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Sharktastic

Why diving with sharks is fantastic and why we should do more to protect them

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Shark in the open

Shark in the open

As we swam closer to the cave, one of the seven or eight Ragged Tooth Sharks in there decided the attention was too much. It came straight at us, peered off to the left and disappeared. Probably looking for another cave where curious divers wouldn’t disturb its rest. The rest of the sharks continued chilling, with a few of the bigger, braver ones closest to the cave opening. About two metres from us. Those were not the first sharks of the dive. Earlier, another cave had revealed two enormous sharks, reaching 3 metres in length. In between the caves, I and our lead divemaster had basically bumped into one about the same size turning a corner of coral rock.

Let me get this out of the way early. Sharks are not vicious monsters whose favourite hobby is to slay humans. Regardless of what pop culture has taught us, through masterpieces like Jaws and abominations like the Sharknado franchise, sharks aren’t protagonists. If anything, we are (I’ll get back to that). Rather, sharks are marvellous, intelligent and timid animals. Yes, timid. Most sharks, when they encounter boats, divers or the like, prefer to swim in the opposite direction. Just don’t splash around in the surface, pretending to be a seal.

Ready for sharks

Ready for sharks

Sharks do unfortunately sometimes injure or kill humans. In the last decade, six people have been killed worldwide by sharks annually on average. That’s six people a year across the globe. To put this in perspective, that’s less than lightning (1,000 deaths/year); drowning while bathing (20 deaths/year); while taking selfies (350 deaths/year); and being left-handed (2,500 deaths/year from using products made for right-handed people). In the United States alone, two people are crushed to death by ATMs annually. I would argue you should be as scared of drawing out money as of sharks.

58 % of the people killed by sharks are surfers because sharks tend to mistake them for seals. Once the shark realises its mistake, it will just about always spit out the poor surfer. The tragedy is that these deaths and injuries can be avoided. Durban has cut shark incidents to near-zero by installing shark nets on the city’s beaches. Shark-related injuries in South Africa now happens where there are no nets.

Shark Cave

Shark Cave

My dives off South Africa’s east coast aren’t my first shark encounters. I’ve dived with sharks in the Red Sea and the Caribbean as well. Always without incident. The depressing fact is that diving in shark “infested” waters bring me close enough to see the injuries we have done to sharks. Scars, cuts and disfigurements are clear signs of sharks being caught in nets and as by-catch of fishing vessels looking for a smaller catch. Often though, it’s much worse. Illegal finning – the act of removing sharks’ fins for human consumption – is a billion-dollar industry. An estimated 73-100 million sharks a finned, mutilated that is, annually. Sharks exhibit slow growth rates and low reproductive rates, and can not keep up with the pace of such an industry.

Less severe, but worth considering for the travellers out there, are the legal industries. South Africa is a mecca for cage diving. It’s a multi-million-dollar industry. While most outfits brand themselves as conservationists broadening knowledge about sharks, looking into it these outfits, too many have little to show for their claims. Sure, most outings will include a briefing, information of sharks’ threatened status, and the horrors of finning. But baiting sharks with fish chum, possibly smearing the cage in it, I would argue, doesn’t really work. Showing people in a cage, hunting and angry-looking sharks is not my idea of doing anything good for the images of sharks.

Baby shark

Baby shark

Then there’s the whole question of the baiting of sharks change their natural behaviour. Critics argue that baiting make sharks more likely to associate humans with food and distort their natural migration patterns. The scientific evidence seems to be inconclusive. Not surprisingly, the most vocal supporters of baiting are from the cage dive industry – just like the most vocal arguments for the practise increasing threats to humans often comes from surfers. Personally, I have the option of diving with sharks without needing a cage or bait. It will probably mean that I will never see a great white and only if I’m insanely lucky will I see a tiger shark. But I’ve seen plenty of other sharks, so ditching the cage dives and an industry I neither like nor trust is an easy choice. If you, on the other hand, don’t dive and dream of seeing sharks, all I ask is that you vigorously research the different outfits before you book your dive.

Individually, these are difficult problems to deal with other than the obvious. Don’t eat shark fin and consider whether to do that cage dive. That said, most of you are probably entirely on par with this. But awareness is the first step in the right direction, and I hope anyone reading this has, at least, become a little more enlightened. By all means, go back to watching those scary shark movies now – just spare a thought to Bruce, the friendly great white from Finding Nemo, once in a while.

Posted by askgudmundsen 05:26 Archived in South Africa Tagged diving travel overland sharks motorbike shark dangerous south_africa southern_africa deaths baiting cage_dive finning Comments (0)

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