Ask a Scientist: Diving with Sharks -what it's really like
To get myself in the experience of blending in with dozens of sharks required a bit more preparation than the other wildlife encounters during my fieldwork: Since this adventure wasn’t taking place close to the surface, I needed to gear up and get myself into scuba diving again. I’m a certified diver under PADI but not experienced at all. My last dive was three years ago when I wanted to see what it’s like to see Manta rays at night – which was great but it all required quite some effort from what I remember. For some reason, diving isn’t really my thing. Which is funny because I feel super comfortable in the water. I’m a water baby. But still, the dive bug didn’t bite me…yet. Probably because diving is a painful thing for me. I always have difficulties to equalise when going down and having said that it is obvious that it takes much longer for me than for the average diver, resulting in stress and frustration on my part. Further, diving is a couple activity as you always need a dive buddy, or, and which I absolutely loathe is, to adapt to new people all the time, building trust super quickly which is so against my nature. A pretty big part, however, probably played my first diving instructor, who not only made me to jump from a pier (this is NOT a requirement for the open water diver!!) against my will, but also harassed me big time (“do you want to take the final exam in my camper?”)…
Anyway. To do the shark dive myself, I had to get back into the saddle and therefore did a refresher. When diving with sharks I don’t want to think about the basics.
The Saturday trip was perfect due to a small group size of me and another person, plus four guides. A super private tour, huh…It takes approximately 20 min to the feeding site which was long enough to prepare myself mentally for what was coming next. I’ve been with sharks before but the outlook on scuba diving with highly predatory species required some quiet time. I’ve never been at 18m before and what if my ears decide to throw a tantrum again? Before entering the water, I’ve been greeted by rather docile but pretty big nurse sharks that were cruising the surface. I know that this scenario alone is a living nightmare for many people – like my dad who cannot swim and who was against any marine encounter I did so far. He had a near heart attack when I did the shark free dive in Hawai’i and probably didn’t sleep at all when I swam with killer whales to get my data. Yet he learned that all have been very friendly. Something I wish I could say about people I’ve met…I do trust animals more than I trust people. But since I’m naturally cautious, it took a moment for me to take the big step into the blue.
Once in the water, I prepared to submerge which was facilitated by a rope that went all the way down to the shark feeding site. This rope was my best friend during my procedure of equalising…once in a while a remora came along probably asking itself what the heck was wrong with this skinny redhead, looking super ungraceful. In the meantime silvertip and nurse sharks enjoyed the show as well. After probably 15 min I’ve made it all the way down and was ready to sit down behind the wall that constituted the border between divers and the ‘bistro’. A bin with prey items was floating close to the surface which was opened by one of the guides during the second dive we took.
Bull sharks are pretty massive. They just are. They’re powerful animals and at least I have huge respect for these creatures. I don’t have the slightest idea why anyone would think reaching out and touching these predators would be a good idea! They do come pretty close and this can be heart-stopping at times. But the guides always make sure they’re not getting cheeky. Because what I realised was, that your sight is pretty limited, due to the mask. So it’s good to have additional pairs of eyes as you need to be on constant alert. I’ve only taken a couple of pictures when I was sure the guides had my back. I think when the sharks do come closer this is not understood as a threat but merely because they are curious who we are. Also because apparently, sharks do recognise people. We had a calm day with “only” 10 Bull sharks around. Other than that, we met silvertip, reef, lemon and nurse sharks. So that’s a pretty high density of sharks. And that’s why so many divers from all around the world are coming to Fiji.
I should write a couple of sentences on the feeding as well. So feeding is a common tool in wildlife tourism to make animals accessible to people. As any interaction, feeding has an impact on the species being provisioned as well as the surrounding ecosystem but isn’t either a good or a bad thing. I don’t like it when animals are enticed to act as props for photo opportunities though because there is no benefit for the species whatsoever. Animals can also get used to and dependent on the feeding and don’t forage anymore. They may neglect their young which affects the overall population, or they may lose wariness, putting people at health risk (a hungry stingray is definitely stronger than you!).
So when it comes to food provision, there need to be benefits for all parties involved. With the shark dive, the animals are protected. The feeding site constitutes a marine reserve where sharks are protected from fishing activities. Every single diver who wants to experience the sharks pays a fee which the operator is forwarding to the local community that owns the area. In return, the sharks are not killed and sold. So each diver contributes to local shark conservation and I think that’s a pretty good thing. Concerning the amount of fish fed to the sharks, I would consider them rather as snacks than whole meals. As I said, the Bull sharks are massive and they wouldn’t maintain this appearance from getting one or two fish heads every two days or so and that’s a sign that they still hunt for themselves. Shark tourism, in general, is a good way to raise awareness and to show people sharks are friendly folks. Today, perceptions have changed a bit but there’s still room for improvement. Per year, roughly 7 people die from shark incidents. On average 26 people die from selfie-taking. In fact, here I’m at greater risk to be killed by a falling coconut than by a shark! Because lots of incidents happen due to mistaken identity. And Bull sharks are that notorious because they like to hang around in estuaries where sight is limited. One test bite and say sayonara to your limb! While sharks aren’t man-eaters they still are marine apex predators and wild animals and should be respected as such.
My shark dive was a pretty exciting experience. Just like all the other wildlife encounters I had so far. Being with animals is a wonderful thing and it’s even better when it contributes to their survival. Before you embark on wildlife feeding attractions, it is advised to do your homework first. The desire to see animals is often stronger than the moral-radar we carry with us, which is only human but should be questioned from time to time.