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April 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 32, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Pros and Cons of Shark-Feeding Dives

our readers respond

from the April, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Last month Undercurrent asked, "Should the attraction of sharks by either baiting or feeding, for the benefit of viewing divers in U.S. waters, be banned?"

Among the responses, the number was divided between 58 percent who said "yes, ban it" and 42 percent who said "no." But, it's not a simple issue, and if the U.S. ban were to go through, one would only have to travel no farther than the Bahamas to join a shark feed.

Our readers make many interesting points regarding shark feeding, so we'll discuss the issue, using their points to illustrate why it is successful and why many divers don't like it.

Is Shark Feeding the Only Way to Get Close to Sharks?

Sharks fascinate people, especially divers, and the video clips featuring sharks on the Undercurrent Facebook page are the most popular. One of a shark encounter at Tiger Beach in the Bahamas reached 17,000 people.

Sharks spend their time mating, feeding on carrion, or hunting live prey. They tend to be elusive, preferring to surf on strong currents. Nearly every time you see a dramatic picture of a shark, it's been lured in by bait, either a scent trail or actual dead fish.

Probably the only exception, other than seeing reef sharks, is the brief encounters one might have with oceanic white tip sharks. These roam the oceans, generally staying shallow, investigating anything that is potentially a meal. If they see a diver in the water, they move in for a close assessment. There is no bait as such. The diver is the bait! And, thankfully, the oceanics take a pass.

Dave Kinney (Vienna, VA) quite rightly says that without food in the water, most species of sharks won't come close to divers. For example, divers only get fleeting encounters with tiger sharks at Cocos Island, but at Tiger Beach, off Grand Bahama, where the tigers are fed by some operators, the encounters are face-to-face. (See the review in our March issue,)

Helen Mainar (Tampa, FL) agrees that feeding [or baiting] is one of the few ways to observe sharks close-up. She wishes "every human could get into the water to observe these majestic animals. Perhaps it would curtail our world-wide harvesting of these predators to the point of extinction."

"Get past the assumption that feeding sharks leads to attacks."

Linda Blanchard (Mission Viejo, CA) says the pictures she has made at scores of shark feed dives have helped nondivers understand that sharks are not the vicious animals people have been led to believe. "What we need to ban is shark fishing."

Greg Honore (Brea, CA) says he is not a fan of hand-feeding, but good education along with the fun of diving with sharks can only help shark survival.

Shark feeding is "an amazing experience when done correctly," says Clev Wallace (Penn Valley, CA) after three trips to Tiger Beach, where a scent trail on the current is usually effective enough. It's done differently by the French, in Polynesia, where they actually feed the sharks. Tom Lopatin (Lake Hopatcong, NJ) says some of the most exciting dives he's experienced (in the North Coral Sea and Rangiroa) were a result of shark feeding, while Jeff Tutin (Nottingham, UK) says he's enjoyed many close encounters in Cuba. No doubt, organized shark feeding attracts the diving tourists.

Jim Hart (New Orleans, LA), who has worked worldwide in oceanographic research for 25 years, makes an important point. "The opportunities we had to study shark behavior and biology were unique and very useful. The shark-feeding operations not only provided useful scientific information, but allowed thousands of divers to learn through personal experience the true nature and beauty of the species. Worldwide, there has been no evidence that these shark encounters have any negative impact on swimmers or the environment."

Is it Good for Local People?

As do many Undercurrent subscribers, Catriona Steele (Honiara, Solomon Islands) prefers to see sharks naturally, but understands and appreciates the economic value of the tourist dollar. Shark feed dives such as those in Beqa Lagoon, Fiji, do add to the local economy, because they attract a lot more paying divers than just reef diving alone.

Adam Hanlon, a British underwater photographer managing wetpixel.com, says, "Shark ecotourism can be a powerful force for good. For it to work, though, local residents have to see the tangible benefit to protecting rather than fishing for sharks." Unfortunately, the economic return of the international shark fin trade encourages locals to slaughter sharks for a quick buck.

Worth More Alive than Dead

Margo Peyton (Columbia, SC), who runs Kids Sea Camp, points out that giving living sharks a monetary value helps shield them from the shark-finning industry. Long time diving industry leader, Peter Hughes, suggests that "the close-up and personal experiences possible through shark dives go a long way to educating people and will hopefully slow down the complete decimation of the world's shark population."

A new scientific study commissioned by the nonprofit organization Oceana has found that live sharks in Florida's waters are worth about 200 times more than dead ones. Undercurrent is unclear if that is due, in part, to those currently illegal shark dives. The study is the first of its kind in the U.S. to try to calculate what conservationists have long argued about many imperiled fish: they're worth far less on a plate than they are in the water.

