Monday, September 22, 2008

Diving in with the Whites... and into controversy

As the second piece of my white shark series on the Underwater Channel, I headed out to Gansbaai, South Africa, where I was joined by shark whisperer and famous white shark underwater filmmaker (and my dear friend), Morne Hardenburg. The goal of this piece? To examine the controversy surrounding the cage diving industry.

Another important aspect to the great white shark’s conservation in False Bay is the white shark diving industry. Every year, the industry proves live sharks are worth more than dead, by bringing in more than ZAR 289m (South African Rand) in revenue and tens of thousands of tourists.

The white shark diving industry is not without its problems though. Sharks can become injured by handlers who encourage them to show the viciousness that the tourists are after – and it results in sharks biting motors, cages, hitting the boats etc.

There is also much controversy surrounding baiting sharks. Many people assume that baiting sharks leads to an increase in shark attacks, as sharks become more comfortable with human beings and also, associate them with food. Others contest that altering a sharks' natural behavior is causing both the sharks and us issues.

So, I examined these issues – and also got to get into the water with sharks (which is always a good thing!) Morne and I went cage diving to give everyone another perspective on these animals - and the cage diving industry. And you will see, with some additional regulations, which South Africa’s Marine Coastal Management is working on, cage diving can continue to prove to be very beneficial for sharks and for humans. We can witness a truly amazing animal in a new light, and many will continue to focus on their conservation.

It was a beautiful winter morning – at the height of shark season when I headed out to meet Morne and to dive with his family business, Shark Diving Unlimited. Morne is an incredible pro with the sharks and has also taken out Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Prince Harry, so I was in good hands. We jumped on their boat, the Barracuda, and jetted off to the famous Shark Alley, to see the whites in action – from beneath the surface – and learn more about how the whites can be protected.

I was eagerly anticipating some quality time in the water with my favorite shark. They are definitely the iconic image of the ocean. Though I have been diving with white sharks many times, I still cherish every experience as if it were the first.

As soon as we arrived, the chumming began. However, we weren’t actually trying to attract sharks that are not naturally attracted to this area. Permits in South Africa are only given to dive operators in locations that already have high concentration of sharks. In the case of Shark Alley, we had the Cape Fur seal colony on Dyer Island to thank for our healthy shark population. Interestingly, operators are always seeing new animals - as the sharks are highly migratory through this area. This is an important factor when debating whether or not sharks are conditioned.

In addition to chumming, we also started baiting. Morne repeatedly threw the tuna head into the water to attract the sharks and bring them in front of the cage. After ten years, he is a real pro. And you have to be to ensure the sharks come into the boat without receiving any positive reward.

There is a distinct difference between baiting and chumming. And an even bigger difference between baiting and feeding. Here, it is all about baiting and negative conditioning, as the sharks are never fed the tuna – and thus, are not positively rewarded. (NOTE: THE SHARKS ARE NOT FED!)

And this fact also significantly reduces the conditioned behavior of the shark, as was evident in a recent study conducted by Alison examining the effects of ecotourism on the white sharks behavior.

Additionally, the chumming models the same natural slicks that come from the seals on Dyer Island. And, the use of bait only serves a visual cue to the shark.

There are so many debates associated with white shark diving. In fact, many people assume because I am a shark conservationist, I oppose all cage diving. Yet, I believe if it is done respectfully and without positive reward, then there are more pros than cons.

There are some that do not believe in attracting sharks. However, these days, sadly, if you want to see a shark on a dive given their reduced population, typically, you need to chum. Or spend a lifetime in the water.

And with shark populations so steeply declining, anything that makes people want to protect sharks – without jeopardizing the shark’s safety, to me, is incredibly important.

(Julie & Morne hanging out on deck.)

I was so excited to get back into the water with the white sharks. I have been diving with them several times - inside and outside of cages – and every time it holds the same sense of magic for me. I always love to witness the magnificence of this animal in their own element.

