The BEST Shark Dives in the World, Part Tres
BULA! Hello and greetings in Fijian. I’m in my second favorite office here at 39,000’ winging back from Fiji and on the way to Costa Rica. In Fiji, we had the opportunity to do one of the most remarkable shark dives we had ever seen. Eight different species of sharks and LOTS of them came in for a feeding including several large bull and lemon sharks. It was a packed house so to speak. I went into detail on this in Part One and Part Deux so check them out if you haven’t. Now, we’re on our way to dive Cocos Island off the western coast of Costa Rica – a place known as the island of the sharks.
Cocos Island and Fiji – A Study in Shark Diving
Cocos Island is one of the few places in the world where large schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks congregate. There are also healthy populations of white tip reef sharks and silky sharks as well as other species including whale sharks – the largest fish in the Ocean. These two places offer a very different opportunity for diving with sharks. Cocos Island sits like a very remote, relatively pristine beacon for shark populations. While it is a protected marine park, over the years, it has been illegally longlined but no so much that it has lost its sharks. Sharks occur in large numbers naturally at Cocos Island because, among other things, there is an intact and productive food web there that can support a large population of apex predators and there hasn’t been rampant overfishing. In Fiji, it is rare to see sharks on most dives other than the occasional white tip reef shark. I don’t know what Fiji’s original shark populations would have looked like? Were there always fewer sharks there or have they been fished out over the years? I’ve only been diving Fiji since 1998 so I don’t have that answer and this in a nutshell is the problem with shifting baselines. We don’t know how good it once was so we accept a degraded state as the norm. In meeting with the chief of Malake Village which derives a lot of its food and most of its cash revenue from spear fishing, he told me that the spearfishermen from the village constantly have sharks around them while they fish. I took that as a good sign. There are still some sharks in Fiji.
Unlike Cocos Island, when shark diving in Fiji, the sharks are attracted with bait – in other words, it’s a feed. This is what I will define as a shark dive – when divers are taken to a dive site where feeding has repeatedly been done and sharks show up in unusual numbers because there is a dinner bell ringing figuratively and sometimes literally. In some places, this means the difference between seeing one or two sharks swimming around versus a dozen and in other places, it means the difference between not seeing any sharks and seeing 50. Fiji is the latter.
As you might already imagine, there is controversy around shark dives so I’ll just wade in with a fairly bold statement:
Shark dives are probably the best thing to happen to sharks in the
last 65 million years
Creating Shark Advocates on Shark Dives
The reason for this is simple – sharks are being slaughtered by the tens to hundreds of millions a year. In less than a human generation, some shark populations have been reduced by 85-90% and we are rapidly losing the rest. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. In fact, sharks haven’t faced this kind of threat since a worldwide extinction event 65 million years ago. You’ve probably heard of save the whales, save the mountain gorillas and seen the cute panda bear mascot of the World Wildlife Fund. These are cute, fuzzy and charismatic animals that don’t have the reputation for eating humans. Thus, they are worth saving and get most of the press and most of the funding. Conversely, because sharks are seen as a potential threat to humans and in many cases as eating machines of destruction, they’ve been all too easy to kill and difficult to protect. Until recently, there simply has been no realization much less ground swell to protect sharks. All you have to do is look at how difficult it was to get the first three sharks species listed on CITIES, the Convention on International Trade In Endangered Species and you’ll see the indifference to protecting sharks. The only way to save sharks is to create shark advocates and the best way to do that is to give people a personal experience with sharks; A personal, up close, in water experience. And that is what shark dives are all about. There we have the opportunity to see that they are definitely wild, amazingly graceful and highly selective. Maybe the most important thing is that we see that the first large fish that swims past us with a dorsal fin doesn’t immediately try to eat us like in Jaws. I’ve talked with Wendy Benchley (Peter Benchley’s wife) a number of times and they rue the day they published Jaws and have spent the remainder of their lives trying to undo the PR damage it did to sharks.
Concerns About Shark Dives
There are a number of concerns about shark dives and in some places, a lot of opposition. Concerns include
- divers being bitten and injured or killed during a dive
- sharks being attracted to areas where swimmers or surfers are present
- having sharks become dependent for food
- having sharks associate humans with food
Why Do We Need a Set of Best Practices for Shark Dives
All of the above concerns are valid and are why we need a set of Best Practices for shark dives. This is a set of rules when followed that create a safe environment for both people and sharks. Over the years I’ve seen some well run shark dives and some that were bone headed beyond belief. A couple of years ago in the Bahamas, I watched in mixed horror and disbelief as a diver was attacked by a number of Caribbean reef sharks following a shark dive. I thought, “After all these years, I’m about to see a guy get bitten.” This all happened because the dive operation would ring the dinner bell literally by banging on the dive ladder on the back of the boat and then throwing in a bucket of bait. Are you seeing where this is going? After the feed, as a diver ascended to the surface to exit the water at the dive ladder, the boat pitched on a swell and the ladder banged against the boat making the same sound as the dinner bell. The sharks were habituated to charge to the back of the boat when they heard this which is exactly what they did – and they found a diver there. Dinner time!
Fortunately he fended off the sharks for a few long seconds and then was physically yanked from the water by two large Bahamian dive masters. I watched from underneath as one of his fins drifted down to the bottom. After having run hundreds of successful shark dives myself, this showed me without a doubt that a set of best practices needs to be established so everybody out there isn’t running off half cocked and doing a bone headed shark dive. Because when one person gets injured on a shark dive, all the world of good we’ve done to create positive PR for sharks is going to disappear in a flash, aka Steve Irwin or Timothy Treadwell, the Grizzly Man.
What Are Best Practices for Shark Dives
Here are the rules:
- Separate divers and the chum. NO hand feeding. Divers in chainmail suits are a bunch of macho crap. If you need to be in a chainmail suit, you shouldn’t be there – and it sends the wrong message. Fasten or secure the chum and give the sharks free access. Set the divers at a safe distance to watch the action. Sharks shouldn’t be trained that they need to approach humans for food.
- No touching the sharks. Sharks are wild, powerful, elegant animals. When we treat them like puppies we are sending the wrong message and somebody ultimately gets bitten.
- Use an absolute minimal amount of bait. This will attract the sharks but not replace their natural diet and need to hunt.
- Make sure and set up the bait so that the sharks can approach it and circle around without needing to swim through divers. Keep their path clear.
- Don’t introduce bait near the entry or exit points of the dive boat.
- Conduct the feed at a reasonable depth. That way if a diver has a problem, they can surface easily.
- Follow the same procedures every time. This is as important for the divers as it is for the sharks. Everybody knows what’s expected.
Time for Some Shark Dives
Ready for a shark dive? I hope so. When conducted properly, shark dives are a safe way to see what may be nature’s most perfect predator, honed by over 300 million years of hunting prowess and mastery of the Ocean. And …. It’s a hell of a rush. See ya down there.