Sharks face an unprecedented challenge for survival. Can Sustainable Shark Diving help?

This week marks the 30th year of the Discovery Channel phenomenon, Shark Week. Shark Week is an annual, week-long TV programming block featuring shark-based programming. Premiered in 1988, was originally devoted to conservation efforts and correcting misconceptions about sharks. How much of that have we achieved?

In 2017, there were 88 reported unprovoked shark attacks and five fatalities worldwide, as per University of Florida International Shark Attack File. Compare that to the at least 100 million sharks killed in the world’s commercial fisheries each year and you realise who the monster in “Jaws” ought to be.

We recently caught up with marine biologist, Rick MacPherson, who’s dedicated himself to protect sharks that are globally threatened. He calls his initiative, Sustainable Shark Diving, an experiment to see if consumer voices can help build a stronger, safer, more sustainable industry. He shares details of his venture, recommends locations for you to dive in, clears misconceptions around the species and even tells us how his favourite shark dive memory.

Rick during one of the dives pictured with a Great White Shark

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Background and journey

I’ve been intrigued by the ocean since before I even saw the ocean or dipped my foot into seawater. I grew up reading Jules Verne and watching Jacques Cousteau and all of it fueled my passion. Science was the route that allowed me to ask and test the many questions I had, so it’s not surprising that my passion led me to studying marine biology as a profession.

My interest in sharks was fueled by their mystery and beauty. In 1975, as an 11 year old boy on holiday at Cape Cod, I begged my family to take me to see the premier of the movie Jaws. The next day, when everyone was running away from the waves, I ran head-first into the surf. A film that galvanized public perception against sharks only reinforced my love and fascination with these animals. I consider myself extremely lucky that now, as an adult, I find myself working for stronger protections for sharks globally.

Sustainable Shark Diving

Sharks, as a collection of over 500 different species of fish, have been present in our ocean and the history of life for over 420 million years. They preceded all life on land, all the dinosaurs, all mammals, and all humans by a very long stretch. They have shaped and structured ocean ecosystems for a very long time.

And now, after 420 million years of unbroken continuity, sharks are facing their greatest challenge thanks to human fishing.

Each year, at least 100 million and as many as 273 million sharks are killed in the world’s commercial fisheries, many solely for their fins, which are used in shark fin soup. Almost half of all shark species and their relatives assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are threatened or near threatened with extinction. At that rate, we are removing sharks from the ocean at least twice as fast as they can replenish their numbers.  This is a recipe for extinction.

Sustainable Shark Diving was created as a means to show that sharks have a value to us BEYOND the price for their fins or meat. That sharks play an ecological role in the ocean that is separate from the price we attribute to shark meat or shark fins. Sharks help maintain the health of marine life in the ocean, including populations of commercially important fish species. Like wolves and other top predators on land, sharks play an important role in the ecosystem and should gain similar protections. Science now shows that sharks help maintain the health of coral reefs. This is significant because coral reefs help protect coastal communities and infrastructure from the impacts of wave action and storms. They also provide shelter, breeding areas, nurseries, and food for shellfish, invertebrates, and fish. The waters surrounding reefs are a significant source of protein for over a billion people globally.  And as many destinations around the world are discovering, shark dive tourism is a very hot commodity. Divers are increasingly seeking opportunities to be in the water in close proximity to sharks. This shift in interest in sharks as charismatic ocean life is in stark contrast to the Hollywood 1970’s image of sharks as “mindless killers.”  As a result, shark dive tourism is booming.  For example, an individual reef shark in the dive destination of Palau is estimated to have a lifetime value of US$1.9 million to the tourism industry. In contrast, the value of that shark for just it’s fins or meat is estimated at about US$108.

Sustainable Shark Diving hopes to provide divers with a “Trip Advisor” like experience where they can review diver operators based on their own experience and then help other divers to make more informed decisions. It allows divers to compare diver operators to evaluate who is operating sustainably. More informed divers can then decide which shark dive operations they should support and which to avoid.

The gravity of the problem

Each year, at least 100 million and as many as 273 million sharks are killed in the world’s commercial fisheries, many solely for their fins, which are used in shark fin soup.  Shark reproduction and life history is more like mammals than it is of other commercially valuable fish like tuna or swordfish.  Sharks take very long to become sexually mature.  Once mature, they physically mate rather than spawn (release lots of eggs and sperm into the water).  After mating, females produce few pups (Vs thousands of offspring that tuna or swordfish produce).  Based on the number of sharks that are killed by global overfishing, we are losing sharks at least twice as fast as sharks are able to replenish their numbers.  From a simple mathematical perspective, this is a formula for extinction.

Misconceptions around the species

My most common observation when diving with people around sharks is they somehow believe that sharks are EVERYWHERE and VERY interested in our presence. I suppose this comes from the 1970’s Jaws phenomenon.  I can understand where this misperception comes from. The reality is that most sharks are VERY uninterested in our presence underwater. Sharks are equipped with an exquisitely complex collection of senses that allow it to survive in the ocean. Those senses often keep sharks at a distance or at a periphery to our senses. We are not ideal shark food, and as a result most sharks keep a distance from us. So much so that we more often spend time in the ocean without a clue that sharks may be near. When you combine this with the reality that we are removing sharks from the ocean faster than they can replenish their number, is it surprising that some shark dive operations need to bait the water in order to provide up close experiences with sharks?

Best practices one could adopt in Shark diving

Each shark dive experience is unique. Some shark dives are open water. Others are based on the bottom. And others are cage-based, depending on the species of shark to be observed. Each experience comes with its own set of best practices.

My recommendation:

1) Visit www.sustainablesharkdiving.com to find the location, species of shark, and reputable dive operator you would like to endorse;

2) Pay attention to the pre-dive briefing provided by the dive operator and then enjoy an amazing experience in close company of spectacular ocean wildlife.

Recommended locations

Sharks are found in all parts of the ocean, so your experience with sharks while diving is only limited by your willingness to travel.

If you like big sharks in clear warm water, there are great white sharks to be found in Isla Guadalupe, Mexico.  You can dive or snorkel with whale sharks, the largest fish in the ocean, in the Mexican Caribbean, the Philippines, or Indonesia.  Maybe you like flat sharks like manta rays? In that case, Hawaii or the Maldives are great destinations. The Bahamas is ground zero for the highest diversity of shark dive operations on the planet, with reef sharks, hammerheads, bull sharks, tiger sharks, and more.  Sustainable Shark Diving (www.sustainablesharkdiving.com) can help you narrow down options!

Favorite shark dive memory

My dive with bull sharks in Fiji for the first time very nearly ended as my last dive, ever.  The Beqa Lagoon shark dive with Beqa Adventure Divers (http://fijisharkdive.com/) is the gold standard by which sustainable shark dives should be measured. I showed up ready to spend time in very close proximity to big bull sharks. I was pumped. The dive takes place at about 30 meters, a deep dive where you normally use your air as a scuba diver faster than you would if you were shallow diving. I was so enraptured by being surrounded by more that 50 huge bull sharks that I wasn’t paying close attention to my air usage. It was perhaps 20 minutes into the dive when i noticed a difficulty in inhaling a breath. I checked my gauge which showed I was nearly empty at about 100 feet, surrounded by sharks. But as a diver with thousands of hours of diver experience (and a love of sharks), I just tapped my buddy on the shoulder and we buddy-breathed back to the surface. I still get razzed by friends for that dive, but it’s my favorite shark dive memory!

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