Friday, December 12, 2008

Quo Vadis, Shark Diving?

Check out this video



Yeah, right... what to say...
Even toothy Patric over there at Shark Diver has been unusually restrained in his comments.
Guess we're are all kinda speechless.

Maybe the way to start this thing is to say that one probably shouldn't blame the clients.
Fortunately for all of us, Diving has gone mainstream - but that implies that we really get to see all sorts. The fools we encounter have no particularly nefarious intentions, they are probably just a reflection of what's out there in the general population, and I'm gonna refrain from commenting about the peculiarities of this or that Country - tho being your average xenophobic and campanilistic European, I certainly could!

This may surprise you but I don't even take issue with the tug-of-war with the Lemons.
The Sharks very likely couldn't care less and their reward should amply compensate them for any perceived discomfort. Predation ain't a pretty and peaceful thing and most meals down there come at a cost, energetically and otherwise - just picture those Tigers and Great Hammers that are studded with Stingray barbs and you may agree that Evolution has most likely selected for a fair degree of resilience in Predators.
Not to worry.

Thing is, Shark Diving has certainly come a long, long way!
Mind you, places like Cocos and the Galapagos are still very much the way they used to be - that is, minus the profusion of Sharks, but that's another story altogether. But there, one obviously doesn't need to bait.

Baiting for Sharks was started by professional UW photographers and cinematographers like Cousteau, the Taylors or Herwarth Voigtmann, a German guy who convinced his girlfriend Vreni and then his daughter Bine to pose topless whilst hand- and mouth-feeding Grey Reefies in the Maldives. The images were spectacular and inspired a whole generation of divers.
In the beginning, those were purely private and professional undertakings and kept strictly separated from recreational diving.

The first "proper" commercial Reef Shark feeding operation were probably Stella Maris and UNEXSO in the Bahamas (or maybe it was Herwarth when he decided to go commercial), and Rodney Fox most probably established the first commercial cage diving operation.
But I'm digressing.

Anyway, back then, the Reefies were a real big thing.
With everybody toting along some camera, the clients wanted to emulate the published work of the pros and were willing to pay any price to get face-to-face with a Shark. Shark dives were thus highly lucrative, prompting every Dick Tom and Harry to venture into the business of commercial Shark feeding.
It all was sort of ragtag and improvised (read it, very funny!) and resulted in the establishment of feeding stations like the "Lion's Head" in the Maldives or Avatoru in Rangiroa that were being "worked on" by every Dive Shop in the vicinity. Other feeding stations like those on the Burma Banks or "Valerie's Reef" in PNG were established by Liveaboards and equally shared.
Did anybody care to try and have those areas protected? Of course not - but mind you, those were the 70ies and the 80ies and there was no realization that matters were dire, nor was there the Internet on which to find that information.
Anyway, inexperience being inexperience, competition being competition and Reefies being Reefies, it was only a matter of time til the accidents started piling up.
Sound familiar?

Fortunately, those incidents were only "minor" ones and confined to the feeders who would then be able to proudly, and heroically display the nicks to the ever-present adoring bimbettes.
But they were perceived to be bad for Tourism and the Authorities stepped in and enacted feeding bans. Or, as the sites were not being protected, the bad guys stepped in and fished them out. Fact is, most of those "shared" places have been decommissioned.
The Bahamian and Ozzie operations, on the other hand, quickly saw the writing on the wall and resorted to chainmail suits when hand feeding or to other techniques like Chumsicles and have continued to operate basically unchanged until present times.

Again, I'm just talking about small Reef Sharks - and still, in my recollection, all those commercial dives were strictly structured as spectator events whereby no direct interaction was ever allowed between Sharks and Customers. Consequently, no Customer was ever hurt.
See where this is leading...?

Today, it seems to be an established fact that recreational diving with predatory Sharks in unbaited conditions is possible and safe provided that one respects some basic safety procedures, as in not to interfere with natural predatory events, to be aware of their corporeal language and not to dive in murky water.
Does that extend to macro Predators? Probably the answer is yes, although not having any personal experience with Great Whites, Makos and Oceanic Whitetips, I'm just relaying the opinion of other people in the know whom I trust. Not really being terribly brave myself, I'll however probably give it a pass, especially when it comes to Great Whites.
Thing is, without bait, chances to see any of them are close to zilch anyway.

