A gentle swell rolled into the harbour. The hull of White Pointer rubbed a little over-enthusiastically against the grubby tyre-clad quayside and the boat’s smooth white fibreglass flank squeaked sharply up and down abreast the black rubber rings. One after another twelve eager passengers (myself included) stepped clumsily from the safety of Simon’s Town’s harbour and onto the vessel. White Pointer was the medium-sized fibreglass sea chariot which would carry us out from the lee of Cape Town’s main Naval facility and into the deeper waters of False Bay. Our destination: Seal Island. Our aim: To see and appreciate what most would probably agree is nature’s most perfectly adapted aquatic hunter: the great white shark.
I’ll admit that at this stage of the game, stepping down onto the faintly gore-stained deck of the boat, the possibility of actually seeing sharks still seemed like something of a particularly imaginative daydream. I’d lived either on, next to, or within striking distance of the sea all my life, and I have to say that on this particular day the view out and over the typically Atlantic waters of Africa’s southern cape looked no different to many others I’d enjoyed at home in the United Kingdom over the years. Sharks hadn’t appeared on any of those previous days, so why should I believe that they would today? The waves were just as wavy, the water just as wobbly and the sky just as overcast. It was a very familiar seascape. As I embarked White Pointer I was thirty two years old and up until that moment had never seen a toothed shark in the wild. I say ‘toothed’ because in my adult life I had on a number of occasions seen basking sharks feeding in the rich, west coast waters of my native Scotland. But, despite being the second largest fish in the world, somehow the filter-feeding format of these leviathan’s food-seeking forays relegated those memories (thrilling though they were!) to the ‘close, but not quite’ category of shark encounters. I had never seen the ocean’s tooth-heavy hunting machines at work, and somehow the suspense I felt as we cast off from the harbour in Simon’s Town kept me detached from the reality of the fact that this time, off the South African coast, honestly and genuinely I was in shark-infested waters.
Perhaps it was the grey skies overhead, or perhaps it was the somewhat disappointingly murky quality of the water through which we ploughed, but somehow, despite all the ‘here be monsters’ reality of the situation, I still didn’t believe that I would see anything shark-shaped that day. Maybe it was just the fact that I wanted it so badly? I was so excited by the prospect of sharing my space with a great white shark that, like a teenage boy lost in the thick of a high school crush, I just couldn’t bring myself to have confidence in success.
As a child I had been captivated by sharks. I read Peter Benchley’s ‘Jaws’ whilst aged only ten (waaaaay too young) and subsequently watched Steven Spielberg’s screen adaptation (as well as its sequels) many years before the British Board of Film Classifications would have liked. Yes, I lost a few nights’ sleep as my immature mind processed some of the gorier scenes and yes, there were a fair few passages in the book which were certainly lost on my pre-pubescent awareness of the world. But, the awe and fascination which those early exposures to the twentieth century society’s reckoning of the shark instilled in me had lasted. I was in awe of these creatures and, in my desire to see and thus better understand them, this trip felt in many ways like some kind of passive pilgrimage.
But would I see a great white? Only time would tell. I was still in a state of some disbelief as White Pointer moved out and away from the boat-choked inner harbour.
Intent on at least enjoying the boat ride, irrespective of whether Mr Bitey chose to make an appearance, I climbed up the external ladder mounted on the aft of the wheelhouse and emerged out onto the fly bridge. From here I had an unimpaired three hundred and sixty degree view of what was going on. I could see ahead towards the distant mountains of Gordon’s Bay, north around the inland slopes of Table Mountain and sternwards, back towards Simon’s Town and down below my feet onto the main deck and working space of our small boat. There, lashed down onto our small ‘marina deck’, snug between the throbbing engines, was the diving cage. Seeing this made everything that little more real. In barely more than an hour or so that small aluminium cage would be in the water amongst the sharks, filled with… well… me! That was the plan anyway. Gazing down at this cage, alongside the assorted plastic tubs of bait (fish heads and off-cuts, all of which fell decidedly on the charismatic side of fragrant)… now things began to feel a little more tangible. Perhaps I really was going to see a shark!
