Sunday, March 25, 2012

About that Bahamas Video!

Same-same, possibly on another day. But who knows - the web is full of these images

Back to that attempted bite by that Tiger.
It has led to several blog and Facebook posts but above all, to a spirited debate behind the scenes. Depending on the interlocutors, there were discussions about whether the Shark was in predatory mode and this, an attempted predatory strike; about Shark diving protocols, actually the only topic of my last post; and about whether customers engaging in commercial Shark dives do assume full responsibility for their actions and should thus be allowed to do whatever they please.
Regular readers know what I think about the latter so no need to get into great detail there.

Plus, I frankly abhor these discussions.
Shark strikes are so exceedingly rare that they are statistically insignificant, and despite of the attempts by the various statisticians and Sesselfurzer at finding some common trends, there is way too much variability in terms of situations, locations, species etc but above all, they are neither replicable nor testable and as a consequence, they will be forever inaccessible to any proper scientific analysis.
All those wonderful explanations are at best educated guesses but more often than not, they are hopelessly trivial or simply outright stupid. In fact, they tell us next to nothing about Shark behavior but instead, a lot about human behavior in general (e.g. the strikes are more frequent when and where there are more people in the water - dooh) and even more about the personalities and agendas of the various commentators who range from hostile and outright phobic (actually, make it two!) to the Pavlovian on-camera reflexes of the self professed experts to the moronic and very much self-debunked teachings of the Ueber-Charlatan.
Consequently, Shark strikes are not something we usually cover.

