Shark cage diving is a tourism activity I recently covered in my Shamwari series of blog posts about my time spent volunteering in South Africa. When I was 18, I wanted to be near animals, to see them up close. So I could learn what they looked like and see their natural behaviours. I was beginning to struggle with the idea of zoos; which didn’t feel like ‘the real deal’ any more in terms of viewing natural behaviour — and I preferred the idea of putting myself in a cage inside an animal’s own natural habitat, rather than seeing a caged animal in unnatural surroundings.
Nowadays, I would only want to enter a predator (such as a shark)’s natural environment in the name of research. Furthering our understanding of population numbers or natural behaviours is an important tool in conservation — and sharing that knowledge through work in Science communications is vital in alerting others to the plight of different species with whom we share this planet. So can cage diving near sharks ever be ethical? Marine biologist and conservationist Hannah Rudd shares her view on this somewhat divisive subject…
Cage-Diving and White Shark Conservation with Hannah Rudd
Okay, it’s time to address the proverbial elephant in the room.
Perhaps firstly it’s important that I make clear any existing conflicts of interest you may be interested in hearing: over the summer months I interned with a white shark cage-diving company in South Africa, I have cage-dived with white sharks and I agree with white shark cage-diving, if conducted responsibly.
Please bear in mind that I’ve tried to tackle these concerns with my objective scientist hat on, and where I have used my personal opinions is signposted accordingly.
The debate surrounding cage-diving is not black and white.
The first question that crops up when discussing cage-diving is this — are the sharks conditioned in any way? The straight answer is not to our knowledge.
White sharks are migratory animals, so as it’s currently understood they cannot be subjected to Pavlovian conditioning, as is commonly believed, with each individual staying around Gansbaai for roughly 4-8 weeks, for example.
What about the use of shark bait?
Chumming for white sharks also doesn’t attract them to shallower waters – these animals are naturally inshore predators, and in the case of Gansbaai there has never been an attack in the area.
The calorific value of the bait used – if the shark is able to get it, which crews try their best to avoid – is very low and does not sufficiently meet the huge calorific demand these animals require.
Sharks are naturally inquisitive animals and the aim of chumming is to create a fish oil slick on the surface water which will spark curiosity within the shark to investigate – thanks to their fantastic sense of smell — giving tourists a view of this beautiful animal.
Are the cages a danger to sharks’ health?
In my experience, sharks do sometimes hit the cage, but this is a rare occurrence and something both the crews I’ve worked with and the sharks themselves actively try to avoid.
Would you ram yourself into a brick wall? Probably not, and the answer is the same from a shark’s perspective too.
Of course the jury is still out on assessing the long-term impact these practices may have on white shark behaviour, but until that conclusion is reached I would argue that many of the operations I have seen are conducted in accordance with current management recommendations.
Is there any real educational value of diving with sharks?
There will be people who deny the influence shark cage-diving can have on participants subsequent attitudes and behaviours, but the scientific evidence is increasingly growing against them.
Work by Kirin Apps et al. (2016) in South Australia, for example, indicates that the underlying reason for tourists choosing to participate in a cage-diving trip is for the educational element.
Obviously, there is no one-size-fits-all, and there will be individuals doing it purely for the ‘bucket list factor’, but by incorporating educational briefings and interpretive tours with onsite biologists, cage-diving operators have a potentially unrivalled opportunity to improve shark conservation outcomes.
But does this really work? Well, the answer appears to be yes.
An additional study by Kirin Apps and colleagues found that tourists increased their participation in conservation-related behaviours and also experienced a positive shift in their understanding and attitudes for sharks. The key driving force behind this observed shift? Emotional engagement.
And I’ve witnessed this first-hand.
Changing attitudes towards sharks
Day after day, I observed people’s attitudes towards white sharks change in an instant after encountering these magnificent animals in the wild.
Individuals who were previously apprehensive about the experience – maybe they’d been dragged along by their husband or were doing it just to tick off the bucket list – were beaming with pure elation after exiting the cage.
They were intrigued, they were in awe, and they were switched-on to shark conservation.
Unsurprisingly, there are also other benefits to this practice, like further opportunities for research and growing economic and social benefits locally, but for me, the overwhelming benefit here is fostering pro-conservation attitudes and behaviours among the public.
Defying the Jaws image
This is an animal that is still living in the shadow of the legacy Hollywood created for it.
With an estimated population of less than 3,500 remaining in the world – that’s less than the number of wild tigers globally – the more people who are aware of the integral role white sharks play in ocean ecosystems as apex predators, albeit all sharks, the better.
We don’t know what the long-term impacts are on white shark behaviour, but what is becoming increasingly clear is that shark ecotourism experiences in general are having a positive influence on people’s attitudes towards sharks and their conservation.
Communities across the globe that previously hunted these animals are also realising that they are worth far more alive due to the demand from the nature-based tourism industry.
Personally, I feel as though it’s unfair to demonise an industry which many of us know very little about, especially when scientific evidence is seemingly on the fence regarding its impact on the sharks themselves.
Those famous jaw extension photos you see plastered all over Instagram? They could not be a lesser accurate depiction of these animals, and in my experience, they are incredibly rare to witness during a cage-diving trip. That in itself showcases these animals as ones not to be feared.
White Shark welfare
It goes without saying that the welfare of the sharks in question is the most important aspect of this debate. Should evidence come to light in the future further questioning this I believe it’s important we re-open the debate, assess all arguments accordingly and put in place appropriate measures, if required.
But for now, if you do decide to book a cage-diving experience, my best advice would be to do your research. Make sure you’re booking with a responsible tour operator that is operating with conservation and best practices in mind, and preferably one that has a biologist on board with you during your trip.
In my mind, banning cage-diving would do a disservice to the animals it is trying to protect. Without public opportunities to encounter these sharks in the wild, maybe we would be no closer to challenging commonly held stereotypes, and where would that leave shark conservation efforts?
What are your thoughts on cage diving with sharks? Comment in the box below
About the Author
Hannah Rudd is a marine biologist and conservationist with a special interest in shark science. Science communication also holds a special place in her heart and she is an avid writer, speaker and photographer. You can follow Hannah’s adventures on her social media channels and check out her blog – http://www.hannahrudd.com – to dive into more ocean science.