Soon we passed beyond the harbour’s restricted speed zone and the skipper, an olive-skinned man with a face soaked in sea shanties, opened the throttles. The boat leapt from six to twelve knots in only a second or two and as the rooster tail between our large outboards rose higher and higher from the vessel’s wake we turned to seaward, catching a clear view of the numerous modern warships which sat alongside in the Naval facility. At least two destroyers and a frigate lay idly gathering barnacles at their moorings, sheltered from the South Atlantic swells which we in White Pointer were now beginning to taste.
Also in the Naval yards, although a little less conspicuous than the large grey warships, lay a smallish submarine. It was laid up, high and dry-docked and tucked away almost out of sight behind a large red maintenance hangar. Its bluff, semi-rounded bow section and rigid black ‘tail’ gave it the look of a beached sperm whale. Only the conning tower distinguished it as a submarine and not as some kind of faux cetatcean. But then of course, it occurred to me, that this is exactly what a submarine is: a man-made sea creature! Should it be surprising that they so closely resemble whales? Nature has already provided the blueprints for survival in the oceans, as well as in the sky and on land. If we want to work in those worlds we need only copy the animal kingdom’s designs. And so airliners have wings, submarines have fins and 4×4 trucks have four mud tyres where four clawed paws would otherwise be. But what a huge investment of time, research and money are required to build these approximations of nature! The steel warships which I could now see from White Pointer, probably represented a financial investment comparable to the annual economic turnover of one of the world’s smaller countries! And their sole purpose is simply to permit mankind to carry arms at sea. Every fish, from the smallest guppy to the greatest white shark, is born ready to do just that: Take their own little fight to the world’s oceans. As billions of Rand’s worth of grey-painted hardware sits slowly rusting in Simon’s Town, perfectly adapted sharks move effortlessly through the water within sight of the shore, sensing, stalking and preying; natures ultimate ocean-going short-range weapons platform. As we on the boat sped off into deeper waters it seemed somehow appropriate that we should leave those clumsy, angular, riveted examples of mankind’s modern maritime might behind us, falling out of focus astern of our foamy wake as we pushed onwards in search of the real thing. Nature’s ‘original’ pelagic predator.
South Africa boasts one of the world’s densest populations of great white sharks. In fact, of our planet’s four hundred and fifty plus species of shark, more than one hundred are found in South African waters. Why? It all comes down to food.
Where the cold waters of the Atlantic kick southwards around the Cape of Good Hope they meet the warm waters of the Indian Ocean which swirl westwards around Cape Agulhas, the true southernmost point of Africa. This geography not only delivers two oceanic temperature ranges, providing a specialised habitat for sharks of either a cold or warm water persuasion, but it fosters a rich marine ecosystem and provides a stage upon which some of nature’s greatest maritime dramas are played out as these two mighty oceans wrestle each other on a seasonal basis. The annual sardine run up South Africa’s eastern coast is considered one of nature’s ‘great events’, countless millions of sardines shoaling and migrating northwards simultaneously, drawing oceanic predators both great and small. Meanwhile, in the colder waters of South Africa’s Atlantic side, southern fur seals are found in abundance. Here they hunt and breed, and so at certain times of year the water off key breeding sites is full of young seals, struggling to find their sea legs in the turbulent waters of the African cape. For sharks, this is boom town!
So we made our way eastwards from Simon’s Town to a large rocky islet located several nautical miles out into False Bay. Here, on ‘Seal Island’, tens of thousands of fur seals were meeting, hitting it off and doing their duty for future generations. At this time of year the water around the rocks would be full of seals both young and old; a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet for sharks!
Upon reaching the island the crew of White Pointer manoeuvred us around to its southern side and dropped the anchor above a long and gently sloping shallow area known esoterically as the ‘launch pad’. Here, in the shallow lee of the island the seals apparently have less room to manoeuvre, and therefore in a hot pursuit situation have less latitude for escape. Thus, the sharks’ odds of success are higher at this spot than elsewhere. But still, fur seals, even young ones, are no slouches in the swimming department! They themselves hunt fish, and so through necessity can swim with startling speed and agility. In fact fur seals can frequently be seen ‘porpoising’ through the water, leaping clear of the waves like dolphins, such streamlined swimmers they are. So, the sharks here have their work cut out for them, and in False Bay, more than anywhere else in the world, great whites are observed to ‘breach’, or leap clear out of the water in pursuit of their speedy prey. Hence our shallow anchorage’s nickname: ‘the launch pad’.
