Thursday, August 12, 2010

Guadalupe?

Best picture, ever, from the Fiji Shark Dive - you just must click on it!

I truly am a sucker for punishment!

Yes, I’m posting one about Guadalupe - again!
And before you start screaming that I’m meddling, got no clue and should just shut the f up and mind my goddamn business and the like, lemme answer the question in this article: Shark diving in Guadalupe is the business of a) the Mexican government as the owner of the resource, b) the Shark diving operators drawing their sustenance from that site and, yes, c) every single Shark diving operator around the planet!
And that includes me!

To make the obvious example, Jimmy’s accident did reverberate across the entire industry and I can only commend him for having handled it as well as humanly possible, mainly by observing strict silence in public and talking only with the directly affected persons and authorities - and still, the backlash has been truly astounding.
Here in Fiji, apart from having had to face a barrage of questions, that accident prompted us to try and learn from the little that eventually transpired, re-visit our procedures and institute a regimen that is one of the strictest and most intransigent anywhere - especially for image hunters! Others alas seem to have learned nothing whatsoever - and I’m certainly gonna leave it at that.
For now!

Back to Guadalupe.
The X-Ray Mag article is basically a re-hash of this piece by Pete Thomas plus, on the side, a great interview with Wolfgang in his endearing incarnation as Shark-, and free diving nutter. He's being his usual wise man and I fully concur with his assessment: GW differ from other species in being ambush hunters (of mammals); and diving with them outside of cages is not for everyone.
Which begs the question, who, exactly, does qualify?

So for once, instead of clamoring about ethics, this or that technique, operators and egos, let’s try and look at this from a pure business perspective.

This is how it works.
New Shark diving sites start up by being discovered by a few individual adventurous divers or spearos, often acting upon the information of local fishermen. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in the case of Lupe, that would have been the San Diego Diving Locker gang, i.e. Howard, Marty, Jeremiah & al.

Later on, somebody -in this case, Lawrence Groth- will then try to set up a more organized venture, initially for his friends but eventually, for a few selected clients.
At this stage, the site is still something of a secret that is handed around among insiders and attracts the crème de la crème of the image hunters that start publishing a first batch of totally unique and spectacular images in the media.

This media exposure quickly attracts the first customers proper, generally speaking, other professionals plus the more adventurous elite amateurs.
If the site has not been secured by the original commercial pioneer, and it rarely is, other operators recognize the commercial potential and start moving in. This never happens organically and peacefully and this is why all multi-user Shark dives are marred by vicious infighting among the operators.
Correct so far?

As the number of operators expands, so does the customer base.
This expansion is characterized by a marked shift in demographics. In essence, the top people who have published the first images move on to new discoveries, the elite amateurs become scarcer whilst the bulk of the client base consists of generally less experienced and also, less ambitious Joe divers.

In Fiji, now a mature market, our client base can be characterized as follows.

5% are bona fide professionals and by that I mean people who derive 100% of their income from diving and/or publishing images. That means that we do not accept the notion that there’s such a thing as a semi-professional UW photographer and the like, exactly as we do not accept semi-professional lawyers or semi-professional surgeons - and neither should you!
In general terms, 90% of these people are a delight to work with. They are extremely experienced, know the industry inside out and above all, have learned that it is very much in their own interest to respect and to listen to the local experts. The others are, well, very different and will leave Fiji very disappointed indeed.
When it comes to these clients, we follow industry standard and allow for quite a bit of leeway. Always within what we consider our absolute limits, we will strive to let them capture spectacular images, like the one above by Douglas, by organizing special dives and positioning them in selected radical spots.

25% are elite amateurs, for lack of a better word: the Wetpixel gang.
I used to be one of them, albeit pre-digital, and thus can very well relate to their ambitions: they are generally highly passionate all the way to being fanatic, wealthier, better traveled, quite experienced and mostly excellent divers, tote expensive hi-end equipment and are brilliant photographers and videographers, and want to emulate the work they see published by the professionals.
They are also quite cumbersome to service as they are quite reckless all the way to being outright adrenaline junkies, request special treatment for their gear and special positioning in relation to the animals, often complain about not having been able to capture the ideal shot and generally try to convey the sense of being specially valuable and important whilst at the same time asking for special discounts.

Once again, approx 60% of them are a delight to work with .
That being the magical word: if they give us the respect and are willing to undergo a process of gradual crescendo, we will be happy to go the extra mile and they will end up capturing some truly fabulous images.
Case in point: Sasha who has been with us many times, totally listens to our advice, is increasingly well acquainted with the routine, knows the animals and is thus being allowed to get ever closer to the action – and gets to capture simply stunning images in the process!

Alas, the other 40% are, well, what they are.
They are never satisfied, are unpleasantly vociferous, bully the other divers, always want to push the envelope, know it all better and are generally a nightmare to handle.
Check out the last points in this recent post and you’ll understand that we’re simply not interested in their business.