But since this thing has become the topic of so many e-mails.
This is where I come from based on my own experience & what I’ve learned from others: divers, operators and researchers.
Not the “truth”, just my personal belief.
  • Like everything else (evolution, taxonomy etc), behavior happens along a continuum where we then want to create order & define categories. When it comes to Shark bites, I've tried to do so in this post. Those categories are pretty much clear at the extremes but extremely fuzzy at the boundaries - and although our definitions may be correct at a general level, interpreting stuff at an individual level is often extremely difficult. Think of the legal process: it consists in looking at complicated events and then analyzing, dissecting and reducing them to their essentials in order to try and to fit them into predetermined slots, i.e. the articles of the law, in a process called subsuming. Behavioral analysis is not much different and obviously fraught with the very same difficulties.
    And let there never be a doubt that whilst we're racking our collective heads trying to find adequate interpretations, the Sharks couldn't care less and will continue to act as they please!
  • After thousands of dives with Sharks, I’ve only witnessed natural predation a couple of dozen times, mostly after it had already started, and this in bait balls. Only twice have I witnessed the start of predation, once by HHs in Cocos and once by Grey Reefs in the GBR, and in both cases I never saw it coming - all appeared normal and peaceful and then, Bang!
    I’ve learned to recognize agonistic behavior (read it!) and I’ve learned to recognize when a Shark is nervous/excited – but I frankly haven’t got a clue what a Shark in predatory mode looks like.
    I would presume that a) as we define Sharks as being opportunistic, predation arises out of opportunity and is not premeditated, meaning that the animals will instantly start hunting/predating once they perceive a chance for a meal and b) that whereas it makes a lot of sense for a Shark to telegraph agonistic behavior, it would make sense for them NOT to telegraph predatory mode, this in order to better surprise/ambush their prey.
    Apart from the obvious examples (=wounded, struggling fish), I got no clue what, exactly, will be seen by them as an opportunity and trigger an attack – and therefore, when it comes to those big guys, I am always wary and always give them my full attention and respect.
  • I equate baited Shark dives with communal scavenging events, like several usually solitary Sharks aggregating around a whale carcass – thus natural behavior in an unnatural setting. Think: notoriously solitary Polar Bears aggregating at the garbage dump in Churchill, Manitoba and you may understand what I'm trying to say.
    I could imagine that during those events, there is some kind of social etiquette among conspecifics (I’ve never seen one of our bulls displaying overt aggression towards other bulls, although I certainly witness rank) whereas I believe that there is competitive aggression vis-à-vis other species because I’ve seen plenty of inter-specific bites, all by the dominant Bulls on other species - and elsewhere, I've also seen Silvertips biting away Nurses, etc.
  • I also haven't got a clue of how Shark perceive us during baited dives.
    At best, they may see us as being friendly (as purveyors of meals) or neutral (as just another big animal that happens to be there); but we can certainly not exclude that they may perceive us as threats, competitors or potential prey. My hunch is that based on individual circumstances, all of the above may well apply, and this once again along a continuum.
    Consequently, I believe that during baited Shark dives, there is a risk of
    a) bites due to mistakes (NOT = mistaken identity)
    b) bites due to inter-specific aggression due to competition, the other species being us
    c) bites due to agonistic behavior/retaliation (as any Lemon Shark handling student of Doc and Doc himself can attest to, this is certainly totally misleading in its generalization)
    d) maybe opportunistic predation.
    That’s a lot of risk and with these big species, the consequences are always devastating. I am of the strong opinion that that risk needs to be managed.
  • Although “common wisdom” has it that Tiger Sharks are placid, they are certainly very successful predators and certainly know how to get the job done.
    Those animals at TB are highly conditioned and display unusual behavior, as in tolerating the presence of divers, as do our Bulls. In many, many un-baited dives, and this in places where they are very much ubiquitous, I’ve only once seen one Tiger and only once Bulls, which I interpret as meaning that they usually want nothing whatsoever to do with us divers.
    The Tigers and Lemons obviously come to TB because of the bait: certainly not because they like or love us! That's just anthropomorphic mumbo jumbo and wishful thinking that we really need to stop propagating. I only know of one example where Sharks appear to approach a diver in search of affection (or is it stimulation?), and that would be Cristina's astonishing Caribbean Reefs - different species, location, circumstances!.
    Far from being the ever placid and friendly puppies some quarters are trying to market them into, I've personally witnessed both Tigers and Bulls actively trying to bite and hurt people after being manhandled, an I know two of our Bulls for being particularly ill tempered, something our handlers need to be acutely aware of. I also differentiate between species, with Silvertips being high on my list of Sharks with “attitude” that need to be treated with a lot of respect and circumspection.
    Consequently, I believe that aggression is situation-, species- and individually specific, and this once again along a continuum
  • I believe that the behavior of that Tiger was either agonistic (feeling hemmed in) or retaliatory - and yes the differentiation is fuzzy and rather irrelevant.
    What IS relevant is that
    a) the diver was either fatally complacent or really had no clue because he should have pushed away the animal instead of allowing it to swim between his legs (WTF?)
    b) irrespective of the ultimate motivation, a bite by a Tiger is a bite by a Tiger, with possibly devastating consequences but above all,
    c) as I said, I really have no clue what induces a Shark to recognize an opportunity - but IF it had managed to nail the diver, I just cannot exclude that that Tiger would not have “switched gears”, perceived the chance and started feeding.
    The only Shark/human predation I’ve ever seen is the Ritter accident (watch it!) and I am convinced that that Bull was not very motivated: but he first nibbled and then ate that leg because it perceived a chance for a meal, possibly attracted by the pasty white skin and possibly because once he tested it, there was no neoprene & it tasted good – but who knows, maybe the Bull just didn’t like the dude, something I can totally emphasize with!
  • The average experience and knowledge of our clients is very low and I believe that this is a global and increasing trend.
    In fact, 70+% of our customers have less than 100 dives. Seeing one of these big Sharks used to be the crowning of one’s diving career, now they are a “product” and a lot of people seem to believe that they are trivial, if not harmless. Others are adrenaline junkies & want to play hero.
    In both cases and if not curtailed, this leads to the same reckless behavior.
  • Long story short: as a commercial shark operator, you got to stack the cards in your favor.
    Protocols are obviously location- and species- specific but there are a couple of simple rules for baited Shark dives: excellent briefing, separation of sharks and people, avoidance of contrasting colors, meaning full body dark wetsuits and gloves, supervision of clients, uniform predictable routine not to confuse the animals (=no multi-user sites or at least, a uniform set of procedures - and yes, bravo Patric!). Here is another great example for good procedures in another place.
    For the life of me, I also don’t see any upside whatsoever in the grabbing and manhandling – yes we feed ours but that’s as far as we go, otherwise we just sit back, enjoy, observe. We want Sharks to be Sharks, meaning that on one side they are badass and require our respect but on the other side, they are obviously tolerant of divers and need not be unduly feared & demonized - but both aspects, not only one, are equally valid!
  • Are you still with me? :)
    So here's how I see it - literally!
    - there are people in close proximity to a bait crate, one of the stupidest things one can possibly do
    - this is absolutely nothing even remotely resembling a structured, let alone supervised dive
    - there is a large (!) Tiger Shark who attempts to bite one person and then takes an active interest in another who instead of confronting the animals tries to hop away.
To me as a commercial Shark dive operator, the obvious lack of protocols is absolutely reckless and unprofessional, and deeply abhorrent.