Many people have proven you can get into the water with white sharks free of any cages. In fact, as a seasoned shark diver, I too have dove free of any cages with white sharks. Though for the Underwater Channel, I thought it was appropriate to show everyone the experience most have with great whites not because I believe there always needs to be bars between us and the white sharks. Additionally, laws in South Africa prohibit this (diving outside of cages) without permits – to ensure the sharks safety.

Finally it came time to see the sharks from below the surface, so I lowered myself into the cage with Morne and began quickly scanning the water. I couldn’t believe my eyes – there were at least three white sharks around the cage at any given time. I kept spinning about in the cage desperately trying to catch glimpses of each of them. It was such a beautiful sight.

I was surprised to see the sharks interacting so easily with one another. Sometimes these sharks can be quite territorial and frightened of each other. However, on this particular day, I saw them come so close to one another they almost touched.

White sharks are the top predator in these waters. They play an important role sitting a top the food chain, keeping our oceans healthy. Without white sharks in these waters, we are jeopardizing our most important ecosystem – an ecosystem that gives us much of the air we breathe and food we eat.

We saw eight different sharks – ranging from three to five meters. Morne can recognize these sharks by their dorsal fins – just as Alison does. While he does not see the same shark day after day, he does indeed see some of the same sharks year after year.

I, too, grew up in the Jaws generation, so I always enjoy seeing the sharks act in a completely contrary way to the manner we think they should. There were certainly no Jaws here. Instead, there were just eight magnificent and awe-inspiring sharks swimming calmly by the cage. They made frequent passes all around the cage – sometimes not even interested in the bait line.

Watching Morne in action made me realize how important it is to dive with a true shark lover – and expert. Many cage diving operators assume that what tourists want is the typical Jaws experience – chasing an adrenaline rush. Unfortunately, this only reinforces the negative stereotypes and also often leads to the sharks becoming injured in the process. This is why it is so important to choose a responsible dive operator. And Morne certainly fits the bill… someone who is heroically protecting the animal that he is so passionately sharing with the rest of the world.

At the end of the day, I think shark diving is an incredible conservation tool, and the concerns people voice surrounding changing sharks behaviors and increasing shark attacks are unfounded. Many people claim that by putting sharks in the water with human beings and food, you are turning sharks into voracious, man-eating monsters. That is hardly the case. I have been in the water – outside of cages with what are considered the world’s most deadly sharks – and I have never felt threatened.

In my own personal experiences diving with sharks, both with and without bait in the water, the sharks have gone out of their way to avoid contact with humans. Sharks clearly do not see people as prey, and even with bait in the water, I have never seen a shark exhibit aggressive behavior towards divers.

As a responsible shark diver, I do realize these are wild animals and that there is some risk involved to both you and the animals when stepping into their habitat and even changing that habitat with chum and bait. With proper safety protocols, diving experience, and guidance from reputable dive operations, the risk is small when compared to the reward of an up-close encounter with one of the great co-inhabitants of our earth.

And, I believe the reward far outweighs the risk. Diving with sharks enables people to develop a healthy respect and even compassion for a seriously misunderstood animal that is critical to the health of our oceans.

Sadly, South Africa represents one of only a few places remaining where people can still go to experience the magnificence of the large charismatic sharks, including whites, tigers, bulls, and hammerheads. A growing number of shark species are approaching extinction, with over 100 million sharks killed by humans each year. As we continue to deplete populations and chase sharks to the brink of extinction, it is more important than ever to get people into the water safely and responsibly to experience and gain an appreciation for their true character.

People tend to protect the things we understand, and sharks are largely out of sight, out of mind for us. Allowing people to get into the water with sharks and come face to face with these magnificent animals is one of the most powerful conservation tools we have to protect them.

The public’s irrational fear of sharks (entirely based upon myths and misconceptions), I think, explains our lack of desire to conserve them. I urge everyone to go diving with Morne and Shark Diving Unlimited in South Africa. I am certain once you dive with them and with a shark whisperer like Morne, it will shift your thinking – and you will want to save them too. But go quickly, because sadly, they are almost gone from this planet and soon, no one will be able to experience their magnificence.

(The gang at Shark Diving Unlimited. Morne, Jamie (Shark Saver!), Julie, Dickie and Michael. )

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