Whenever I have written an article about sharks for the mainstream media, they have invariably illustrated the item with a picture of a Great White shark, its head staring toothily out of the water. For most people there is only one type of shark and that is the type portrayed in Peter Benchley/Steven Spielberg’s JAWS. This means we all grew up with an innate fear of sharks and it certainly took me a few years scuba diving to get over it.
There are some very diverse opinions about whether it is good to bait sharks (as in shark feeding by divers) in order to get close encounters. People don’t let personal experience get in the way of their opinion forming processes. Sharks are often believed to be dangerous undiscerning predators that enjoy hunting man. It's easy to believe that shark feeding must be dangerous!
I was amazed and dismayed by the vitriolic response to underwater photographer Michael Aw posting a picture on FaceBook that revealed he had sustained a bite during such an event, even though it was ironically from a little grouper that was waiting in the hope of getting some crumbs form the sharks’ table.
Sharks come in as many diverse forms as there are opinions about this subject and I confess that I am not a shark-hugger and not someone who insists that they are like pussycats. They are feeding machines with a lot of teeth and very much at home in their own environment.
Where can you see sharks? Some sharks can be encountered where there are fast currents. Most requiem sharks need a flow of water over their gills so they either have to keep swimming or let the natural flow of a current do the job instead. Some sharks are nocturnal feeders, hunting at night, and can be found resting during daylight hours. Tawny nurse sharks, leopard sharks and white-tip reef sharks fall into this category. Be aware that nurse sharks are implicated in more attacks on scuba divers than any other species probably because divers are prone to interfere with them while they are resting. Their mouths can suck with up to one-thousand pounds of pressure.
A good place to encounter sharks and other elasmobranchs like manta rays is at known cleaning stations. Check with the local guides as to which species of fish tend to do this important grooming task locally and look out for aggregations of them. It you wait patiently and quietly you may get a close encounter. Those with close-circuit rebreathers enjoy a stealth advantage for this when seeking to get close to sharks - provided they keep still and don’t give away their position.
The function of most sharks is to rid the ocean of ill and injured fish so that there are no epidemics of disease. They also feed on carrion. The oceanic white-tip roams the oceans of the world, seeking carrion and opportunistic meals at or near the surface. In the Red Sea, the narrowness of the busy shipping lanes to Port Suez and the fact that most galley waste is tossed over the side from the very many freighters passing through it means that this particular population of oceanic white-tips have learned that the noise of engines and the sound of splashing indicates a meal. It rings the dinner bell for them.
The advent of very large liveaboard dive boats making the same noises and furnishing seductive splashing sounds by divers entering the water, at the same time visiting reefs close to these busy sea lanes, means that these predatory animals will investigate divers in shallow water who get a fleeting if high-adrenalin encounter from time to time. To my knowledge no diver has sustained an investigatory bite but avoid snorkelling at the surface or you will be asking for trouble. An investigatory bite can be catastrophic.
So putting these cases to one side, the best way to see other sharks close-up and personal is to join a dive where there is organised shark feeding. (There needs to be some benefit to the sharks or they will stay away.) Is it right or wrong to do it?
Well I have attended many such feeds in different parts of the world and seen them done in very different ways. Some are safe, some are incredibly safe for participating divers and some are less so.
I’ve witnessed sharks being fed with bait dispensed with an unprotected hand from a plastic bag. This invites the shark to grab all of the bait with consequent danger to the person holding it. I’ve witnessed sharks being fed with pieces of fish held in a bare hand, the pieces cut from the head of a mahi mahi held under the arm. I’ve also seen the hand of someone feeding in such a way receiving the multiple stitches needed afterwards.
I’ve seen people spearing live fish to use as bait. The behavior of sharks when they sense carrion in the water is entirely different to that when they sense the vibrations from an injured fish. In the first case they are relaxed and circle round. In the second case they enter a frenzy of excitement that could be hazardous for those divers in close proximity. Similarly you should keep well away from anglers. Reeling in a dying fish at the end of a line encourages a shark to chase them and because a shark closes its eyes with a nictitating eyelid when it distends it jaw to bite, it can be less than accurate and other people sharing the same water have been injured. Any shark can make this mistake.