Shark dives are big business in an industry where some struggle to make a living. The Miami Herald reports that wildlife consultant Tony Fedler contacted 365 dive operators across the state and got responses from 237. He found that nearly one-third of the divers look for trips where they'll likely spot sharks; one in five specifically look for encounters with sharks. So shark dives are here to stay, if not in U.S. waters.

That's because of guys like John L, Russell (Orlando, FL), who originated the campaign to ban shark feeding in U.S. waters. He says, "Commodifying [sic] and entrainment [sic] of wildlife is animal abuse -- not conservation."

Is Shark Feeding Dangerous for People in the Water?

Many divers who oppose shark-feeding are concerned about safety. Rob Black (Miami, FL) suggests, "It is foolishly dangerous to attract large sharks to divers. Sooner or later, some tourist is going to get bitten."

"If sharks get used to being fed by divers, they will lose their fear and become dangerous to other divers," Joe (no last name) of Jupiter, FL, believes. It's Jupiter where Randy Jordan and Emerald Charters operate, and many from Jupiter responded to our survey. Miriam Ruffolo says, "Shark behavior has changed. They are coming closer to people with GoPros on sticks," and Lester Maloon, with over 600 dives off Jupiter, says shark behavior had "changed due to feeding. A very bad idea." Karni Kissil said, "Food increases chances for unpleasant interactions."

Balance these against Terri Roberts, who dives three to five days a week off Jupiter (FL), and says, "Sharks desperately need to have divers to understand why their conservation is of utmost [importance]."

Sandra Carlson-Wood (Port Saint Lucie, FL) is sure that sharks have become more aggressive because they check out divers to see if they have food. But, are they being aggressive just because they come close, or just less fearful of humans and more curious or assertive? Jay Tarr (Spring Hill, FL) suggests, "Once sharks associate humans and food, the outcome isn't good."

Yet few people get injured by sharks while scuba diving. Richard L. (Hopkinsville, KY) says, "Get past the assumption that feeding sharks leads to [shark] attacks and look for real evidence it's an issue." He believes you'll find it lacking. From what we know, the numbers don't stack up, as Richard says.

Frederica Gamble (New York, NY) said she had joined several shark feeds in the Pacific and saw nothing that would concern her since "the feeds were organized in a safe and professional manner."

It is true, however, that an operation that spears fish for the benefit of sharks during a dive is asking for trouble. Ray Brown (Citrus Heights, CA) said, "I have been to shark feeds in the Western Pacific where I was surprised that a spectator has not been killed." Is that because the French (in French Polynesia) are cavalier about the way they do it?

But, keep in mind, as Ellen Smith (Minneapolis, MN) says, that if you think shark feeding may be dangerous, you can chose not to participate. Russell Worman (Lynnwood, WA) says, "Diving with sharks should be a choice. There's no evidence that feeding sharks to attract them to dive sites increases the risk. If that were the case, why aren't there more shark attacks by the species being fed off Jupiter (FL)?"

Furthermore, there's no evidence that other swimmers or snorkelers are more likely to get bitten by a shark in the Bahamas, where there are a lot more shark feeding dives than anywhere else.

Does Shark Feed Make the Sharks More Vulnerable?

It's not always the wellbeing of people that's a worry for some people. A shark bite can bring retribution in the form of a cull to a shark population, as seen in Western Australia and other places in recent years.

"It's putting sharks in danger, because if they bite or kill a human as a result of feeding, they will be punished [killed], as happened in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt," says Jan T. (Bristol, UK).

Barbara Becker (Melville, NY) speculates that feeding will cause sharks to come closer inshore, making them more vulnerable. "Many sharks are already endangered. We don't need to add fuel to the fire!"

Drawing struggling fish ashore by angling rings the dinner bell for sharks, risking accidental bites for those sharing the water with fishermen. Ken Scarborough (Vero Beach, FL) opines, "Fishing from shore should be banned. That is what brings sharks to the shoreline."

J. Offner (Clearwater Beach, FL) makes the different yet equally valid point that if it changes the behavior of sharks, it might make them more vulnerable to unscrupulous fishing charters that know where shark dive boats go. In fact, in the 1980s, Bahamas fishermen wiped out a couple of dozen sharks that the dive operation at Stella Maris fed for their divers.

However, at times, some sharks are rescued by divers. Stuart Kandow (Riviera Beach, FL) comments, "Randy Jordan removes hooks from injured sharks and helps stops the 'Jaws' myth." Jim Abernethy and Cristina Zenato do the same in the Bahamas. Take a look at this recent news: http://tinyurl.com/ln5lerx and this news, also recent, from Cat Island, Bahamas: http://tinyurl.com/lqqf3xk

Is it the Same as Feeding any Other Wild Animals?

