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Should I go shark cage diving?

Posted: Apr 4, 2013

The viewing of wild animals by tourists is an important revenue stream for many destinations, enabling local people to benefit from wildlife purely by its existence as a viewing spectacle. Wildlife tourism may also be of educational benefit as visitors are viewing animals in their natural habitats rather than contrived environments such as zoos. However in order to maximise the chances of viewing wildlife tour operators sometimes offer supplementary food at viewing sites. The concern is that this will result in wild animals losing their caution towards humans, become dependent on artificial food sources and develop a conditioned response by associating humans with food.  

In South Africa both surfers and spear fishermen have raised concerns that the conditioning of sharks to associate divers / boats with food could put them at risk of attack and many have called for an end to churning (using fish and blood) to attract sharks.

Shark cage diving is increasingly popular and a well-established industry in South Africa, where operators offer tourists the opportunities to see Great White sharks up close.  These sharks have been protected in South Africa since 1991 and the industry is well regulated and extremely safe.  There is also little evidence that cage diving increases the risk to humans, although as the industry grows it is important that both tour operators and tourists act responsibly to minimise both actual and perceived risk.

Researchers in South Africa (South Africa’s White Shark cage-diving industry - is their cause for concern?) looked at some of the issues raised and concluded that:

  • Conditioning can only arise if white sharks gain significant and predictable food rewards. Thus, conditioning will only arise if operators intentionally and wilfully contravene current permit regulations prohibiting intentional feeding of sharks
  • It is highly improbable that the 'conditioning of sharks' to a cage diving vessel would increase danger to human water users such as swimmers, surfers, scuba divers and kayakers.
  • Conditioning controversy remains relevant due to some operators contravening permit conditions and intentionally feeding sharks.

Most tourists will usually only have one opportunity to cage dive with sharks, so will obviously want see sharks when they book a trip. Tour operators are therefore under a lot of pressure to ensure that every trip results in a shark viewing and the more ‘spectacular’ the better, especially as television and the marketing of the tours raise expectations.  Although there are strict rules on the feeding of sharks they are of course difficult to enforce. Pressure therefore exists for operators to disregard certain operational regulations (particular feeding and wrestling sharks) to produce a 'good show'.

These issues are similar to other areas of tourism where self-regulation by the tour operators and demanding clients often undermine the regulations. Whilst some of the issues could be resolved through greater control of the industry by government and tightening of the current code of conduct tourists also have a responsibility. If taking a trip, tourists should understand that they are viewing wildlife in is natural habitat, which is unpredictable and fickle. Not every trip can or should be the same and people should understand that the trips may not also live up to the marketing or hype.

Responsible tour operators should also ensure that tourist are aware of the regulations and display compliance sheets on their boats and their marketing material. There should also be easy and effective mechanisms for tourists to lodge complaints if the operators breach the code of conduct.

Cage diving is a non-consumptive utilisation of white sharks, which despite protection are vulnerable to consumptive exploitation from humans. The dives also provide employment to local people and a great deal of enjoyment to tourists. However to ensure that the industry is sustainable and brings real benefits to all local people it is important that tour operators work within the codes of conduct and that tourists  do not put pressure on tour operators to breach the regulations in order to get a better show.

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