Owing to Rodney's original insights (and common sense), baited commercial macro (predatory) Shark encounters have so far remained strictly confined to cage diving in oceanic conditions and involve blue water species like Great Whites, Makos and Blues.
The Pros have obviously continued to do what Pros do, and that is, to push the envelope. We all have seen those images. So have the camera-toting clients and I fear that it's only a matter of time until somebody will perceive a competitive edge in taking them cageless.

When it comes to the hitherto more obscure macro Reef Sharks as in Tigers, Bulls and Great Hammerheads, maybe even Lemons, the Jury is still very much out. Until quite recently, there weren't any "established" diving sites for those species and nobody really seemed to have any strong opinions about them, either. That is obviously changing.
The actual consensus seems to be that diving with them, even it baited conditions, doesn't necessarily require any cages.
We at BAD certainly concur with that view.

We will also always defend the right of anybody to interact with predatory Sharks in baited conditions - but only as long as that is being done in private.
Then, it is the same as any other dangerous private undertaking. Having done it myself, I know it to be exciting and highly rewarding and I wish those guys the best of luck and loads of fun. Let's not forget that much of what we consider to be perfectly mainstream today has been pioneered by individualistic adventurers who had the vision, curiosity, recklessness and above all, the balls to give it a try.

However!

When it is being done commercially, we strongly believe that any Operator conducting baited Shark Dives must ensure that the Sharks and the Customers are always kept strictly separated.
This may require using Shark cages or it may require other protocols aimed at obtaining the same result. As I shall never tire to repeat, procedures will always be situation-specific and will always imply a judgment call by the operator. That judgment, we believe, should however never extend to allowing interactive Shark Dives by Customers. Certainly not in Fiji but probably nowhere else, either.
Baited Shark Diving is not recreational SCUBA Diving - never was and never will be.
Whereas on Reef Dives, certified divers are routinely left to fend for themselves, we believe that on baited Shark Dives, the onus of supervising the Clients and ensuring their safety rests squarely with the Operators.

We also believe this, although it doesn't directly concern this tread.
Exploiting a dive site automatically entails a personal obligation for its Stewardship. This is especially true for Shark Diving and I invite everybody to refrain from diving with Operators who do not make a contribution to Shark Conservation in general and who do not aim at protecting their sites in particular. We've made that mistake 40 years ago and we must learn from that experience.

Having been one of them, I'm certainly acutely aware of the aspirations of the many gifted and experienced hobby photographers and cinematographers.
They tend to be the wealthiest, best traveled, most experienced and also, the most influential of our Clients and we love to showcase their work as part of our marketing, the more as they often match and sometimes surpass the results of the Pros. After all, once one has mastered the technique, much is due to pure luck and perseverance which are not linked to somebody's professional qualifications.
Whenever possible, at BAD, we try to position them in such a way that they will "get the shot" , which they mostly do - but that's where the buck stops.
Whatever their level of experience and regardless of their sometimes vociferous reservations, our Customers are never allowed to go fully interactive or to go exploring by themselves.

We reserve that right for bona fide Industry Professionals, and even then, never without close supervision. It's obviously an arbitrary and imperfect differentiation - but that's where we have chosen to draw the line and that's that.
Despite of the obvious dilemma of having to choose between business and principle, we remain of the opinion that this is the only sustainable way for us to operate in this Industry.

I just corresponded with another Industry Professional about this and got back this comment.
"There always exists risks of an accident or the unexpected taking place and as the organizers and "folks in charge", we have a moral (as well as probably legal obligation) to ensure that people are not hurt on one of our adventures, through actions we encourage. We have discussed and continue to discuss ways to reduce that possibility, but we need to do that without taking away the major reason of why people are there and what we are trying to offer them. I entirely agree that we must all tread very carefully, for the sake of our clients health, but perhaps even more so for the sake of the sharks."
I could not agree more - that's precisely the Catch-22 we're facing.

We will always be asked by our Customers to make exceptions and to push the envelope just a tiny little bit more. That's what Customers will never cease to do in their quest for ever more adrenaline and ever more spectacular images.
The privilege, and obligation to make those decisions is however not theirs, but ours. It is us, the commercial Operators, who need to define the limits of where this can be allowed to go - for the safety of our Clients but for our own safety, too, and for the sake of the survival of our Industry. I believe that when it comes to Commercial Shark Diving, we have reached the very limit of what is possible whilst still being reasonable. One more small step in the wrong direction and it's gonna bite us all in the ass.
I just wish that everybody in the Industry could agree on this.
(Yeah I know I know, and Pigs will fly...)