Diving with sharks is an emotive subject. We've been conditioned by a generation of sensational media stories to view them as unselective predators -- all man-eaters (woman, too). Consequently, some say "You wouldn't attempt to walk among lions, would you?" Henry Ziller (Conifer, CO) asks, "Why should underwater be any different to being on land?" John Maiers (Solomons, MD) says you should not feed any wild animal, a popular view among many wildlife aficionados, while Emily (FL) says any manipulation of a species is disrespectful.

Rule #1 when attending a shark feed dive is to let someone else do the feeding!

Lions are terrestrial animals, and so are we. They know exactly what to do when they see a baboon -- and, of course, we remind them of baboons, as we have for millions of years. And while sharks have been around for 400 million years, we have only been diving with them for less than 60 years. The truth is that sharks don't know what to make of us, so they tend to ignore us. That's good. After all, they are wild animals and have rows of exceedingly sharp teeth.

How Often Do People Get Bitten?

People rarely get bitten by sharks, but when they do, it's inevitably because they were close to something the shark was trying to eat. That said, a severe bite while underwater can be disastrous, regardless of the shark's intent. David Cutler (Idaho Falls, ID) only witnessed a shark feed once, but said, "It was pure pandemonium. People have no idea how fast these creatures can move." Yet George Constantino (Anchorage, AK) thought it "Well worth the risk." It's all a matter of perspective.

Sharks live a long time and try not to get damaged in the process of feeding. Their eyes are their vulnerability, so they have evolved a nictitating eyelid that covers their eyes when they go in for that bite. So, effectively, they feed with their eyes shut.

If you are holding a bit of dead fish (something they have evolved to clean up, otherwise the sea would be rotten with dead animals), there's a chance you might be bitten in error as the shark grabs and swallows it. So rule #1 when attending a shark feed dive is to let someone else do the feeding!

What They Are Eating Makes a Difference.

There's a big difference between sharks feeding on carrion and hunting live prey. In the first case, there is no urgency, and the animals take care not to compete with each other, thereby risking damage to themselves. Smaller sharks defer to larger, more dominant animals, in what is almost a leisurely process. Compare that to when they hunt live prey. It's not a time to be in the water with competing sharks.

Edward Leibowitz (Jersey City, NJ) told us, "Sharks become too aggressive when feeding from bait balls, [whereas] I have been on shark feeds in the Bahamas and did not have any encounters with aggressive sharks."

British diver Tony White (Swindon, UK) would agree. He was severely bitten in 2002 by getting too close to a bait ball with feeding sharks during the Sardine Run in South Africa.

Bob Morris (Wayne, PA), who has attended staged shark-feed dives in the Bahamas, Fiji, and off of Jupiter, FL, believes that when sharks are fed [carrion], they have no interest in the divers. "That said, when you dive with sharks, you accept that there is [always] the potential of getting bitten." He advises, "Watch the shark's behavior and always keep aware of what is behind as well as in front."

Several readers believe that baiting makes the critters more aggressive; however, that may very well betray an innate personal fear of sharks. How does one know the shark is aggressive if it doesn't actually attack? They may be curious and assertive, but that is not aggression.

Liz Parkinson, representing Stuart Cove's Dive the Bahamas, probably the busiest shark diving operation on the planet, tells Undercurrent, "Over the past 30 years, about 1.475 million people have dived with sharks. Two guests have been bitten, both on the hand, because they did not listen to the briefing and reached out to touch the sharks. They were both fine."

Do Sharks Go Crazy When They Sense Blood In The Water?

When a young Michelle Cove, feeding without the protection of a chainmail suit nor helmet, unwisely thrust her head into a mob of sharks voraciously grabbing what they could from a spilled bait box, she was effectively scalped. When she climbed back on board, her dive boat captain nearly fainted, there was so much gore. However, there had been no feeding frenzy. Michelle had disappeared in a cloud of her own blood. Those 400 million years of evolution had not told the sharks this strange-tasting liquid indicated a good meal.

Still, getting badly bitten underwater can lead to a fatal blood loss. Mike Neumann, owner of Beqa Adventure Divers, a well-known shark diving operation in Fiji, says, "Sharks have a mouth full of very sharp teeth, and if you want to get close to them, you should be aware of that."

I once saw a diver with poor buoyancy control involuntarily make a sudden hand movement and inadvertently thrust his hand into a passing shark's mouth, resulting in a bloody mess. The shark continued on, oblivious.

What's the conclusion?

I certainly don't approve of amateur divers attempting to hand-feed sharks, and would prefer the scent-trail method to tempt the sharks, for species with which that works, rather than giving the sharks food. And, I clearly know that many people just don't like the notion of shark feeding on philosophical grounds and would share the view of Helen Sykes (Fiji): "It is an ethical and ecological disaster."

If you don't approve of shark-feed dives for any reason, simply vote with your feet and boycott those operations that do it.

-- John Bantin, Sr. Editor

Author, Shark Bytes

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