As we dropped anchor I began to set myself up on the fly bridge to photograph the process of the cage being put over the side. But, this clearly wasn’t the crew’s first rodeo and before I could even manhandle my camera out of its bag the cage was in the water, alongside the boat and secured by several mooring lines to our port flank. From here on it was to be a game of baiting and waiting. At least now I had my camera in hand!
We were not the only people out on the water that day, intent on getting up close and personal with great whites. As we were setting up on our afternoon’s anchorage another two similarly sized boats arrived on the scene, also carrying passengers and diving cages. They dropped their anchors just as we had done and sent their cages over the side as well, all little more than thirty meters away from our position. This gig was obviously something of a local boom industry. We had known this before booking places on White Pointer, just as we had known that the different competing businesses operated in different ‘styles’, employing slightly different techniques to first draw the sharks in and then to create the best chance of providing a rewarding experience for their passengers. Of course it is far from easy to reliably and repeatedly create this experience day after day and trip after trip, especially with sharks. When dealing with fish, of any size, the onus isn’t on you to spot the wildlife, but rather it’s on the wildlife to spot you. Your quarry must be lured, reliably. This issue of repeatability and therefore ‘guaranteeing’ a product, is a challenge for guides in any wildlife watching business, but the world of shark viewing in particular is surrounded by opinion and controversy.
One of the main issues which dogs the practice of shark watching is the concern voiced by many that in luring sharks with ‘chum’ (basically strong smelling fish puree) and the promise of an easy meal you will habitualize those sharks and create an association in their behaviour between people and food. This could conceivably lead to a sharp increase in shark attacks on humans; an issue of particular concern in South Africa where (relatively) warm waters and reliable surf foster a lively water sports culture. But of course the sharks are there and people want to see them! Jobs are also at a premium, and so shark watching tours, which draw good numbers of tourists to South African shores, are a valuable commercial prospect. But, if tours are to be run on the promise of seeing sharks then there needs to be a way of reliably producing those sharks virtually on demand. To chum or not to chum? That is the question!
In the Arctic similar problems surround the treatment of polar bears. Bears probably draw more tourists north of the Arctic Circle than any other factor and all of them expect to spot a bear. However, stringently enforced laws prohibit the feeding or luring of bears. The reason for this is to minimise the chances of bears becoming habitualized and therefore to reduce the likelihood of them approaching humans; a scenario which is very likely to end in a fatality, either for the person or the bear in question. But, in the Arctic bears have few places to hide, and after several seasons’ experience of guiding in the high Arctic I can tell you that anyone can arm themselves with a good chance of seeing one simply by spending enough time outside and looking around. Therefore the tourist industry survives, even thrives. Sharks however live below the water, out of sight. You could swim just inches from one and never see it. So, some kind of lure is needed to bring them in and deliver the ‘product’ to your boat of excited shark spotting tourists. Thus, ‘no feeding’ laws become redundant almost as soon as they are tabled for discussion. Unfortunately sharks are lured by one thing and one thing only, and that is the promise of food. So, what is to be done? The industry already exists! The people flood in and the boats flood out! The issue is how to run things in as sustainable and safe a manner as possible.
We had been careful to book our shark experience with a company which advertised a responsible and environmentally-minded approach to viewing. Basically, their aim was not to feed the sharks, but rather just to lure them in close enough to provide passengers with a rewarding experience. This entailed throwing large bait (such as fish heads) out on ropes which could then be pulled back into the boat just as a shark showed any interest. Thus, the shark is drawn in by the smell, is attracted to the bait and comes in for a bite, but ideally gets no reward. Therefore not only is the shark kept interested long enough to provide a good ‘interaction’, but it doesn’t actually secure a meal from its encounter with the boat. Yes, the bait is still used, and the shark is still drawn in towards people, but at the end of the day the shark has (hopefully) not learned to associate people with having a full belly. The humans leave happy and the shark leaves indifferent. Arguably, the shark leaves even hungrier than it was before, having wasted energy pursuing a meal which never transpired. So, you could say that the whole process serves to reverse-condition the sharks, teaching them that boats, and people, are a waste of their time and energy. This may be debatable, but its food for thought, if you’ll excuse the pun. At the very least it is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately however, not all shark tour companies adhere to the same practices or subscribe to the same school of thinking.