Let's be honest about this - and this is directed to you, our valued Customers.
We the Operators know it already.
Don't get me wrong, predatory Sharks are not Man-Hunters - but they're certainly never, ever harmless, either!
In fact, predatory macro Sharks are bloody dangerous and anybody claiming otherwise doesn't know what he's talking about! It is great to be pro-Shark and anti-"Jaws"- it is however utter foolishness to believe that your Love is being reciprocated.
It is not!

Although I concur with those who say that interacting with the nervous and frisky Reefies is more challenging than interacting with the Big Boys, it is equally true that the resulting accidents are relatively harmless.
Having witnessed quite a few bites, I know that piscivorous Reef Sharks couldn't care less about human blood and will leave it at that. I also know that the bites, albeit painful, are easily fixed with a couple of stitches and some antibiotics - in fact, dog bites are probably worse. Barring a tragedy as the severing of a major artery, the victims are certainly going to survive.

Macro predatory Sharks may seem manageable and in the case of Tigers with their placid cruising speed and dreamy eyes, they may even appear to be outright mellow. It is also quite safe to assume that they equally have no interest in attacking SCUBA Divers.
But let there never be a doubt about how immensely powerful they are, and how potentially lethal! Their bites are always devastating and once blood has been spilled, there's no reason to assume that they will never jump at the chance for a meal, the more as many of them are generalistic feeders whose diet includes mammals.

Please, let's not be stupid!

Accidents have happened and will continue to happen - that's the nature of what we do and we're also certainly not infallible.
I would also presume that each and everyone of us is striving to conduct things as safely and professionally as possible. After all, we would all like to conduct good, sustainable business.
Also, none of us has a Death Wish - right?

Thus, and contrary to maybe others, I'm quite willing to accept that there will be freak accidents and bona fide mistakes.
Where I personally draw the line is where those events are clearly the result of negligence and hubris. Yes this will always remain a learning experience - but the learning curve needs to be bloody steep!
This is now a global Industry and we should profit from it, by always being eager to keep abreast of what's going on in other parts of the world. That includes taking on other people's insights and being willing to learn from mistakes, our own and those of others, too.
By the same token, we should always keep in mind that what we do affects everybody else in the Industry, and vice versa.

That's why I am so shocked by this video.
It is obviously preposterous and embarrassing and depicts a bunch of stupid, reckless and disrespectful morons - but that is not the issue. As I said, they sure come in all shapes and guises and it is up to us to deal with that. I sure hope they've left a huge tip!

The issue here is the apparent utter failure by the Operator to provide those guys with any guidance, it is his obvious disregard for safety procedures and it is also his failure to recognize the damage a video like this will inflict to his reputation, and to that of the Industry as a whole.

Quite frankly, I still keep scratching my head.
What possessed him to let this happen on his watch? Is he just being oblivious of the dangers? Or, is he maybe trying to occupy a competitive niche by attracting the mavericks?
Perhaps he just doesn't give a shit - but whatever his motivation, or lack of: This is just not sustainable.

It is also profoundly disrespectful.
Turning this site into a circus arena makes a mockery of those people, foremost of which Jimmy Abernethy, who cautiously nurtured Tiger Beach into being one of the best, safest and most prominent Shark Diving destinations in the world and committed so much to educate divers and to protect and justify Shark Diving's existence.
A good friend just wrote "Funny, last night at dinner a colleague and I were discussing the absurd video and how insulted I felt after viewing it. I had a range of emotions of embarrassment, disappointment, anger and sheer disbelief and a bit of shame that this is what we have come to in what we all had so passionately protected and cultivated over the years."

This is not about Ethics, or the like.
This is about the professional standards and the future of the Shark Diving Industry
and quite frankly, it's all rather disheartening.

Let's hope somebody learns something from it - tho alas, I'm not about to start holding my breath.

5 comments:

DaShark said...

PS:

I did like Patric's take on this.

If you still have the patience, please go check it out on http://sharkdivers.blogspot.com/2008/12/quo-vadis-shark-diving.html

gary@sharkventures.com said...

