Friday, August 22, 2008

The same old Allegations-Fiji Diving Shark Blog

Editors Note: With little doubt one of the most concise voices in our industry for reasoned shark diving is the Fiji Shark Diving Blog. They remain passionate and well spoken advocates for both sharks and the industry:

As so often, the Shark Divers have started a thread and I would like to pick it up as follows.

Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa is a respectable institution and their Trademark, a coveted distinction for Tourism operators of that country. Among many other things, it implies that the people whose land, natural resources, labour, knowledge and culture are used for Tourism activities, actually benefit from Tourism.

Sound familiar?

Look now further than the Shark Reef Marine Reserve Project with its holistic approach to Conservation.

FTTA have decided to look into Shark Tourism in South Africa and have published this important position paper on the matter.

Before I unleash, let me categorically state that it is a good one: balanced, fair, unbiased, pragmatic, it explores the full scope of the issues at hand and draws the right conclusions. FTTA are the first ones to admit that they are no experts in Shark Tourism and carefully avoid taking any positions with respect to the usual controversies.

This of course is the way it should be and they need to be commended for that approach.

And yet, the usual allegations raise their ugly head unchallenged.

Let me try and sum up the current state of affairs, at least how most of us in the Shark Diving Industry see it. Yes I've already blogged about it but if left unanswered, these allegations will, and have already developed into Urban Legends, and then, the "Truth".

It's all about memetic Evolution - check it out, fascinating.

But first, lets get rid of the question whether Shark diving increases the risk of Shark incidents.


Yes of course it does!

And so does swimming, surfing, spear fishing, whatever!

The simple reason for that is that Shark incidents have one precondition: Sharks and people have to be in the same place at the same time, that place being the Ocean. Equally obvious is the fact that there will be some correlation between the number of people frequenting the Sea and the number of incidents - thus, any increase in people implies an increase in risk.

This is so trivial, it is painful!

What to do?

Well, how about looking at the airline industry: aviation increases the risk of plane crashes (Hellooo.....). Confronted with such mind-boggling insights, do we run and close down the industry? Or, do we instead require that commercial airline operators conform to the strictest safety procedures possible?

This is precisely what has to be asked from us. And let me re-iterate that safety procedures will always remain species- and situation-specific and will always imply a judgment call by the operator.

Now, to the actual debate, this in order of increasing complexity.

Yes, many of us do use bait to attract the Sharks.

Although Shark diving in unbaited conditions is certainly possible, predictable encounters can only be expected where the species are resident (or maybe, territorial) - as in Grey Reefs and Silvertips; or, where the lay of the land, or special conditions aggregate the Sharks - as on the sea mounts in the eastern Pacific, during the yearly congregations of Whale Sharks in the Caribbean and Australia or at the cleaning stations of Thresher Sharks in the Philippines.

Other than that, one is left to the vagaries of chance encounters : great when conducting coral dives but just not quite good enough to justify mounting a commercial operation specifically targeting Sharks.

The issue this raises is that of Conditioning.

By that, one implies that luring in the Sharks will change their behavior - well, again, Yes........... Why otherwise would we bother doing it?

The natural behavior of most Sharks is not to approach divers unless specifically motivated to do so - and that's precisely what we are trying to achieve, to motivate them. Incidentally, in our specific case, we also try to condition our Sharks to follow a uniform and largely predictable routine and to stay away from the clients.

"Best practice" among cage diving operations apparently consists in just teasing, but never actually giving any food to the Sharks.

Were I a coral-hugger, I would immediately object that letting the Sharks waste precious energy on fruitless "hunts" is to be rejected as harmful to the animals. But of course, that would be totally besides the point - the point being that common wisdom has it that this will prevent the Sharks from associating humans with food via so-called positive reinforcement. We shall come on to that later.

Apparently, according to the FTTA paper (and news to me), some quarters even contend that just teasing, but never feeding the Sharks could even be regarded as negative conditioning: the frustrated animals will learn to avoid those situations.

Sound plausible to you? Would the cage divers use that technique and bother to schlepp along all that bait if they believed it would eventually chase away the Sharks?


Leaves Conditioning via Positive Reinforcement, the big no-no.

Yes, I confess, this is precisely what we do!

We reward the Sharks whenever they approach, very much in the hopes that over time, more and more of them will turn up for a meal - which of course, being smart Apex Predators, they do!
We do so in order to show them to our clients - as opposed to, as I shall never tire to repeat, Fishermen who do exactly the same thing in order to catch and then kill them.

Get the hint? Who has the way biggest, and most negative impact on the animals? Are we going to abolish fishing as a consequence? I wish!

But now, the saga continues: apparently, feeding the Sharks teaches them to associate humans with food.