The customers?
Just your usual pick of dedicated and quite obviously green image hunters.

The operator?
Betcha it is again Dolphin Dream, habitual enabler of bad things with Sharks!
Quousque tandem...

OK that’s it… apologies for the verbal deluge.


Cristina said...

As always you present thoughts I find myself to agree with.
There are sharks, locations and behaviors, but above all protocols and they all have to work together.
Thank you for your always clear message.

Wolfgang said...

Mike: This was, again, a brilliant blog. 98% d'accord with what you stated. Forget the 2% - they are not relevant.

Being an amateur, perhaps a seasoned amateur, I will leave it to others to interpret this incident correctly, although I am convinced that it was NOT a potentially dangerous situation, at any rate not more dangerous than swimming next to tigers sharks closely.

I will not comment on the necessity of strict (or stricter) protocols. I don't feel qualified to make sensible and balanced suggestions.

There are many operators, probably most, who are responsible and will not allow what happened in the Red Sea back in 2010 where reckless operators let totally inexperienced snorkellers swim with oceanic white tipped sharks, notoriously bold and aggressive open water sharks.

Let me close this by quoting myself on what I said about the Red Sea fatalities:

"While I do consider sharks to be predictable to a large extent it makes much sense that a changed environment (offshore vs onshore and vice versa) would change typical behavioral patterns drastically.

I feel very comfortable interacting with conditioned tiger sharks, so much so that I would not fear an encounter with a "wild" tiger in open water - but, yes, as Mike said - perhaps I would find out that tigers are not just gentle "buddhas" after all but could be what most people think they are: aggressive, and potentially lethal predators.

On the other hand, I maintain that the way a diver / snorkeller faces a shark determines the outcome of the encounter.

Staying cool and moving calmly will probably always work. Seasoned shark divers / snorkellers such as Jeremy will act dominantly, even if they get bumped, and will thus be at a much lower risk of being attacked than a frightened novice diver / snorkeller or an unwary swimmer.

Splashing around wildly, swimming away from the shark (I have seen such "dangerous" behavior in a Russian YouTube clip a few days ago) kicking it with the fins, or fists, however, are the best ways to "attract" the shark and make it want to test bite.

I agree with OfficetoOcean that systematically feeding sharks will condition them to associate humans WITH food but never AS food. What's more: Baiting / feeding them will not just condition them but also "tame" them - well, that is what I think based on my observations.

Whatever the outcome of the ongoing investigations, nothing can substitute personal experiences with sharks - therefore, the problem is that novices will always be at a higher risk than "veterans" - that is just the name of the game. It's a wonderful game, though.

The lessons to be learned from these unfortunate incidents are quite clear: The shark dive operators will have to assume much more responsibiiity than in the past, and introduce strict safety protocols - it's also the only way to repair the incalculable damage the Sharm dive industry has suffered."

DaShark said...


I actually remember that comment of yours; I also seem to remember me answering that I did agree with 100% of what you said - but if not, I do! :)

Gut gebrüllt Löwe!

DaShark said...

Let me correct myself Wolfgang...

I do not agree that the situation was not potentially dangerous - do you really believe that if the diver had not retracted his leg, that bite would have been harmless?

Shark-Girl said...

Well written. You have captured our thoughts exactly. We always get sent links for these things and just shake our heads. Although natural behaviors can not be predicted, there are definitely protocols that should be followed by humans entering the ocean. Thanks for the share.

Wolfgang said...

Yes, Mike. Again, based on my experience with some very, and I mean: VERY close encounters of this kind, I'd say that even if the shark would have actually "gotten" the diver's leg it would not have harmed the guy.