DeFINitely Hot: Opinion on 'Deep Blue' the Great White Shark and 'Touch-Gate'
I think everyone who’s a wildlife enthusiast and is following respective accounts on social media has seen it: Deep Blue, the biggest Great White Shark that has ever been recorded, joined by self-accredited ‘Ocean Advocate’ and ‘Shark Conservationist’ Ocean (yeah, that’s her real name) Ramsey in Hawai’ian waters. What is extremely powerful footage, also raised concerns about wildlife harassment. Why? Because she is not only joining her but initiating physical contact. To be very honest, I was quite surprised! Not Ocean touching wild animals, because frankly, this is what she’s been doing in nearly every single shot in her Instagram feed, but about the backlash this very powerful image has caused among the social media community. People criticised this particular behaviour of a wildlife professional and ‘shark conservationist’ and I have to say, I was a bit proud!
It was claimed that these images will raise awareness about sharks not being mindless eating machines. While this may be a great and respectable intention, it is not clear why she needs to touch the animal to convey this message. It still would have been a powerful image with her just swimming alongside the animal. Because this is what you do, when you care about animals and their wellbeing – you want to interfere as less as possible.
Petting wildlife may have detrimental impacts, on you as a diver/ snorkeller but also on the animal. First, not touching any wild animal is a matter of respect. Imagine you would walk down the street, minding your own business and you’d have a hand on your chest or elsewhere (this is actually a scenario that happens to thousands of women every day but I’ll leave this as a side note here…). In short, we don’t know whether the animal likes to be touched and this is why we should keep the hands to ourselves. If the animal is NOT happy being touched, we’re in real danger – no matter whether you’re a ‘shark girl’ or Jane Doe. And this not only refers to sharks: Dolphins can become pretty nasty when being touched. Seriously. Look it up. So when you obtain a scuba diving license, you’ll be educated about the ‘look but don’t touch’ policy that may save lives. Because lots of marine life may be poisonous or venomous.
But it also protects the animal: I’ve recently heard that great whites are quite robust animals. This may be the case, but other elasmobranchs such as rays and skates or sunfish are quite sensitive. They possess a protective mucus that, if removed, may cause infections and we as humans, may transfer millions of germs. We’re pretty gross! Plus, these animals may carry sh*tloads of parasites and you don’t want to find yourself covered in this…
The only time it’s actually reasonable to touch a shark is when you need to redirect it, so it’s not ‘running’ you over. However, this clearly hasn’t been the case with Deep Blue, so what was the point?
One could argue that it’s all about the likes and self-promotion. But is it worth to lose credibility?
Difficult was also the attempt to shift the topic to a more invasive issue such as shark tagging or even shark fishing. First, shark tagging is probably more invasive than touching a shark. Period. But while touching a shark is not having any point at all (except for showing how incredibly badass you are!), shark tagging helps scientists to learn about sharks and their ecology, leading to a better understanding.
Second, Shark fishing is definitely more invasive than touching a shark. Period. We remove a shark from its environment which has a simple equation: Less sharks = bad for the marine ecosystem. Sharks are threatened by extinction, if you didn’t know.
However, bringing these comparisons up is nothing more than serious Whataboutism, trying to avoid the valid discussion about whether we should initiate physical contact with wild animals. And my answer on that is no, we shouldn’t.
I’m surely not an influencer (although my Instagram feed just reached the 5k, you guys are so amazing!!!), but as a scientist trying to advocate for sustainable and respectful wildlife encounters which, in my view, do not include any interference with an individual or group of animals, it is extremely frustrating to see that other professionals with such a wide reach and influence are not sticking to basic rules, f*cking things up for everyone else.
I think they do an important job though. They can turn around how these animals are perceived by the wider public, that they are minds of their own and that we’re not on their menu. At the same time, we as wildlife professionals have the responsibility to make sure they’re still left as wild animals – and not as pets. So it’s essential that these people stop being selfish as reputations can change immediately, their very own as well as those of the animals, when an incident occurs because inexperienced people have copied respective behaviour.
So hearing about all the criticism that this image has caused, put me a little at ease. Seriously. Because it means that people care. And that’s wonderful. People see that there are rules we need to follow and question dubious behaviour on social media. Way to go, folks, way to go!