Leaves 70% of our clients that are just ordinary Joe divers.
These are people who come to Fiji to just experience the Shark dive and explore our reefs and who are generally delighted by what we got to offer. Apart from being the bulk of our business, they are the easiest to service as they generally follow instructions, have no overbearing asocial ego and are totally happy to just observe and enjoy something which to them is new, safe, unique and exhilarating – and on top of that, they are happy to pay full price!

Now if you do the math, here’s what you come up with.
4.5% + 15% + 70% = 89.5% of our clients are a delight and 10.5% are just assholes - there, I said it!
Is Guadalupe really radically different?

And if it is not – what’s the fuss all about?
Ever since Rodney Fox pioneered diving with Great Whites, cages have been the 100% safe way to go - be it at the surface, submerged, cinema or self propelled, they are equally good! Rodney the pioneer has been using them successfully for the past 30+ years. Lawrence the pioneer is doing so successfully in Guadalupe.
So, why are you trying to fix something that is not broken?

Whatever the self serving rhetoric: taking clients outside of the cage adds an additional dimension of risk, period.
What is the benefit of doing so, the more as everybody seems to agree that if there should ever be a fatal accident, the Mexicans will sweep in and close down the site – for everybody, perpetrators and bystanders alike?
Are you maybe letting the inmates run the asylum?

If my premises are in any way correct, 90-odd percent of your clients are perfectly happy with the current product, the more as the pros are being accorded special privileges anyway. And keeping in mind that the bulk of your clients are inevitably going to be ever more Joe divers: should your procedures not become gradually more conservative rather than less so?

Leaves a measly 10% of volume who in all likelihood do not even represent 10% of cash flow!
They are the ones who are clamoring for ever more radical encounters, and this in a place where the animals are being brought to within a mere inches from their lenses and visibility is stellar anyway. Is it really credible that upping the ante would lead to better images - or is this just, as I believe, nothing more than the insatiable quest for ever more bravado and adrenaline?
And: how many of those people would you feel comfy in taking outside of the cage anyway?

Guys, will all due respect – and I got plenty of it!
The question really boils down to this: are you really willing to risk everything in order to satisfy less than 10% of your client base?
Amos can just move on – can you?
Ever heard of risk/reward?

I believe the choice is simple.

You can continue doing what you are doing now.
You can shut up and let the most aggressive and reckless among you run the show whilst you’re busy pursuing your pathetic feuds – and incidentally, I was saddened to see that even the stalwart Patric appears disheartened and is considering to bow to those stupid ideas. Sorry to see!
Even assuming that nothing terrible will happen: where will that leave the industry in, say, 2 years when the adrenaline junkies will again ask for more more more and somebody will be tempted to up the ante again? And in 2 years after that?
Is that in any way sustainable?

Or, you can finally close ranks and put an end to the shenanigans by presenting a unified front vis-à-vis the perpetrators and the Mexican authorities – and yes, that requires that you bury the hatchet, even if only temporarily and for this one cause only, talk to each other and do something for the common good!
And no, it’s not only Club Cantamar and Amos – I’m in the same industry as you and know it is not!

Once again, it’s all about the math.
Guadalupe is world renown for being the premier site in the world for seeing Great Whites in stellar visibility. And yet, in the big scheme of things, total capacity is comparatively tiny, probably not even 2,000 clients per season.
How about trying to expand your client base instead of bowing to the demands of a clamoring minority of less than 200 customers. How about starting to look beyond the US and Europe and their broken economies and aggressively market in Asia where I promise you, there are a lot of eager, increasingly wealthy and on top of that, extremely pleasant clients.
Hell, incredibile dictu – you could even join ranks and do a common marketing push for Lupe as a destination! Think Caymans!
Yeah I know I know, and pigs…

Just my two cents.
Yes I’m an outsider - but as your industry peer and precisely because I am an outsider and not emotionally invested, it breaks my heart to see what a great unique site you have and how you’re letting it go to shit by just sitting there and doing nothing,

Wanna think about it?
And by all means: always feel free to write me the usual nasty messages!

12 comments:

RTSea said...

No nasty message from me, Mike. Good post.

Unfortunately, the rivalry that exists may be their eventual undoing. I once brought up the issue of banding together (to address some other non-cage issues with the Mexican government) and got jumped on by some for being some sort of meddling outsider.

For Isla Guadalupe, my position has always been if you are a professional being paid to take a calculated risk (ie: outside the cage) then fine - if there's a good reason for it. If you are a paying customer, then you're in the cage for safety's sake.

Shark Diver said...

Well written, agreed. My post was not an endorsement of commercial cageless encounters.

If the operator Club Cantemar and Amos cannot mount 14 weeks of cageless or even a month of cageless then:

1. The market is not there are divers on the whole are smarter than the hype

2. The experiment should end

3. They should start paying attention to CONANPs edicts rules and regulations

That's it. There's nothing to learn, no images that are ultimately worth it, and no science that is notable by presenting diver flesh to white sharks.

End the experiment.

OfficetoOcean said...

Great post as usual and nice to see your honesty.

The only way I can see cageless diving working is if the responsibility falls to only one operator who offers it at their discretion to individuals less likely to cause an incident with a large shark.

