Friday, January 02, 2015

Touching Sharks - Wildlife Harassment?

OK, first rant of the year.

This is thorny - but I just got to get it off my chest.
It concerns this hypocritical article by the increasingly irrelevant Executive Director of the increasingly irrelevant Shark Angels, and this comment by David.
Da che pulpito?

When it comes to Andersen, meh.
It is merely a continuation of this hypocritical rubbish, and instead of further debasing myself, I can certainly keep it with Martin who states.
Here is the problem with what Julie says.
She is known to the public, because of all the pictures of her, touching sharks. Now she says that she wishes some of those pictures would not be so public and that other people would not touch sharks. So let me get this straight, after she got her fame by touching sharks, she doesn't want others to do the same and she says it's not an ego thing? She does however have no reservations about using that fame when it suits her. I guess she just doesn't want others to get in on the action. She also is talking about sharks, like they are all the same. Well, it does say that she's an expert, so it must be true. It couldn't be that there are sharks that are social and touch each other and others that don't do that, at least not without eliciting a violent reaction. I wish we would just stop paying attention to all these wanna be shark whisperers and self proclaimed experts. Just because someone touches a shark, or goes outside a cage, where it is not legal, doesn't make them an expert.
Could not agree more!

And how about David's comment.
But first things first: I really, really like the guy! 
He's passionate, intelligent, witty, eloquent and incredibly erudite - but like I've just told a common pal, the young padawan needs a reminder that erudition is not always a substitute for experience!

This is what irks me.
Wildlife harassment is a legal term that in essence states, don't interfere with the wildlife unless authorized to do so, and by that metric alone, David is of course 100% correct - that is, provided that those Shark interactions are covered by the law! Are they? Because, again, no law no harassment - detail detail!
At the same time, however, much of David's research and that of his lab are predicated upon catching and manhandling Sharks - which albeit being perfectly legal, undoubtedly useful and sometimes even vitally necessary and thus not wildlife harassment in the legal sense, is nevertheless often brutal and does subject the animals to an experience that is orders of magnitude more traumatic than anything which is being reproached to the divers!
And if so, is David really in a position to lecture others?

Plus, there is this.
Contrary to David's sweeping statement, those different interactions between people and Sharks are by no means equivalent - maybe under the law (provided that it exists!) but certainly not in fact!
When Jimmy posted his video of Tarantino, a prominent researcher sent me a message telling me that he hated the anthropomorphizing but that he was wondering about the Shark's motivation as it was hard for his science brain to comprehend that video clip.
I did really appreciate that. In my experience, most Shark researchers understand very little about Shark behavior and human-shark interactions, this because behavior in general is difficult to describe to start with but above all, because far too few of them have spent enough time with the animals to properly understand them in the first place! There are obviously notable exceptions, like Juerg or after close to a year diving with us, El Diego - but it is glaringly apparent that David ain't one of them and I must really say, sutor ne supra! 
We in the Industry, on the other hand, spend heaps of time with the Sharks but often lack the training to properly describe what we experience, and often get too emotionally attached to the animals to continue being objective.
Be it as it may, take the example of our Rusi.
He has now logged 20,000 plus dives with those Bulls - d'ya think he may have learned something about them, and that it may be worth listening to what he's got to say? Or to Cristina? Or for the matter, to Jimmy?

So what about those interactions.
What we and from many many conversations, our peers have learned, is that everything is situation specific. One thing we all agree upon, is that especially when it comes to those large, long lived carnivorous species, any two Sharks are as different as any two people. At least on those regular baited dives where many of the regular Sharks appear to be highly conditioned and tolerant of the presence of divers, there are clearly individuals that seek personal interactions whereas others clearly want their space all the way to retaliating against people that are too pushy.
Obviously much of that behavior is mediated by the bait - but there are occasions where getting fed does not appear to be the primary motivator and where we then inevitably resort to the dreaded anthropomorphizing by defining the Sharks as being  friendly, or cheeky, or sneaky, or cute. Pathetically unscientific I know - but nevertheless, something is going on, and the fact that it hasn't yet been described scientifically does in no way detract from the fact that it exists, that it is noteworthy and that it warrants further investigation!

