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February 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 31, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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From Shark Baiters to Shark Riders?

the misguided effort to tame wild animals

from the February, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

It all started many years ago with shark feeding at Stella Maris in the Bahamas. They wanted to stimulate some sharks into a feeding frenzy for the purpose of wildlife filming, and the German-run dive center there stumbled on what was to become a regular and spectacular diving experience. It became a way of getting close-up to these predators that was hitherto thought to be impossible.

Other dive centers in the Bahamas soon caught on, and before long, such shark dives were springing up all over the tropical world. Ben Rose at UNEXSO used a chain-mail suit and found that, so protected, he could actually pet the sharks. Herwarth Voigtmann in the Maldives first went that bit further by feeding them with the bait held in his mouth. His daughter was even photographed doing it in the nude! (An accident later resulted in shark feeding being banned in that country.)

Inevitably, people seek to be more adventurous as they get more confident. Today, we are regularly regaled with YouTube footage of snorkelers riding tiger sharks, pretty young women wearing little or nothing at all while breath-hold diving with sharks, and shark-feeders performing a variety of stunts for the benefit of the ubiquitous underwater cameras.

Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch, photographer and author of a best-selling shark diving book during the ’80s but now retired from diving, is scathing of such recent developments. “An often ugly stage of shark diving is upon us. The advances in underwater photographic equipment mean that getting fantastic photographs in reasonable conditions is almost guaranteed. While there are plenty of responsible dive operators offering superb shark dives to genuinely interested divers, a considerable number of attention-seeking types have emerged who, seeking to use sharks to make themselves famous, indulge in ever more vulgar and irresponsible stunts for the sake of the camera -- stunts that soon appear all over the Internet, and beyond. The perpetrators inevitably claim that their antics are for the benefit of the animals. Elbowing each other out of the way for the limited limelight, these divers must come up with ever more idiotic stunts; one aging ex-model even recently posed naked among circling sharks as her own contribution to shark conservation.”

George Burgess, the curator of the Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History, has said, “It appears that the pendulum has completely swung. A newly restructured shark image has emerged in the shark-feeding dive communities, and sharks have been transformed from blood-thirsty man-eaters to playful puppies. As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes.”

Cristina Zenato, a “shark consultant and trainer” in Freeport, Bahamas, has carried on with the sharkpetting tradition started by Ben Rose, and developed her shark dives into what may only be described as a spectacular shark ballet, handling and balancing compliant Caribbean reef sharks on their snouts and even kissing them. She apparently loves her sharks.

I asked Mike Neumann, owner of Fiji’s Beqa Adventure Divers, a place that promises the most spectacular shark dive in the world, to look at footage of Zenato at work and tell me what he made of this new style of interaction between people with sharks. His reply: “The romantic might call it love, but a cynic might say the shark is assuming a position to have ectoparasites removed, and simply following what it takes to be the cleaning creature when it retreats. Clearly, the sharks have been conditioned and habituated to humans insofar as they appear to have lost their natural fear of them. This is a known side-effect of provisioned shark dives in that, when they are conducted responsibly, they lead to less defensive aggression, the flip side being those infamous beggar sharks, hence the need for good protocols. Those sharks may well want to be cleaned.”

Neumann refused to be drawn into commenting on Zenato’s vertical tonic immobility stunt. “Jim Abernethy [of Florida-based Scuba Adventures] has equally amazing footage of lemon sharks snuggling up to divers at the Tiger Beach cleaning station and equally only being rewarded with a friendly rub. Both Jimmy and Cristina have removed vast numbers of fishing hooks from the sharks, so the sharks may indeed regard them as some sort of cleaner organism of consequence. It may be something else, especially in the case of Cristina, who induces a trance-like state by stimulating the shark’s snout. The sharks may simply come in for the resulting pleasurable sensation.

“Shark dives need to be regarded as wildlife encounters, and conditioning needs to be kept to a minimum, limited to attracting otherwise shy species. All else is simply unwarranted and often disrespectful showmanship that benefits only the human, with only more risks for the animal. Cristina and Jimmy get a pass not so much for what they do but for who they are; the other shark molesters not so much. Once you’ve logged thousands of shark dives, devoted your life to shark conservation, but above all, removed hundreds of hooks, you, too, will be entitled to some rather superfluous and clearly not reciprocated shark love -- petting, scratching, hugging and kissing included!”

Not to be outdone by Zenato, Eli Martinez from San Juan, TX, has been seen habitually vertically spinning Emma, a well-known large tiger shark at Tiger Beach in the Bahamas, with her snout on the palm of his hand, and he does this apparently without the protection of a chainmail suit. Where will it all stop?

Neither should we forget diving icon Valerie Taylor, the greatest shark handler of them all. Taylor may be Australian, but recent attempts to set up similar shark-patting dives by fellow Australian and shark educator Tony Isaacson on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast have met with a lot of resistance. Local dive operator Philip Hart says, “There seems to have been a success with ‘shark whispering’ in some other parts of the world, but we are a long way from conditioning our local predators to come up for a cuddle. Encouraging them to come in close to our major swimming beaches sounds more like an accident waiting to happen than a fun experience.”

While it’s patently true that it is natural for sharks to stay clear of the air-bubbling intruders that have only recently, in evolutionary terms, entered their world (it is only the lure of free food that will bring them close enough for good photography), one could argue that these more extreme human interactions are reminiscent of no-longer-politically-correct lion-tamers at a circus. If such behavior would be frowned upon with wild animals on land, why should we be so enchanted by it underwater?

John Bantin is the former technical editor of DIVER magazine in the United Kingdom. For 20 years, he used and reviewed virtually every piece of dive equipment available in the U.K. and the U.S., and made around 300 dives per year for that purpose. He is also a professional underwater photographer, and most recently the author of Shark Bytes, available at www.undercurrent.org

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