It is never said expressis verbis, but the subliminal message is that the so conditioned Sharks will not only associate, no, they will learn to regard humans as food and then start devouring anybody chancing to enter the waters they live in.

All intuitively plausible - but is it really so?

I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Darwinist, so please allow me to cite the Great Man himself: "Vox populi, vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science."

Why "humans"?

If we disregard the bait which is clearly the primary attractant and conditioning factor, is it not fair to assume that the strongest conditioning factor may well be the engine noise? Is it not so that some operators have learned to rev up the boat engines to "ring the dinner bell", and this with great success?

And if so, So What?

The "what" apparently is this.

This kind of signal, or even the mere presence of humans, are supposed to trigger a Pavlovian reflex: the Sharks will become excited, motivated and hungry and this will precipitate the abovementioned nefarious consequences, especially when no food is being offered.

And this is precisely the very point where Intuition is leading to Conjecture and Myth.

Nothing whatsoever, not the objective data about Shark incidents on, or in the vicinity of Shark feeding locations, nor the collective subjective perceptions of all Shark Diving Operators I've ever talked to supports in any way those allegations. This despite the fact that one would expect precisely that to happen, as a result of an increase of potential encounters and thus, risk - remember the first trivial argument?

To make an example, what we experience on our Shark Dive is this.

When we get to Shark Reef, we start by baiting the surface where the Trevallies, Rainbow Runners and Bohars (but never any Shark!) will hit the bait and, we believe, attract the Sharks to the resulting commotion. Upon getting into the water, we may, or may not, see some of our non-resident (at least not at the depth and location where we feed) animals: Tiger Sharks, Bull Sharks, Lemon Sharks and Nurse Sharks.

Have they been attracted by the engine noise? By the action at the surface? By us entering the water? Or did they just happen to be there anyway? Frankly, we don't know - yet. But we're working on it.

During the dive, the numbers of Sharks will increase as we continue feeding the big fish and later, the Sharks themselves. But once we decide to stop the feeding, the Sharks will retreat and disappear within minutes - not get frustrated and attack us in retaliation. This after close to ten years of positive reinforcement.

And when we go to Shark Reef without food, some Sharks may turn up for a quick cursory flyby but then disappear, never to be seen again.

Mind you, the above is merely our perception.

Interestingly enough, having once taken along an anti-feeding advocate and scientist, these very same observations did not dispel, but instead reinforce her reservations. As always, perceptions turn out to be highly subjective.

This can only be resolved by proper scientific research.
Remember the Scientific Method?

To the readers in general: watch this space!

To the colleagues amongst you.

Guys, we're in this together. This nonsense threatens all of us and needs to be stopped. We have the resources, animals, locations and opportunities enabling us to collect the relevant data. This may cost us some time and money, and we may well end up with answers we don't like - but if so, we will learn something new, as we should always be willing , and eager to do.
And we will get even better and safer in the process.

Let's do it - it's the only way forward.

Taiwan National Palace Museum: RTSea Blog Coverage

When it comes to shark conservation, one of the concepts that I have always stressed is the need for an international, combined strategy that addresses both government/business (the suppliers) and demand (the consumer). Much of the demand for shark products, particularly fins, comes from Asian countries and so, while many western countries support anti-finning regulations, attention must be paid to alter the cultural mindset of the largest shark product market.

The Humane Society International is doing just that, developing relationships with other organizations that can have an impact on Asian society. A great step forward was accomplished recently with their efforts to get Taiwan's National Palace Museum to stop serving shark fin soup. (Read press release.)

Congratulations to the Humane Society and their affiliate, the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan (EAST) for their ongoing efforts to enlighten Asian peoples and cultural institutions to the tragic effects of commercial shark fishing/finning.

Since shark aqua farming is most likely a very remote prospect, then attention must be turned towards altering the basic demand for shark products. Working with the decision-makers is one important strategy, but you also have to get right to the source and eliminate demand.

Great White Shark Diving-Isla Guadalupe, Mexico

The red rocks of Isla Guadalupe blazed in the morning sun, a clear sky welcoming us after a stomach-churning 14-hour crossing. Lapping waves and the cries of fur seals on the nearby shore were the only sounds to be heard one hundred fifty miles from the mainland. The water roiled as foot-high fins sliced the surface like a knife through cerulean silk. It was a perfect day for a dive.

"We've got a 16-footer," announced Patric Douglas, CEO of Shark Diver, the outfit leading our expedition. From beneath his shades, Douglas beamed like a proud papa as he pointed out the great white circling the cages. Not wanting to miss the action, I hustled to join the other divers, who had already scurried to squeeze themselves into wetsuits before the great white disappeared back into the cobalt depths.