So, which interactions are acceptable and which not?
The way I see it (and granted this is highly subjective) it really depends on the actual situation but also on the motivation of those people, see e.g. here where I also state that what may be OK today may well become obsolete in the future. Assuming the Shark does not get injured (and it rarely does), it really boils down to an ethical debate - and there, sensibilities and opinions will inevitable differ.
But before anybody thinks that I generally welcome those interactions - I generally do NOT! Sharks are no pets and the ocean is no fucking petting zoo - and abusing them as underwater scooters is an abomination!
But instead of pontificating further, how about some examples.
Everything except for the science pics fulfills the definition of wildlife harassment - but maybe in real life, things are not so unequivocal but instead, a tad more nuanced?

Yes it's legal, yes it's research, yes the Tigers are incredibly resilient - but that line choking the gills is wrong wrong wrong! Source
No it doesn't harm the Shark - but is this really conservation like asserted - or rather, pathetic self-promotion or just simply stupid? Source.
I got no problem with this - zero! From what I understand, the animals come in voluntarily, and even compete for Cristina's petting because it is quite obviously enjoyable to them. Source.
Totally against. This is the forced tonic I've ranted about here. Source.

I actually find this endearing. This is Rusi giving Monica, a Shark he has been working with for the past 10 years, a little pat after she popped by and hovered within inches from his face on yesterday's dive.
Any questions? Source.

No no no - but that was then and I'm quite sure that they would not do this now - so here's to evolution! Source.

The problem here is that I'm not even sure that this is Cristina. There are now too many copycats and what was once unique and thus amazing has been trivialized and is increasingly becoming nothing more than a gratuitous stunt. Source.

And how about this one from Bimini!

Are you deeply outraged as always?
You shouldn't be because this is Grant = one of the good guys, stopping a Hammer that is getting way too frisky as per one of his comments here - and whilst fulfilling the definition of wildlife harassment, it is nevertheless perfectly OK!
As I said, things are generally way more nuanced than at first glance!

Which brings me straight to the juicy bit - what about Eli?
Over the years, several regular commentators on this blog have seen it fit to unleash a barrage of expletives on the poor guy. Except for the racial slurs that are unacceptable and also stupid (= his family was there long before the white man took possession and then invented the immigrant), I've let those comments stand - but most of the time, I don't at all agree with them. Many of those commentators that hide behind aliases are pals of mine, meaning that I know that whilst some of them simply genuinely abhor any form of Shark wrangling, others have history and are settling old scores whereas others are engaging in good old fashionable and rather gratuitous Eli bashing (and comments!) without having the faintest idea about who Eli really is.
And I also know that they're all gonna crucify me for what follows!

The fact is that Eli Martinez is one of my pals.
I really do like the dude. He's a really nice, personable guy, he's an accomplished Shark diver, he deeply cares for the animals albeit obviously in his own way, he is really very good at what he does and finally, he really understands Shark behavior and I really enjoy some of his insights, as do my staff - meaning that in my book, he too is one of the good guys and that I do respect him!
Mind you, liking the person does not equate liking everything he does - quite the contrary! It's not like we correspond a lot - but when we do, we often debate like crazy! And I also will not shy away from criticizing him publicly for some of his most egregious stupidities!
Yes he's certainly a macho that likes his extreme Shark diving, yes he likes to showcase himself manhandling those Sharks, both of which I'm certainly no fan of - but that doesn't make him a bad person, that's just who he is! And contrary to all those hypocritical media whores, the cheats and the charlatans I frankly despise, he does not pretend to be anything he is not!

And what about the flipping of those Tigers?
Yes once again it's wildlife harassment - but it does not harm the Sharks that appear completely unfazed and sometimes come back for a second helping. But of course it got nothing whatsoever to do with what I would consider an authentic wildlife encounter. In essence, it's not unlike Cristina's vertical non-tonic: whereas years ago it may have been irritating but nevertheless also fascinating, now Eli's pals are increasingly trying to one-up and out-trick him (and e.g. here) meaning that what was once unique is now a rather gratuitous circus trick, to the point that TB is now the prime example of an iconic dive site that is completely going to shit because instead of having a common code of conduct, the craziest and most disrespectful inmates are running the asylum!

Do I like it - certainly not!
Do I hate Eli because of it - certainly not!

