Hollywood catapulted the great white shark into the world’s consciousness in 1975 when Steven Spielberg’s JAWS hit the big screen. Previously confined to an obscure world below the ocean’s waves, the box-office hit created a monster with a lust for wanton killing in the terrified minds of its audiences. As shark-attack hysteria gripped the world a great white shark killing frenzy ensued. Population numbers plummeted and an apex predator with a history 200 million years older than the first dinosaur started swimming towards the land of the dodo.
South Africa became the first country to stem the tide of destruction by proclaiming the great white a protected species in 1991. Within the succeeding decade Namibia, Malta, Australia and the USA followed suit, putting an end to most of the trophy fishing and retaliatory killings. Though they are ranked as one of the World’s most protected shark species white sharks, like most other sharks, are not free from the extinction hook. Their global population continues to decline and today white sharks are listed as vulnerable to extinction on the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
We still know relatively little about white sharks, and the race is on for scientists to learn where and when they reproduce as well as map their hotspots, or areas that they frequent the most. It is known that white sharks have a late age of maturity and a very low number of small litters, which means that their population is particularly vulnerable to the unnatural deaths caused by commercial and recreational fishing, shark nets and a depletion of their prey, namely fish stocks.
The Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” In this case, white sharks at least need our respect if not our love!
Enter cage diving. The same lingering 30+ year old JAWS attitude that has seen generation after generation turn a blind eye to countless numbers of shark deaths may also be the white shark’s saving grace. It is the shark’s infamous notoriety that lures people half way across the world to don thick neoprene, slide into the Atlantic and duck below its icy and chum-slicked surface at the barking commands of the skipper above.
First started in Australia, cage diving grew up almost overnight in South Africa soon after the species was protected. Many one-time white shark hunters retired their fishing equipment in favour of diving cages, and today it is a multimillion-dollar industry. Often packaged as an adrenaline junkie’s dream, most white shark cage diving encounters are in fact life changing – for both humans and sharks. Thousands of people each year, all armed with varying amounts of fear or bravado, come face to face with the ocean’s ultimate predator and the experience is humbling. The ease and grace with which these sleek cartilaginous fish glide through the water is breathtaking. One encounter, and for most, the JAWS image is shattered – replaced by awe, respect and a desire to save. Changing mindsets is one of the most vital weapons in our marine conservation arsenal.
With the great white shark myth broken and fear turned to fascination, should South Africa be concerned about cage diving? According to Save Our Seas Foundation white shark biologist Alison Kock, cage diving, when done responsibly and lawfully, does not cause sharks to associate humans with food. Alison has spent the past 6 years studying great white sharks and is the co-author of the only scientific publication on the impact of cage diving on the behaviour of great white sharks.
Discovering the mysteries behind these sharks and fighting to save them is Alison’s life long dedication. She is passionate about sharing white sharks with the world, and encourages people to go out on cage diving boats, even if they stay dry and watch from the boat. “It would be extremely selfish to reserve one of the world’s greatest wildlife watching experiences only for researchers. Watching white sharks is the ocean’s ‘gorilla’ experience – it grips everyone, of all ages,” says Alison, who still gets excited every time a white shark approaches her SOSF research boat.
The main controversy around cage diving arises from the practice of chumming and baiting and the claim that it encourages great whites to bite people. Unlike game viewing on land, where patience and perseverance results in spotting the more elusive and shy animals, reliably catching even a mere glimpse of a white shark underwater requires chumming. Chum, a pungent brew of fish oils, is not a food reward; it is only a scent.
Once the boat anchors the chum is cast overboard, creating an oily slick that spreads through the water with the prevailing currents and winds. Great whites, already patrolling the seal island in the area, pick up the scent and follow it back to the boat using their sophisticated sense of smell. The choice is theirs – not all decide to go to the boat, and most that do are very cautious. Some circle the boat several times before attempting to take the bait, usually a fish head tied to the end of a rope, others disappear into the depths never to be seen again. Visibility in these waters if often poor, and the bait is used to lure the shark closer to the cage.
Research has shown that providing food to large land predators has the potential to condition them to associate humans with food. This doesn’t equate to animals seeing humans as food, but, like most of us, they may get aggressive if they are expecting to be fed and aren’t. According to Alison’s research at Seal Island, however, if sharks are not regularly fed, they do not become habituated and in fact often ignore the boat and cage.
Conditioning remains controversial because a few operators contravene permit rules and intentionally feed sharks. This results in a tug of war between the operator and the shark, providing expectant clients with a feeding ‘act’, rather than educating and promoting more natural shark behaviour. “White sharks are smart animals. Regular food rewards could alter how long they stay in the area and their movement patterns,” says Alison. “Responsible cage diving is the key. Feeding is not necessary for a successful cage diving operation, and the animal’s welfare should always be a priority.”
Even if a shark were conditioned to a boat or cage it is unlikely that this would lead to an increase in danger for ocean users. White sharks have highly tuned senses. Swimmers, surfers, scuba divers or kayakers are so different from a cage diving boat and its cage (complete with occupants) that white sharks will see no connection. Intelligent as they are, expecting great whites to associate chum or bait with the other ocean users would be in the realm of far fetched modern Hollywood fiction.
Since the first recorded great white shark bite in South African waters in 1900 there has been a steady growth in the number of white shark bites, but this is a worldwide trend and it corresponds with an increase in the number of people using the sea. Not only are more people venturing into the water than ever before, they are also staying longer.Wetsuit technology continues to improve, the latest design being battery heated, and water sports, once considered extreme and elitist, are now enjoyed by the masses.
To many of us the world is our ocean. The reality is sharks are custodians of the sea. Their disappearance would change all ocean life as we know it, making our saltwater playground inhospitable for all – seals, surfers, swimmers and scuba divers alike.