Some dive centres employ a frozen chumsicle of fish that is suspended in mid-water. The sharks circle round feeding from it as the bait thaws and divers can choose to get as close or stay as distant as they like. The sharks treat the divers like any other big predator there for the meal.
On Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, I’ve been shepherded into a cage to watch while little grey reef sharks are brought to a frustrated frenzy by being denied the bait contained within a ventilated steel container so that they lived up to the expectations of watching divers who believe that sharks are undiscerning will bite anything. Of course, it was impossible to take pictures under such circumstances since the bars of the cage were too close together but it was incredibly safe from the sharks.
It seems to me that the safest and most visually effective way to feed sharks from the human perspective is to strictly control the bait as it is handed out. This is normally done either with a short spear or a gloved hand. Nowadays many such shark feeders wear full chainmail suits and helmets to protect themselves from sustaining an accidental bite although they are not immune to injury. One chainmail-clad feeder got a shark caught in the links of his suit and it broke all of the bones in his hand, his arm and his shoulder, in the struggle to get free. He wasn’t bitten though!
Caribbean reef shark feed on a wreck in the Bahamas.
What happens if someone does get bitten? The underwater environment is no place to be injured in such a way and there has been one case of someone dying from blood loss before they could get medical attention. On the other hand, in the days before they used full chainmail suits, a young shark-feeder, Michelle Cove, made the mistake of diving into an accidentally upturned bait-box to preserve the cuts of fish that spilled out from the competitive sharks and got accidentally bitten in the head for her trouble. Head wounds bleed profusely, so much so that the captain of her boat fainted when she climbed on board, but it precipitated no feeding frenzy. Sharks are very choosy eaters!
With some sharks, like tigers and lemons, it is only necessary to dangle a bait-box in the water so that it lets out a seductive scent trail. Great hammerheads look for their prey under the sand so that is where the bait must be buried.
So what about the well-being of the sharks? Some say it causes abnormal aggregations of sharks but I can tell you that the channel of Bikini Atoll swarmed with sharks back in the ’nineties even at a time when few humans had been there. (Bikini Atoll was the site of more than sixty atomic and hydrogen bomb tests from 1945 to 1960.)
Some say that it causes the sharks to lose the ability to hunt. I’m told a typical shark needs to eat around four per cent of its body weight each day. That means that at a typical Bahamian shark feed, the feeder would need to carry around twenty kilos of bait when in fact the sharks get little more than a canapé and many attending sharks get nothing at all. Some sharks disappear for weeks before returning to a staged feed.
Some say that it causes sharks to associate food with humans. I’m no expert but I would offer that sharks associate food with food wherever it is. The human influence is purely incidental. Does it cause them to be more ready to attack humans?
Florida, where shark baiting in order to view them is illegal, has more instances of shark bites than anywhere else in the world. To put things in perspective, in 1996, 43,000 Americans were injured by lavatories and thirteen by sharks. You are more likely top get killed by a falling coconut or a faulty toaster than to get bitten by a shark. In 2014, twenty-four were injured by sharks off Florida’s beaches while only two instances were recorded in the Bahamas where shark-feeding dives have become a big industry.
So what have sharks done for us? They maintain the health of the oceans and the fast disappearance of sharks in some parts of the world, thanks to industrialised shark-finning, has resulted in mass fish die-offs recently. How can we counter this?
Some people are appalled that anyone should try to run a business and make a profit from shark feeding dives. It offends their sensibilities yet they would happily pay to visit an aquarium or dolphinarium. Well, we are all aware that the Dollar is king. By increasing the Dollar value of a live shark it provides the animal with financial protection. Those nation states that have taken steps to prevent shark-finning fleets operating in their waters have all got a vibrant scuba diving industry. That’s no coincidence. A live shark in the Bahamas is said to generate more than 250,000 US Dollars in tourism during its lifetime whereas a dead shark is worth only a tiny fraction of that. Do the mathematics!
One final bit of advice: If you are worried about meeting a shark whilst you are diving just be aware that if you don’t interfere with it, it will ignore you. Sharks have evolved to eat their particular prey over millions of years and, quite simply, we newcomers underwater are not on the menu.
If you would like to read about some of my own personal experiences whilst diving close to and photographing sharks over a thirty-year period, read my book Shark Bytes, published by Fernhurst Books and available from the Ocean Leisure book department.