Cageless diving with White Sharks can be done in relative safety however, invariably by professionals or those who understand shark behaviour, ideally having had enough experience with the animals in a location, over a period of time, whilst in a cage.

Cageless diving can have the benefit of demystifying the White Shark as an all encompassing destroyer of humans, however, it can also encourage people to do it themselves without having any real understanding of the risks.

I'll be honest, it's my biggest ream to go cageless with a White Shark but I won't be taking any unneccessary risks to do so, afterall, I want it to be an enjoyable experience for both myself and the shark.

In struisbaai in South Africa, if you dive it with enough regularity, you can have Great Whites turn up naturally, that to me would always be my first choice, a natural encounter during a dive.

That said, shark diving needs to shed the macho BS sharpish and be accepted and enjoyed for what it is, an amazing experience with nature...

DaShark said...

Thanks!

The way I see it, if the numbers are in any way correct, there is no business case, period.

Once you filter away the wannabees, how many people are we talking about, 50?
Is that worth upping the ante and putting everybody's business at risk? Is that really incremental business or can they be replaced by other, conventional customers?

Last time I asked, the season was essentially booked out - so why the fuss?

If you want to experiment commercially, get your own site & go for it, that's how all sites have started.
It's a big ocean out there. Me, I think it's gonna be a disaster but then again, I'm not the expert.
This however is a multi user site where the shenanigans of a very few are endangering the livelihood of everybody.

Don't let the inmates run the asylum!

OfficetoOcean said...

I totally agree about the business case aspect, on a commercial scale, I haven't worked on a commercial GW diving boat so I have no practical expertise in that area...

The biggest danger is exactly what you point out, someone gets hurt or even worse killed and it could irreperably damage the whole industry out there and stop reputable operators actually continuing to do the great things commercial shark diving operations can do. Worse still, it would almost certainly be caught on camera guaranteeing it to be a big hit with the media.

People have of course, dived cageless with Great White sharks for decades on a commercial basis but in the sense they were photographers and film-makers and more often than not, had many years experience working in the wild with large, predatory sharks. The other demographic is the adrenalin junkie and that is where the biggest risk is in my opinion...With that in mind, if it were to be rolled out on a commercial basis, adrenalin junkies would provide about 80% of the client base presumably and therein lies the danger...

I wouldn't want to emphasise my own personal opinion regarding whether I think yes, never or maybe without spending time working with a reputable Great White diving operation as I am caught in two minds however veering more towards the "just leave it as it is now" train of thought at present.

DaShark said...

Yup that's exactly the difference about commercial diving with paying customers and private ventures where everybody is welcome to go and experiment - after all, that's exactly how all commercial sites started out in the first place.

Having said that, all multi user sites are a total nightmare.
For this to go to the next level, and it probably can, it has to be a new site, with one operator and one set of protocols.
But not the commercial hara kiri presently taking place in Guadalupe.

OfficetoOcean said...

I still think a single, global governing body is the way to go as mentioned in my DIVER article but as you stated at the time, getting every operator to conform to it's rules would be almost impossible...almost.

If I lose my optimism I will be left with nothing! :-D

Wolfgang Leander said...

Just your two cents??

Mike, if there was a Pulitzer Prize for writing blogs, you'd be the first recipient!

Wolf

Wildlife holidays said...

Excellent picture.

I think cageless diving is a pandoras box. As long as the divers are experienced and respect the sharks it shouldnt be a problem but there will always be people who get too carried away and get too close!

DaShark said...

Wolfgang!

As I said, yer totally nuts - and obviously blinded by friendship! (:

Danke!

DaShark said...

PS my Pulitzer in conservation blogging goes, without a doubt, to http://conservationbytes.com/ - now that's a seriously brilliant guy!

Mike Lever said...

Mike, you do indeed deserve a Pulitzer. And maybe a monthly column in Fortune and or the Economist. I reckon that we will take 1390 divers out to Guad this year. I'm not sure of the exact number but likely 90% are divers. The remaining 10% are non-divers who are happy just to jump into a surface cage with a divemaster. The vast majority of our guests are mainstream divers who dive for the love of it. That was the titanic shift in our market a number of years ago ie. persuading the average travelling diver that yeah, it's still really "diving" to see white sharks from a cage. Out of cage diving is forbidden. Period. We slipped on that with some VIP guests 3 years ago. Never again. We just completed 9 days of training with our all our divemasters during which we specifically and very directly addressed the issue of no-hands, no-heads, and no-cameras outside the cages under any circumstances. No more bait bags in the submersible cages. Nada. No more hang bait below the cages. Nada. Hopefully all our guys understand that the days of deviating from our processes are over. And there will be consequences including possibly losing their job if they don't follow our SOPs. Oh yeah, we also added extra bars to narrow the gaps in the balconies on the cages. I am hoping for the best but preparing for more - uhmmmm - coaching if any of our guys fall back into bad habits. We are certainly not angels. We've made mistakes and errors. But d*mn, still trying hard... saludos from Mexico. Mike