Face to face with the worlds second greatest predator!
In terms of efficiency of destruction, there’s really only one species on Earth that comes top. Sad as I am to be a member of that species, it did allow me the privilege of being able to come away unscathed from a face to face encounter with the second greatest predator on Earth: The great white shark!
South Africa is famous for its big 5 on land and nearly as famous for it’s big sea species too. The Hermanus Whale Festival plays host to vast numbers of southern right whales and I have been a reputable whale magnet since I’ve been here, seeing no fewer than 6 in 3 different locations up to 6 hours drive apart! But shark diving is the huge tourist draw for the country and countless documentaries have been filmed around the breaching great whites of False Bay – the only place in the world they do this – and right on my door step! I had those images on my mind when I scuba dived in False Bay last year – luckily all I saw was about 30 docile, seven-gilled cow sharks – but throughout the dive I never shook the image of a huge, grey, toothing grin coming right for me!
Despite the natural fear I (and most people) feel about sharks, I adore them and would sooner be eaten by one than see any serious harm come to it. I’ve always said if I went in to a restaurant and found it selling shark fin soup, I wouldn’t just leave, I wouldn’t just speak to the manager, in fact you would be hard pressed to stop me not turning over tables and setting fire to the place. Shark finning is barbaric and the wealthy twits who support it and make it an option for poor people with little choice, deserve to choke on their soup! Also as an oceanographer I know that sharks are often a by catch species for our commercial fisheries – killed wastefully by the destructive methods in use by large scale operations. This is hugely detrimental to them as slow breeding animals and detrimental to our ecosystems as they act as a top down predatorial control. So really, I feel like sharks need protection from us not us from them!
So where do I stand on shark cage diving? There’s a lot of media interest in linking shark cage diving with increases in shark attacks. As is often the case with media claims – there’s actually little scientific evidence backing any link between the two (we recently reviewed a paper on the subject (see here)). And to be honest from a purely logical point of view, I can’t see how there could be a detrimental effect on the sharks. Studies show no decrease in predation around cage diving areas (unsurprising as operators don’t feed the sharks, merely make the water smell interesting) and I know sharks are intelligent, but I struggle to see how they would recognise a human in a dive suit surrounded by a big, metal cage, attached to the side of a massive boat and connect this with an image of a surfer. If I were a shark I guess I could likely mistake a surfer for a seal but I’m not sure I could make the logical leap of “this smells like food, that thing wobbling about in that giant noisy, mechanical, metal thing looks tasty…..*12 hours later* Gee that shadow above me that looks like a big seal is probably related to that thing I saw ages ago that smelled interesting but didn’t actually result in food, I didn’t attack it then, but maybe I’ll attack this one now…” Am not convinced. They’re smart, but come on, that’s one hell of a logical leap to make based on no knowledge of reward, hell they don’t even eat the surfers they bite most of the time!
If there was a link and evidence we were really interfering with these awesome creatures then sure, I’d be the first in the picket line to stop it but at the moment I see the cage diving industry as doing 2 things based on my experience:
1. Providing jobs in a country desperate for them.
2. Connecting people with their environment and giving them a knowledge, understanding and love for it, so they will hopefully help conserve it.
We dived out of Gansbaai (False Bay is protected) with Shark Diving Unlimited. A company owned by “shark man” Mike Rutzen – famous for his free diving with great whites and efforts to show that they (and all shark species) are not ruthless man killers but amazing beings worthy of our protection. We watched Mikes Discovery Channel documentary (Sharks: man-eaters or misunderstood) whilst having breakfast and waiting for our boat to arrive – an awesome documentary if you can get your hands on a copy. The boat was spacious and the crew more than happy to chat about their work and about conservation. I was pleased with their attitude which was reminiscent of some of my favourite dive operators in Asia – basically, if you touch our precious stuff (shark/coral) you will not be diving with us. Safety was a primary concern and anyone even putting a finger outside of the designated areas was reprimanded. I saw no shark feeding and no towing of seal decoys to encourage breaching or anything I felt uncomfortable with.
Seeing a great white shark for the first time was truly epic. A great, dark shape appearing from the murky Atlantic waters as if from nowhere, made for very intimidating scenes before it was my turn to jump in the cage. Using a lure the sharks were attracted to pass in front of the cage and we got some amazing views of these amazing predators up close. In one instance a particularly large shark bashed the end of the cage with his tail as he turned around – the man on the end must have been terrified, but what a display of their power. We saw plenty of medium sized sharks and one large, fat-gilled female before it was time to leave.
Just to show the importance of the sharks to the ocean ecosystem, the boat took us around the heavily seal populated Dyer Island – the reason there are regularly sharks in this area.
This was the most unexpected feeling of the day for me: seeing the cute seals in abundance made me feel sad for the sharks. Toothy as they are, they should be given the same reverence and protection that we give our cute, furry, animal friends, but how many of us have felt sad for the seals being eaten in the documentaries? Forgetting that there’s probably only a tiny fraction (I imagine there is far less than 1 shark for every 1000 seals) of the number of sharks here there would be, if not for mans destructive nature. So if cage diving can help change the attitude of people, I’m all for it, it would be great for them as an industry to also promote sustainable fish choices, so that an awareness of the ocean passes from consumer to business. One little lad on our boat deemed this “the best day of his life”, hopefully he will remember that day when he’s older and shopping, or insist his mum buys better when she next takes him shopping?! As for me, I’ll be looking over my shoulder even more so when I next dive! But if I get eaten by a great white, that’d be an impressive way to go!!