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February 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Shark-Riding Trend - - or Dumb Divers Looking Dumber

from the February, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Apparently, there's a new trend in social media: videos of people having hands-on encounters with sharks. Within this trend, there's an increase in the number of videos showing people engaging in the practice of "shark riding," grabbing a shark by its dorsal fin and having it pull them through the water. Shark Riding has become so prevalent that the blog Shark Attack News recently added the tag "riding a shark" to its article keywords list.

So how did this trend start? According to Dawn Williams, founder of Shark Attack News, the early shark-riding videos were primarily released by conservationists who were trying to drive home the message that sharks are not mindless killers that continually roam the oceans seeking out humans for their next meal. One example is Ocean Ramsey, model, dive instructor and so-called "shark whisperer" whose video of her riding a 15-foot great white shark got a lot of viral attention ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=DEpTAlm6sw8 ).

"Whether you agree with their tactics, the sight of these petite women holding onto the dorsal fins of large apex predators, often two to three times their size, is absolutely extraordinary and thought-provoking," Williams wrote in an essay for the New Zealand news website Stuff. "These interactions are calculated. These conservationists have many years of experience dealing with sharks, and they have a level of comfort around sharks that most people do not. They did not engage in this activity without preparation, and they acknowledge that there are risks involved.

Perhaps. But some of these folks are the same conservationists who try to tell us not to touch animals in the wild. And now, ordinary folks are jumping onto sharks' backs. While in Bora Bora last fall, Grant Murdock filmed people swimming at the surface while several lemon sharks swim below. Then one man swims down and grabs a shark's dorsal fin. After riding it for several seconds, he then swings below the shark, gives it a bear hug and hangs on belly to belly. His head is precariously located just below the shark's mouth and he hangs on for several seconds before finally letting it go. On its part, the shark barely reacted to the swimmer hitching a ride, and keeps moving slowly through the water until its passenger let go.

When he posted his video on Facebook and YouTube, Murdock wrote that the sharks "were gentle and accepting of our advances. They didn't seem to mind at all that we were riding for free. It was as close to an out-of-body experience as I have ever felt." Most people did not agree, and some left one-word comments like "idiot," "deplorable," "crazy" and "dumb." Murdoch's video is no longer on YouTube.

We know divers like you know better. But for people like Murdock, shark riding is just fun and games -- until a shark bites back. Then it's bad news for everyone. "Since many of these interactions are videotaped, I'm guessing we'll have a new gruesome video making the rounds, and sharks will once again be vilified," Williams writes. "Either way, it's a dangerous game that will most certainly end badly for some unfortunate soul down the road."

New Age shark whisperers and their copycats remind me of an incident we wrote about in 2002, when Erich Ritter, who said he is a professor at Hofstra University and received his doctorate in behavioral ecology at the University of Zurich, told the press that he can keep sharks away by modifying his heart rate. He told the Florida newspaper Sun Sentinel that he had never so much as been even nipped by a shark, attributing that largely to his ability to understand sharks' body language. Not long after that, Ritter was in waist-deep water with four students at Walker's Cay in the Bahamas when a big lemon shark bit off a large portion of his left calf. "That was an accident waiting to happen," said University of Miami professor Samuel Gruber. "Erich takes certain chances based on what he thinks he knows about shark behavior, but there is no evidence to support his theories. He's more like a philosopher than a scientist."

To those who persist with their romantic notions about shark behavior, preferring to cotton to philosophers rather than scientists, we offer the words of Keats: "In the dull catalogue of common things, Philosophy will clip an angel's wings."

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