Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Diving with Sharks

There has been a fatal Shark diving accident in the Bahamas and as always, the web and news tickers are buzzing with controversy.

On one side, and sadly spearheaded by a direct competitor, you have the usual assortment of know-it-all, I-told-you-so pundits and self-proclaimed wannabee Shark Experts fanning the flames and heaping judgmental blame, scorn and sarcasm on the operator and the victim alike.
On the other side, the operator's friends and clients have quickly circled the wagons and are busy singing his everlasting praise and fending off any perceived attacks regardless of their provenience or intention. Good on them and good on him, he certainly needs it and most probably deserves it.
And of course there's that smug ueber-charlatan Mr. Ritter desperately trying to garner publicity by sanctimoniously offering his help and "expert advice".

Did a single one of those people witness the accident?
Did I find a single exhaustive description of what really happened?

On a positive note, until now, nobody is blaming the Shark.
Many however blame the Shark diving Industry in general, asking for better regulation or an outright ban of those activities. The latter is highly worrisome, as one of the undisputed merits of Shark tourism is to help change perceptions and to contribute to Shark Conservation. Sharks are still being slaughtered by the millions and deserve any help they can get.
Fingers crossed that common sense will prevail - maybe through more honest dialogue?

Am I about to join the fray?
Hell, no.

But being a Shark Feeding Operator, BAD are being asked for an opinion, so there:

Does diving with Sharks involve risks?
The answer is unequivocally Yes, it does - but what doesn't?

I won't bore you with wonderful statistical comparisons involving collapsing sand holes, Life in general (!) and lightning, I also don't want to discuss the pros and cons and ethics of feeding and I will also not engage in speculation about the causes of Shark strikes, a tedious and ever-changing assortment of sometimes plausible pseudoscientific theories that will never be verified or falsified.
Unless one could convince a thousand volunteers to go thrashing about at dusk in deep water off the coast of, say, Kona , that is.
You get the gist.

The fact is that Shark incidents happen. They are exceedingly rare and poorly understood.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to the question whether adult people should be free to make their own informed decisions about engaging in potentially dangerous activities at their own personal risk.
We believe that the answer should unequivocally be, Yes they should. Life after all holds no guarantees and it should be everyone's personal decision how to conduct it meaningfully and enjoyably - whilst clearly assuming the responsibility for one's decisions.

We however also believe that operators who conduct Shark dives commercially need to do so as responsibly, professionally and safely as humanly possible.
That's what the clients have a reasonable right to expect.

Also, believe it or not, we don't have a death wish.
Thus, upon having taken on the Shark Dive, we quickly agreed that we needed to devise a set of new and stringent safety procedures, and pronto.

Having contacted Gary Adkison, arguably one of the world's most experienced, and generous shark people with decades of experience in Bull Shark interaction, he promptly proceeded to descend on us with messianic fury urging us to discontinue our "dangerous" hand feeding routine.
Thus prompted, we obediently rigged up several humongous chumsicles only to capitulate in the face of prohibitive logistical challenges and the fact that 400 pound Bull Sharks are simply not Caribbean Reefs and will tear anything apart in a matter of seconds. We tried dumping food, only to be confronted with clouds of sand, blood and gore and signs of incipient feeding frenzy. We tried pole feeding only to have the Sharks bite the poles and break off their teeth. Crates got torn to pieces and swept away, rigged fish got gobbled up in the blink of an eye - you name it, we've tried it.

In the end, we all agreed that hand feeding, whilst also providing for the best entertainment value, was by far the safest and most controlled way of handing out food without polluting the reef and incurring uncontrollable risks.

Did we try out metal cages? Frankly, we didn't even consider them.
Procedures are circumstance-specific and cages are probably the best way to safely observe some very large, predatory Sharks like Great Whites, Blues and Makos, especially when diving in open ocean and at very shallow depth to which the animals are being baited. This is however not what we do.
In a reef environment, there are other ways of achieving the same result, i.e. ensuring that the animals do not approach the clients, and vice versa.

This has led to the present format whereby The Shark Dive is essentially a show with clear segregation between Spectators and Performers.
Clients are dressed in dark, full-body garb and gloves, supervised and confined to a walled-off viewing area and any personal and hands-on interaction with the Sharks is being discouraged.
Much easier for the safety divers, much more controlled and also, certainly less stressful for the animals.

Keeping in mind common sense and all of the usual caveats, we are reasonably confident that Sharks are largely predictable and can be conditioned to follow a simple set routine.
Tourists however are not. Fear, bravado or overconfidence can quickly lead to problematic situations. Photographers and cameramen can typically become oblivious of their surroundings or incur unreasonable risks. As a commercial operation, we believe that it is our duty, and interest, to limit those hazards.

Direct Shark interaction -especially in baited conditions- is a special skill requiring years of experience and also, great respect and knowledge of the animals, both individually and as a species.
It is loads of fun and highly rewarding - but in a commercial operation, we believe, it needs to remain confined to Industry Professionals.
Some of our staff have logged thousands of hours interacting with Sharks and none of them would ever claim to be in total control of those situations.
After all, big Sharks are never pets and giving them cute names and ascribing anthropomorphic attributes to their behavior should never detract from the simple truth that they are hard wired, powerful and potentially lethal apex predators. It is probably true that they don’t perceive us as nourishment but it is equally true that they certainly don’t perceive us a “friends”, either.
Generally speaking, they will tolerate our vicinity provided that we display adequate behavior and remain calm, alert and sometimes, assertive. And sometimes, we might be prompted to leave.

No dive briefing, however exhaustive, detailed and professional, will ever succeed in uniformly transmitting those skills to a group of, essentially, strangers with diverging backgrounds and experience.

You can however rest assured that we'll always try our very best to entertain and amaze you with a well-choreographed, exhilarating, mellow and above all, safe experience!

Well, yes - but it will always be you who will need to make your own, informed decision.
After all, you are an Adult.


Anonymous said...

wonderful blog .......enjoyed it!

Anonymous said...

So true - the sharks always take the rap, so at least were ahead on that this time.

Andy Munch from Shark Diver got in touch with me and wrote up a cool post about personal freedom and shark diving - it's cool, you should check it out!

Great article - thanks for so much insight into your choices.

DaShark said...

Thank you Jeff!

I concur with Andy's assessment.

The Dive Industry has been very successful at self-regulating and should be allowed to continue operating that way. At this point, this is certainly not something the Authorities should involve themselves in.

Industry professionals are obviously dissenting about procedures and that discussion needs to be encouraged.
It should be based on the willingness to engage in honest dialogue and rely on factual evidence that so far is lacking.

And it should be kept away from the public domain, where we should stop bickering but be seen to support each other instead.

Dive With Sharks said...

It was an informative post that diving with sharks has its advantages and disadvantages yet more and more divers are interested in swimming with the sharks.