Well done Mike....Your eloquent and thought provoking comments need to be read and reread as it is very much so "to the point". As a former operator and shark diving professional I ran the gamut of emotions when I watched the video. Embarassed,saddened, very disappointed and angry at the total lack of respect given the creature all of us in this industry strive to protect. Making a mockery of all the work, blood sweat and tears....literally....that so many serious shark diving operators have committed to in educating the public about sharks and striving to conduct safe interactions with them....just went out the window with this "clown" act! What really makes me angry is that... not if....but when the next shark incident occurs....guess what video will be dug up to be played repeatedly on all the major news networks totally neutralizing all educated and logical dialogue from conservationists and dedicated shark diving enthusists and professional operators alike! What was the operator thinking....or obviously....not thinking! As you stated....there will always be some clown wanting to push the envelope....that is a given and those of us in the industry have seen them. It is our responsibility.....and it lies directly upon our shoulders as operators, scientists, shark interaction photographers, etc..... to be the stewards of this unique and fragile experience. Not to make a mockery of all that it entails but to cherish and cultivate an experience with a creature that most likely will be all but gone in the next generation's lifetime! I want to believe that this video is the exception and not the rule in the industry. Shame on the operator who looked the other way and missed an opportunity to plant a seed of respect for this creature with his clientele. As the director of the US Shark Foundation which helps fund pure shark research around the planet, I wish as much energy could have been spent in support of funding by these martial arts morons as was spent in tearing down and defacing this fragile existence of the shark. Put your money where your fins should have been....you Ninja Nerds....and step up and do the right thing and retract and apologize for cheapening.... what for the rest of the world...is a profound and remarkable experience with an animal whose existence on our planet is tenuous at best....

Gary and Brenda Adkison
Directors
Shark Foundation, USA

Robert said...

And that is exactly why no shark loving and respecting people I know of go out with Dolphin Dream.
Those divers need to make a childish video to show their buddies has potentially lengthened the list of unsafe shark observers, which could ruin it for all of us and shark research, and most importantly..the sharks themselves.
Eagerly awaiting your comments Neal Watson.

Thankyou Mike for bringing this to our attention, and thank you for all that you do for the sharks globally. I was Very impressed when I learned of your efforts and dedication.

Lupo

DaShark said...

Thank you!

You are both being very kind and Gary, I will always be amazed by your eloquence!
You’re my Hero in so many ways!

Thing is, incidents like this always have a positive side and that is, they offer an opportunity for reflection and hopefully, for change.
After all, we’re all very much on the same side - and that includes that operator. In the big scheme of things, this is clearly a controversy among friends, not foes.

The way I see it, what really needs to happen now is to have Tiger Beach declared a Marine Protected Area.
I’m obviously far removed from it and don’t really understand the Politics – but notwithstanding the squabbling about “ownership”, access, protocols and the like, it remains, if not the best, one of the premier macro Shark Diving sites left in the world. It is also a fantastic Shark Research location for the likes of Doc and others.

I know how passionate many of you in Florida are about this site and I have no doubt that this is being reciprocated by some quarters in the Bahamas, too.
Shouldn’t you all strive to preserve it for the future?

I’m personally opposed to “sharing” dive sites like this, especially when it comes to Shark Diving. The examples are legion of “secret spots” becoming public and then going to shit due to ignorance, inexperience and competitive one-upmanship. And then, inevitably, they get closed and then fished out.
Herwarth I mentioned and you Gary kept your sites exclusive and we do the same in Fiji – and even then, things remain tenuous at best, as witnessed at Walker’s.

Anyway, when it comes to Tiger Beach (or, say, Guadalupe which incidentally is the topic of a similar controversy – I’m sure you’ve seen it), it is already too late for that.
The challenge now would be to agree on some terms of use and some minimum procedural standards. This would be in the best interest of the Industry but above all, it would be very much in the interest of the Sharks!
Things being as they are, some “official” protection could lead to just that and establish a level playing field for all user groups.

Now…… without mentioning any names as that certainly is a very personal decision, the more as it will be challenging, tedious, sometimes highly frustrating and time consuming (but think of the satisfaction of having pulled it off!).
There’s at least ONE person I know that has it all: the experience, the contacts, the knowledge, the passion, the wisdom and the impartiality. Due to his standing in all quarters involved, that person would be uniquely positioned to act as a mediator and to be the conduit to the relevant Authorities. I’m sure you know who I’m talking about.
Maybe you want to talk to him – I’m doing so already.

Failing that, history will inevitably repeat itself.
There will be accidents, the Authorities will close it down, the bad guys will fish it out. That simple.

OK, enough dabbling in other people’s backyard. I would hate it if anybody did that in Fiji and apologize for interfering.
Still….. it WOULD be a good idea, don’t you think?

Anonymous said...

I don't get it. The buffoonery seems to be mostly edited in. I don't see anyone karate chopping a tiger shark.

It's retarded though.