Sunday, May 13, 2012

Common Sense in Shark Diving?

Walker's Cay Chumsicle, by Pat Anderson.

Interesting day!
First, there is this simply stellar (!) post by Cristina who has brilliantly analyzed the topic as only someone with years of experience coupled with a profound knowledge of the animals could have done! Felix is of course absolutely correct in saying that in the end, it amounts to nothing but a lot of common sense - but therein of course lays the crux insofar as the latter appears to be a scarce commodity indeed!

Case in point, the following video.
A friend sent me the link with one comment only, and that is sigh...
Indeed - check it out.

No, I'm really not gonna embark into a rant as some may wish.
In the end, those guy are doing nothing bad - they just obviously appear to have no clue and are making simple beginner mistakes.

But is that really necessary?
Does one have to try and re-invent the wheel and learn everything the hard way?
This is not the 70ies where everybody wanting to feed Sharks had to do it on his own and embark in risky experiments - now there's an established world-wide industry with tried-and-tested protocols, there's e-mail through which one can contact and ask the established operators, there's YouTube where to watch the established feeds with plenty of examples of how to do it correctly.
That is, provided one has the humility to want to learn from others which may well be the problem here?

Anyway, those guys are feeding Caribbean Reefs.
It just so happens that thanks to UNEXCO, the correct protocols may well be some of the longest-established on the planet. From what I can discern, there are essentially three established ways to do this safely:
  • Chumsicle feeding was developed by Gary and Brenda Adkison at Walker's Cay and consists in rigging up a big block of suspended frozen bait where the Sharks will come in and grab a bite. It is being practiced with other Sharks like Greys and Reef Blacktips elsewhere like in Yap but to my knowledge, it has been discontinued in the Caribbean after the demise of Walkers'.
    The problem associated with this technique is twofold insofar as a) it requires access to a lot of Fish and to a capacious freezer, something only few locations can afford and b) it culminates in a frenzy, called the Shark Rodeo at Walkers', whereby one Shark will grab the last big chunk and dash away followed by a throng of highly excited competitors, something that is uncontrollable and ultimately dangerous.
The other two established feeding techniques enable the operators to always control the amount of food that is being introduced - and thus, to control the behavior of the animals by being able to counteract any incipient feeding frenzy, something those Reefs are particularly prone to, making them some of the most dangerous and unpredictable species to work with.
They are
  • Pole feeding where food is being handed to the Sharks by means of a longish metal pole. This is principally being practiced at Stuart Cove's and very safe.

  • Hand feeding like it is done by Cristina at UNEXCO and replicated world wide, among many others by us. It is certainly not completely safe for the feeders and requires enhanced safety procedures and a great deal of circumspection and ultimately, empathy and experience
So what about the video.
We feed Grey Reefs that are very similar in temperament, and here's what I can see - not meant to offend or belittle anybody but instead, meant as constructive criticism, DaShark style!
The general rule: when regularly doing something dangerous, you got to stack the cards in your favor!
  • Clients. We require full body dark wetsuits, black gloves and absence of shiny and brightly colored gear. That's really global standard in order to minimize contrast and avoid mistakes by the Sharks - meaning that should there be an accident, you will be accused of not having followed globally accepted standard procedures, which is not where you want to find yourself! Especially in limited visibility, pasty flailing hands sticking out of black sleeves look like bait and will eventually get nailed.
    But kudos for lining up the clients and keeping them separated from the action!

  • Garb of the feeder. Like those dudes, both Cristina and Stuart's use full-body steel mesh suits courtesy of Jeremiah. But, they also protect their head to the extent whereby the guys at SC even wear helmets! There is a reason for that!
    I see one bite on the mask and the head-butting is just insanity and will eventually lead to tears, promise! Here, we only use gloves but we just hand out the food on the fly and don't wrangle like those guys - so either do the former or get yerself a steel mesh hood!

  • Feeding. That pokey stick is way too short and badly handled. The bait did slide too far down the stick and the Shark was not able to get it off, with the clumsy handling of the feeder risking to injure the palate and break off teeth. Get a longer stick or add another point so the bait stays at the tip like on a fork - or even better, at least as long as there's only a few, just feed them by hand!

  • Feeder positioning. Laying on one's stomach confers no stability and no control of the situation, and is a recipe for disaster. Instead of flailing about helplessly like in the video, stand, or kneel on one knee with the other foot in front. That allows you to turn around and control the movement of the Shark by leading it with one hand - or to feed it on the fly like we do.

  • Wrangling. Those are just gratuitous and dangerous shenanigans - totally 70ies and totally uncalled for! Those animals are there for one reason only and that is, to get a piece of Fish - so give it to them & refrain from the pseudo-love or whatever all that hugging and grabbing is meant to signify!
    Maybe one day the Sharks will approach you for other reasons - but to achieve that, go at it slowly and with respect, develop some empathy and mutual trust, and that over many years, like Cristina has obviously done.
Anyway, just a couple of remarks.
If I may make a final suggestion, hop on a plane to the Bahamas and go talk to those guys. This is one global industry and I can assure you that everybody will be more than willing to engage in a conversation and give you some tips borne out of decades of experience, as it is in everybody's ultimate interest that things proceed as safely as possible. Hell, you should even do a few dives, look at how they they do it and maybe even give it a try yourself under supervision!
That obviously requires the humility of realizing that one's capabilities are woefully inadequate - but real men who feed Sharks are surely big enough to admit their shortcomings?

Or not?

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