But I'm digressing as always - long story short?
It's great that a lot of people are passionate about Sharks and love to talk about them. And although I often gnash my teeth in utter frustration, I can also live with all the nonsense that is proffered by all those bloviating enthusiasts, the more as most of them don't claim to know it all but are merely voicing their opinions.
But I'm really tired tired tired of the rampant ultracrepidarianism (google it! :)) of all those self-professed whisperers and sharxperts that are making it their mission to educate the plebs!
Can we do better this year?

There, now I've said it.
So, friends, bring it on - may the public crucifixion begin!

PS - David's response here.
Disagree with some of it - fully agree with the part about the  riding and aggressive handling for fun!
PPS - Eli here!


Grant Johnson said...

This is a great post, Mike.

A few thoughts:

1) I think Julie is rad, and her article seems to me as an attempt to correct a behavior that she's admitting to doing in the past. That's a brave thing to do, and if she's a hypocrite then so am I, because I've conducted myself around sharks years ago in a way I no longer condone. Learning from mistakes is a good thing.

2) As someone who's tagged and worked-up many, many hundreds of sharks, I cringe when I see researchers holding sharks out of the water (or by their gills?!). Perhaps it's already been studied, but I'd love to see the difference in the stress-response of a shark species in a "worked up while still in the water" vs "worked up while on the boat" comparison. That being said, the fastest I've ever worked up a shark (with help from others) was by pulling it up on the boat (11 seconds on an Atlantic Sharpnose; sexed, tagged, PCL, FL, and TL measurements, de-hooked, & released)

3) The fields of shark-diving and shark-research are home to some of the craziest egos I've ever experienced, and also some of the most lovely people you'd ever want to meet. It's hard to make broad statements based on photographs that literally capture a fraction of a second in time, and thus it would be really exciting if rather than just being dicks to each other, people who share such a fascinating passion could be a little more constructive (and POLITE) with their criticism. This is definitely something I should work on myself.

I'll be back out tomorrow (and the next day, and the next day, etc.) trying to have amazing and often unquantifiable experiences with our lovely hammerheads. Those nurse sharks, on the other hand, I'm pretty sure they're harassing me!


DaShark said...

It would be really exciting if rather than just being dicks to each other, people who share such a fascinating passion could be a little more constructive (and POLITE) with their criticism..

Yeah it would be.
And so would global peace and harmony.

Not gonna happen, people are people and some folks and agendas are just simply incompatible.
In my case, I loathe all that $$$-driven BS and just cannot get myself to muster the tiniest bit of respect for those folks.

Andersen - meh.

DaShark said...

PS those Nurses are a total pain... but there's ways of handling that, the most benign being to always make sure they get zero bait. After a while, at least ours have stopped bothering.

Plus, after years of tolerating them, our Bulls are increasingly telling them to fuck off (see here, 00:48), and always harass them & force them to spit out their bait whenever they manage to steal a tuna head!

Oh, and consider yerself added to the list of researchers that are spending enough time with the animals - as are Jillian and Duncan! :)

Felix Leander said...

Common denominator is money with a dash of fame. Take that away and most of the people you mentioned above would be doing something else. And wasn't this all discussed in 2007 when Patric would still blog ;) I miss those days.

jsd said...

I think the presumption that 'harass' (in a legal or other sense) adequately captures one's negative feelings towards certain kinds of animal interaction is misplaced.

What revolts me is not what Eli is doing to the sharks (in so far as they are presumably unharmed) but how what he is doing to sharks informs me about Eli's attitude to them and to his audience such that the sharks reflect their 'glory' back onto their macho master and are nothing more than props for his attention-seeking.

So mine is an aesthetic criticism: yahoos rush in where fools fear to tread.

DaShark said...

Felix: me too!

And yes, much of the principal issues are the same - but in all fairness, there has been notable progress.

Baby step by baby step!

Michael Patrick O'Neill said...

I think that unless a shark has to be handled for safety reasons (whether for the animal or diver(s)), they should not be touched at all during a recreational shark dive. The sharks are not circus animals, plain and simple. The so-called "shark whisperers" spinning, hypnotizing, riding, fondling, groping, and rubbing the sharks miss the entire point of what could be an educational event and fantastic photo op. These guys and girls arrogantly think they are the stars of the show when they clearly are not. Some of these people have given me perplexed looks underwater when I haven't photographed them doing their idiotic stunts. I absolutely refuse to photograph and therefore promote this disrespectful behavior.

