The Whole Tooth Podcast
The Whole Tooth

Should I swim with sharks?

Show notes

In this episode we take a deep dive into the world of shark tourism, specifically looking at in-water experiences. This is a really nuanced subject with many things to consider, so we’ve asked two of the best tour operators in the business – Nicki and Rich from Celtic Deep – to talk to us about responsible tourism and the conscious steps we can take to ensure the safety and wellbeing of both sharks and people.

First, we introduce Nicki, Rich and the operation they set up together [01.26]. Celtic Deep is an organisation based in the UK, that specialises in taking people out on experiences offshore to encounter some of the UK’s most iconic wildlife, including the blue shark. Their focus is not only on ensuring people have a good time – but they also strive to have a research and conservation angle to their work, aiming to collect data and raise awareness of the incredible sharks and other wild species off the Pembrokeshire coast. They work directly with shark anglers, adapting their knowledge for a different purpose with minimal impact on the sharks, and a goal of changing the perceptions of the wider community.

Nicki and Rich both have extensive experience both under and above the waves. Nicki is an instructor in freediving and SCUBA and works as a safety diver and camera assistant for wildlife documentary filmmaking. She has long been passionate about conserving the wildlife she was seeing underwater and is a core volunteer with Neptune’s Army of Rubbish Cleaners (the longest-running ghost fishing charity in the UK) and Skomer Marine Nature Reserve. Rich has 12 years’ worth of experience in shark research and conservation, as co-founder and director of the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme. Like Nicki, he developed a passion for the sea at a young age and is also an accomplished freediver. Our deep dive into shark tourism begins by asking if shark encounters have become more popular, and why [11.49]. We talk about the role of social media in this [13.31] and its power to be both a force for good – in terms of raising awareness and changing perceptions about sharks – and bad, as it can encourage malpractice around these animals. Nicki and Rich then discuss the responsibility of both tour operators and tourists to ‘be real’ when portraying their experiences, avoiding sensationalism and promoting respect and good conduct around sharks.

We then move on to talking about actually encountering sharks in the water, starting by chatting about the species Celtic Deep work most closely with – the blue shark [16.16]. Nicki gives us the lowdown on a ‘typical’ blue shark swim, and the steps Celtic Deep take to protect both the sharks and people when in water [17.02]. These include closely monitoring shark behaviour, following codes of conduct to ensure a very controlled situation and avoiding shark habituation and association. We also talk about why it’s so important to be conscious of our impact on shark behaviour and welfare **[20.23]**and how we can avoid these impacts [23.52].

We acknowledge that, like social media, while shark tourism can have downsides it can also be a force for good. One of the main positives is changing public perception. We spend some time chatting about negative perceptions of sharks, where they come from and the potential for tourism to change fear into respect and care for these animals [28.19]. We also discuss how tourism can contribute to science and research [31.36], and how Nicki and Rich have found a balance in their own operations. Lastly, I ask what advice Nicki and Rich would give to anyone looking for a tourism operator to have a similar experience with [34.43]. The answer is: be a conscious consumer – make sure that they follow a strict code of conduct, have a guide in the water with you, and have a strong conservation and safety message. Avoid companies that advertise touching or harassing sharks and lack transparency around their approach and activities.

Listen to the whole episode to find out more – including their most memorable experiences in water (spoiler: phosphorescence!) and what species of shark or ray they would choose to be (hint – it’s not a blue shark)…

About our guests

Nicki Meharg

Born and raised by the sea in Northern Ireland. Early childhood memories include learning to swim in a sea fed swimming pool, Getting her toes bitten by crabs, losing plenty of skin to slipways and barnacles, having the freedom to use the neighbours' rowing boat to set off on mini-adventures across Strangford Lough.

As an adult Nicki became a scuba instructor, working in Greece, Egypt, southern Thailand and the UK. Scuba led to freediving, led to CCR diving. As long as Nicki is in the water she is happy.

Now based in Pembrokeshire, Wales. Nicki focuses her diving on conservation work. She is a core volunteer with Neptune's Army of Rubbish Cleaners (the longest-running ghost fishing charity in the UK) Skomer Marine Nature Reserve and starting a relationship with the Project Seagrass team. Celtic Deep came about from Rich and Nickis shared passion for marine conservation action and education, freediving and wanting to start some active data collection and research on our own doorstep. The fact that it means we get to spend a big chunk of the year out at sea is a very nice bonus! Aside from Celtic Deep Nicki works in Marine wildlife and adventure television programming as a safety diver and camera assistant. Slowly building up the confidence to start making her own short films on conservation topics.

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Rich Rees

Rich is an accomplished freediver and the co-founder and director of the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme. With 12 years foundation in shark conservation abroad, Rich was keen to start researching the shark species on his home turf in Pembrokeshire. For any and all fun facts about sharks and shark projects. Rich is your man. Rich and Nicki make up the core Celtic Deep team.

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