Moments later, after almost getting thrown into the water by the surge, I was safe within one half of the 100-square-foot cage system, the hookah regulator looping from between my clamped teeth to the deck above. The current tossed the cage -- and us -- only slightly more gently than a washing machine.

And then it appeared. Like a phantom shadow, the shark approached from below, slowly swishing its massive tail side to side as if it had all the time in the world. This was nothing like spotting a shark confined in an aquarium's tank. With our cage dangling over the side of the 88-foot MV Islander, my cagemates and I were well aware that we were but visitors in the shark's domain.

As the behemoth approached, we determined it was a female, and as she glided past just inches from our cage, her length was so great it seemed forever before she passed. I'd heard that great whites could reach such lengths -- and longer -- and for better perspective, I'd told myself I'd be seeing creatures roughly the length of a VW bus. What I hadn't counted on was the girth. I'd joked to landlubber friends that I was going to ride a shark, but after seeing how wide a female could grow, there was no conceivable way I could have saddled one, even had I been suicidal enough to try such a ridiculous (and illegal) feat. The six-foot-wide creature slid past, her black eye so close we could see the pupil, which made the shark even eerier than when she appeared to have two black, unseeing orbs.

When I emerged 45 minutes later, I had a grin as toothy as a great white's. Douglas slapped me on the back after helping me out of the cage and back on deck. "Pretty boring, eh?" He guffawed at his own joke as I racked my brain for an appropriate adjective. What emerged from my mouth cannot be printed in most publications of repute.

Only in the last few years have these waters, under the jurisdiction of the Mexican state of Baja California del Norte, earned fame for its white shark population. Other locations around the globe -- Australia's Great Barrier Reef, South Africa's notorious Shark Alley, and even San Francisco's Farallon Islands -- have long been renowned for their notorious aquatic residents, but Isla Guadalupe has quickly become a favorite, as much for its convenient location (an overnight sail from San Diego) as for its warm waters and astounding visibility, which can reach up to 100 feet. Such ideal conditions attract not only adventure-seeking divers such as my shipmates but also scientists in search of primo research conditions.

During shark season (September through November), at least 50 white sharks -- and possibly as many as 100 -- patrol the waters, estimates marine biologist Mauricio Hoyos, who spends several months a year camped out in a tin shack a couple yards away from a fragrant fur seal colony. He and a couple dozen lobster and abalone fisherman comprise the whole of the population of the island, a desolate red rock long since made devoid of vegetation by a marauding pack of abandoned goats.

After dinner our second night, Hoyos presented his most recent findings to a galley of rapt shark aficionados. We felt special, privileged even. Not only were we among an elite few -- a couple hundred a year at most -- to visit these waters, but we were getting a first-hand account with the most up-to-date information on sharks available.

Shark Diver provides a great deal of aid -- both financial and practical -- to Hoyos and his project. The crew has provide research photos of the sharks, duplicates of which exist in a massive binder in the ship's galley, each labeled with the shark's name and distinguishable markings so that passengers can identify underwater visitors. Divers, inspired by Hoyos' shipboard stopovers, often go on to send donations or even specifically requested equipment. Shark Trust Wines, which has graced the table of many a Shark Diver meal, donates a portion of its profits to both shark conservation and research. The combination of first-hand encounters, freshly caught scientific knowledge, and cultured respect for the creatures we came to visit was but one of the many aspects of the trip that made it unique.

As we entered the galley our final night at Guadalupe, we did so solemnly, well aware that our once-in-a-lifetime experience was drawing to a close. It was then we discovered that our congenial chefs had taken it upon themselves to whip up a farewell meal we wouldn't forget, which included the 60-pound yellowfin tuna that had been caught the day before. Divers and crew retold the tale of how we'd almost had two such tuna on our tables that night, and those who’d had the good fortune to be in the cages at the time shared their photos and video.

Unlike the tuna caught earlier that last day, the dinner yellowfin had been landed whole, without a shark-sized chunk missing. There had been quite a ruckus onboard -- and below -- as Melanie Marks, founder of Shark Trust Wines, began reeling in a yellowfin, much to the excitement of a patrolling white just below the boat. The occupants of the cages had a spectacular view as the great white circled slowly toward the fish struggling on the line then zipped towards its prey with astonishing speed. With a single chomp, the fish was severed just behind the gills, and Marks had no problem reeling in what remained of her catch. She shrugged, well aware that's what you get when you fish at the "sharkiest place on Earth."

For more info:

Shark Diver

Shark Trust Wines New Documentary DVD

Jenna Rose Robbins is a freelance writer and editor based in the Los Angeles area. She can be reached via e-mail at