformation on both sides."

Thailand-based underwater photographer Pete Atkinson says, "Sharks desperately need economic value with their fins still on, and shark feeds are one way to do this. Because it gives the sharks value, and that value can be turned into dollars, for example, for Fijian villages. Without shark-feeding dives, they have far more value as fins. As a secondary benefit, feeds create thousands of ambassadors for sharks. And these ambassadors have helped push through protection for endangered species that might otherwise have failed."

Mike Neuman, owner of Beqa Adventure Divers in Fiji, says he is against the "shark huggers," those people who say that sharks are harmless and need our affection. I think we can all agree with him that sharks generally have a mouth full of sharp teeth, and if you want to get close to them, you should be aware of that.

A final word from Charlotte Faulkner, a young shark feeder presently working for Stuart Cove. "Seeing shark dives daily, and a variety of species firsthand, I know the massive difference they make to educate people about shark behaviour and conservation issues. They are not completely safe, but I am proud to say no spectator has ever been injured here. All participants sign a statement of risk. Feeders get bitten and expect to be so, but they are people who are most passionate about sharks and won't even register the injury as a shark bite. The importance of re-educating the brainwashed public about the nature of sharks is of such importance for the future. There have been many studies that feeding does not significantly affect the spatial pattern or sexual segregation of some shark species. The more we can narrow the gap between human and sharks, the more chance we have to stop sharks being wiped out in our lifetime."

John Bantin, a longtime contributor to Undercurrent, is the technical editor of DIVER magazine in the United Kingdom. For 30 years, he has reviewed virtually every piece of equipment available in the U.K. and the U.S., and makes around 300 dives per year for that purpose. He is also a professional underwater photographer.

Note from Ben: Readers, what say you about shark baiting? Do you agree with John Bantin, or do you believe shark feeds are a unnecessary shark-human interaction? Give me your opinion -- send your comments to me at EditorBenD@undercurrent.org

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