Monday, August 25, 2008

Shark Diving-Ruth Emblin

Steve sent this very well seasoned look at the state of commercial shark diving by Ruth Emblin. It touches on some points we have been wanting to address for several weeks, about the nature of the business of shark diving.

Recent Shark Attacks May Hurt Conservation Efforts

Shark attacks happen. That is a fact. They rule the oceans and we are the interlopers in their territory. That these attacks happen much less frequently than e.g. car or workplace accidents, or even, I quote from Sharkwater, ”your chance of getting killed by a soda machine is higher than getting killed by a shark”, doesn’t matter.

The media simply loves to latch onto shark attacks and turn them into sensationalist news reports that spread like wildfire all over the world. Don’t misunderstand me, my heart goes out to the victims of shark attacks and their families. My heart also goes out to the victims of other accidents and violence. Any such accident or loss of life is terrible. What I object to is the automatic response to shark attacks that the shark is so dangerous to us humans that we need to wipe out the species to stay safe.

I ask you - who was there first? Certainly not us, the sharks have us beat by several hundreds of millions of years. Yet we puny primates have been able to wipe out close to 90 % of the world’s sharks in the short time we’ve been in the picture.

A recent fatal shark attack in the Bahamas has brought up concerns whether the Bahamian government should completely stop “shark tourism”. Those of you who have dived in the Bahamas know that shark diving is an big draw. I do not think shark diving should be stopped in its tracks, however, this may be an opportunity to change some of the policies for the benefit of both sharks and man. I have had several shark encounters while diving and am fascinated by their grace and power. The more people get the chance to experience these amazing animals, the better, as long as it is under controlled circumstances which do not endanger the sharks and their environment.

I am against “mass shark tourism”, but support the controlled exposure. However, shark diving operators have to ensure their practices are not encouraging unnatural behavior among the sharks, e.g. by getting the sharks too used to feedings. Having said that, I wholeheartedly support those dive operators who are dedicated to educating divers (and non-divers) about sharks and their environment, and do it without major impact on the sharks’ behavior. We can never forget that we are just visitors in their environment and should not attempt to modify their behavior. Shark feedings, even under controlled circumstances, are risky not only because the elicit an instinctive response from the sharks, but also alter the sharks’ natural behavior. Observation alone has never hurt anyone.

There is no doubt that the recent reports of shark attacks will have a negative impact on shark conservation. The “uninitiated” will only see the danger, not the underlying reasons these tragedies happened. I was very saddened to hear about the recent tragic accidents and my condolences go out to the families of the victims, yet as heartrending as these losses are, we need to look at the bigger picture, and the fact that the media buzz around these events could invalidate all our conservation efforts very quickly. Sharks may not evoke a warm and fuzzy feeling like panda bears or seals, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve our protection. No, sharks aren’t fuzzy and huggable (well, if you are Rob Stewart, then maybe they are for you), but they have ruled the oceans for hundreds of millions of years and we “upstart” primates do not have the right to wipe them out just because they’ve clashed with us on occasion, and because of that have been portrayed as the stuff of nightmares and Hollywood shockers. The public needs to realize that sharks are the top predator in their territory, and necessary to balance their respective ecosystem.

If we continue to wipe out the top predator, the balance will shift dramatically and subsequently endanger our own survival. I really wish there was a way to “endear” sharks a little more to get away from the fierce predator or even manhunter image. They really are beautiful, graceful animals, completely at ease in their environment. No, they aren’t really fuzzy and huggable, but we can learn to love them. The shark needs an “image make over”, and I hope that many like-minded individuals will join us in finding a way to accomplish this. Just look at Rodney Fox - he was grievously hurt by a Great White and almost died - yet he has become the biggest shark advocate out there, because he understands the reason why he was attacked. We need more people willing to ignore the negative, sensationalist press and understand the importance of sharks within the ecosystem. Will sharks ever become as popular as e.g. bears of all kinds? I don’t know, but we sure can try to change their image.

Think about it - millions of children love their teddy bears… yet a ”fuzzy” Grizzly recently killed its trainer. Are we now going to tell our kids that bears are monsters and take their toys away because of this? I very much doubt it.

Our world has seen too many negative changes since we humans began our industrial evolution. Wildlife in general needs our attention now, be it land or ocean animals. We have to do it one step at a time. Sharks have been rather neglected because of their negative image (which is unfortunately a curse all endangered predators are under), and we need to step up our education efforts in order to at least make the next generation aware of what is at stake.

Ruth Emblin


Greg Cox said...

Great blog post. As long as operations worldwide continue to try and make a name for themselves by pushing the envelope with shark interactions more divers will be killed. That is a simply fact.

I am also disturbed by the current trend of soft soaping attacks on divers as shark mistakes. I am a fan of shark diving and call myself a shark diver.

I am not a fan of those who misrepresent sharks for anything that they are not. Predators. Not cuddly misunderstood animals.

Anonymous said...

You do not know what you are talking about. Running your hand on the side of a tiger shark, or grabbing the fin of a passing great white proves to the world these animals are not out to kill us and it is the few shark diving pioneers that show us this that changes peoples minds.

Sharks are not killers!