Michael Patrick O'Neill

DaShark said...

Yes and no Michael - it really depends!

We all know that some wild terrestrial animals can develop amazing affinities to some people. Call it friendship or whatever, it does happen, it is intriguing and sometimes endearing and I see no problem whatsoever in showcasing it - on the contrary!

Can the same happen with some Sharks?
Dunno - without really being able to explain it, I observe some behavior that really leaves me, as a minimum, perplexed.

Like I said, it really depends on the situation and on the motivation of the person.

Take Rusi (or Manasa, or for the matter Cristina).
He considers those Sharks his friends, and I am absolutely certain that there is something going on when he interacts with determined individuals, that it is authentic and the he merely does it because he genuinely loves them - not because he is trying to showcase himself.
On the contrary - you know him, nobody could be more humble and self-effacing!

And because that is what I believe, I would see absolutely no problem in showcasing that connection!

But of course, like you, I rather abhor that stunt work with Sharks - regardless of whether it' been done for fun, for fame, for money but also for "raising awareness" or "dispelling the myth" and other stupid excuses purporting to be conservation!

jsd said...

'Some of these people have given me perplexed looks underwater when I haven't photographed them doing their idiotic stunts.'

Exactly, Michael. These attention-seeking yahoos cannot believe that natural history photographers don't find a photo of attention-seeking yahoo + shark to be more interesting than a photo of the magnificent shark alone. And as you correctly assert, they're the underwater reincarnation of the ghastly lion tamer who sticks his head in the lion's gaping mouth before an ignorant audience who finds such ghastly stunts exciting.

DaShark said...

Dang Grant, I've just realized that I didn't post the link to that Bull/Nurse interaction!

Here it is!

jsd said...

'We all know that some wild terrestrial animals can develop amazing affinities to some people...'

But sharks?!
First we'd have to have evidence they are capable of developing such affinities with members of their own species before making the leap of faith to assume that when, say, a shark returns for another rub, it is doing nothing more complex than returning for another dose of a pleasurable sensation.

DaShark said...

Nah I beg to disagree JSD.

We can observe something on those dives - but those interactions among free-ranging Sharks would be incredibly difficult to document.

So, let's look at what we can observe shall we.
I cannot really explain it - but what I can see is that some of our Sharks have a predilection for some people - even for me, and I never ever feed and I don't touch them, either!
As a minimum, it is noteworthy - or not?

And if a Shark comes back for another dose of a pleasurable sensation, I find that noteworthy too - especially if one considers the stereotype, right?
And if so, is it really a sin to show it to others?

jsd said...

'As a minimum, it is noteworthy - or not?'

Absolutely - only a few years ago no one would have predicted any of this.

'And if a Shark comes back for another dose of a pleasurable sensation, I find that noteworthy too - especially if one considers the stereotype, right?'

Agreed. It's when the warm/cuddly/lovey dovey/fluffy shark stuff is projected onto the above that I protest. Pretty much any animal with a brain larger than a reject spermatozoon will seek pleasure and avoid pain.

'And if so, is it really a sin to show it to others?'

Is that an elephant trap I see before me?

DaShark said...

Nah no trap! :)

I'm just saying that some of the behavior is intriguing & worth documenting both in words and in images - but granted, maybe not for a hard-core nature photographer.

The language?
Agree - but then again, a purely technical/scientific description probably wouldn't do it justice, either.
Tricky tricky!

But don't worry, I'm not trying to out-Erich the Ritter - promise! :)

jsd said...

'Agree - but then again, a purely technical/scientific description probably wouldn't do it justice, either.'

With 'probably' we are in deep philosophical waters, as you surely know. And the question then extends to human mental attributes (love, hate, the popularity of Barry Manilow) that continue to perplex fine minds.

But the elasmo-narcissists aren't interested in any of this. They are interested in making themselves the centre of attention at the expense of the sharks - and this I will oppose until the day a tiger shark swims up and gives its molester a Valentine card.

DaShark said...

But the elasmo-narcissists aren't interested in any of this. They are interested in making themselves the centre of attention at the expense of the sharks .

Totally - well said!
The q is, who is who - and there, opinions will continue to differ!