Anyway, back to the boat. As the White Pointer’s crew started tossing the bait lines out, slapping the sides of the hull and thrashing the water with the blunt end of boathooks I still felt numb with disbelief that somewhere, potentially very nearby, the world’s most notorious and finely honed predator could be lurking. I honestly didn’t believe I was going to see anything. Being a guide myself (albeit in the Polar Regions) I understand the innate unpredictability of wildlife and know that no tour ever comes with the guarantee of an encounter. But I also knew from experience that sometimes you just get spectacularly lucky. Which kind of day would this be? All we could do was watch the water for any sign of life. A flash of white, a dark silhouette or perhaps even the iconic Hollywood dorsal fin? Who was to know? I was still very much in the predicament of having little more than my imagination to call upon for material.
But, sure enough, after perhaps only fifteen minutes of patience the first call went up from the crew:
“First shark! Coming around to the right!”
At that call all the bait lines were immediately pulled in. They were then re-thrown, only this time further from the boat. The crew then started pulling them in once more, albeit now more slowly, providing a steady moving target for any hungry shark.
I still hadn’t actually laid eyes on the beast itself unfortunately, and this was frustrating me. I was used to guiding tourists myself, working in waters rich in whales, seals, penguins and many other amazing marine animals. In that role it was my job to first spot the ‘critters’ and then help the less accustomed to lay eyes on them. Why couldn’t my eyes pick up on what I was now being told was a four metre long apex predator? It was tantalizing. But, fortunately for my ego, moments later I saw it, coming shallow in pursuit of one of the bait lines. Of course the crew had long since had their eyes on the shark and the lines were once again being withdrawn, so the shark came close in towards the boat in pursuit before turning away towards the bow. It was huge! I watched its dark outline slowly condense from the turbid greens of the water and then almost immediately afterwards saw a flash of white as it rolled sidewards, opening its mouth in anticipation of a strike. I couldn’t make out the detail through the reflections which danced on the waves, but what I did see, mixed with what my imagination doubtless wanted me to see, was thrilling.
The shark moved upwards in the water column, ready to lunge at the bait (which was quickly withdrawn from reach). As its target eluded it the shark turned to move gracefully away and as it did so it’s dorsal fin cut the surface. At this point my initial thrill at laying eyes on this most awesome of predators was abruptly cut with another feeling; something in-between pity and revulsion, for the front of the shark’s fin – that oh-so-iconic fin – was cut deep, right down to the meat. The whole leading edge was an open wound, almost like someone had taken a large potato peeler to this shark. It looked ugly and painful, like a badly skinned shin bone, and seemed likely to have been caused not by the teeth of another predator or by the death throes of this animal’s prey, but by an involuntary encounter with a man-made object; in all likelihood either a boat or a diving cage. This was my first view of this wonderful animal, and here it was, bleeding from an injury sustained through exposure to people like me, on boats like this one. It was sad.
Still, in the thrill of the moment I certainly didn’t have time to process these thoughts. I was mainly just thrilled to be here, and so close to this beautiful, if scarred, animal. Within a few minutes our first diving group were in the cage and underwater, peering through the greenish waters at the great fish which was repeatedly approaching and retreating as the bait lines were cast and then withdrawn. A few minutes later another call went up:
Now there were two! Amazing!
In fact, within half an hour there were at least four separate great white sharks circling not only our boat but the other two as well. We had been the first to attract any attention, but as more individual sharks appeared the space around White Pointer became limited and the other boats began to get some action.
The views were spectacular. As the encounter drew on the sharks became bolder and soon they were lunging upwards with greater commitment, their heads lifting clear of the water. For the first time in my life I saw the whole drama of a great white strike play out in the flesh. I saw the shark’s eyes roll back in their sockets, the mouth open wide and the jaws protrude savagely forwards, baring that nightmarish set of triangular teeth for all to see. It was spectacular, and humbling. And I hadn’t even been in the cage yet!
Donning the wetsuit and goggles in readiness for my plunge was an exercise in excitement management. My hands almost shook with anticipation as I hurriedly fumbled with the tight neoprene vacuum packing. Here I was, gift wrapping myself like a fresh meat cutlet ready to be stacked for the shark’s window shopping pleasure! And I couldn’t wait!
I was so fixated on the prospect of seeing these wonderful creatures in their element that any fear I might have expected to feel was diluted out of all recognition. Even as I slipped awkwardly off the side of the boat and into the cage I somehow, perhaps foolishly, still didn’t feel any of the apprehension that a healthy minded human might be expected to feel in that situation. The only nervousness I was aware of was that the sharks would by now have lost interest and I wouldn’t get the same viewing opportunities that the previous cage captives had enjoyed. I threw myself into that greenish, soupy, life-rich water like a dog chases a stick into a festering canal: blind with joy.
The experience which followed was amazing. The sharks were just beautiful, in all their muscular, purpose-built predatory simplicity. Time and time again the bait lines were thrown out and time and again the sharks came in and lunged, only to be left with empty mouths. In a way it was sad to watch, but the sense of it was easy to see. Yes, the sharks were being lured, un-naturally, into being made a spectacle of. But ultimately they were not being trained to come to people for food, and were not being harmed either. At least they weren’t being harmed by our boat.
Only a few minutes after I had eventually climbed out of the cage, following perhaps forty five minutes in the water, I turned during a lull in the action to see how the other charter groups were faring. The boat off to our starboard side, operated by another company, had one large shark by its diving cage. The crew had thrown out a piece of bait on a robust line, just as we had been doing, but rather than withdrawing the line like our crew would have, had allowed the shark to bite onto it. Now, treating the rope like a particularly heavy-duty fishing line, they were literally pulling the shark in towards the cage. A crewman was wrestling with the line as the shark thrashed around only feet away from the aluminium mesh. Eventually the remains of the bait were pulled free from the shark’s jaws but almost immediately another freshly fish-adorned line was thrown into the water. Within minutes they once again had a big shark on their ‘hook’, and again they pulled it in towards the boat. This time the shark lunged, bait in mouth, into the hull. I watched alongside several other passengers as the animal was hauled in, kicking the sea up into great white plumes. It was now apparently trapped between the hull of the boat and the bars of the cage, which contained no fewer than five doubtlessly adrenaline charged tourists. The shark thrashed around amidst aluminium and fibreglass. Even from a distance we could hear the smack of its tail against the hard hull. Given this display it wasn’t difficult to imagine how that first shark we’d seen came to acquire that deep (and recent) gash on its dorsal fin.
I was at a loss. How was this allowed to go on? All obvious safety concerns aside; those raised by an unsecured crewman literally wrestling a twelve foot shark on a rope while numerous tourists walk freely around the deck of the small boat; All that aside, how could it be that we deem it acceptable to treat the sharks this way? How could those passengers walk away from that encounter feeling good about the experience, and how could the crew take any pride in their interaction with these animals? The great white shark has been a protected species in South Africa since 1991, and has been included on the Cities list of endangered species since 2004. And this is how some people choose to interact with them?
I was confused and perturbed by what was happening on this other vessel. The methods being used, and the crew’s apparent lack of reverence for the very animals which were providing their livelihood upset me. I had been drawn into undertaking this trip through awe and respect for these most finely tuned seaborne hunters, and I had to assume that the passengers on both the other vessels had too. Why then, were tour companies getting away with what seems to amount, as far as I’m concerned, to outright abuse? One of the fundamentals of nature tourism is to approach, enjoy and depart without harming the creatures we’ve chosen to interact with. As I looked on, this shark was being bruised, battered and fed, leading to immediate injury and, in the long-run, a feeding pattern which could lead to the death either of the shark or an unwitting swimmer. The sense of it escaped me, and in South Africa: a country famous the world over for its developed and sustainable safari industry… This just didn’t make sense. Why is it we treat lions, cheetah and leopards with such respect, but it is acceptable to torment a shark like this? Why the double standard? What is it which makes sharks different, and makes us act in such a contradictory manner? Where is the sense in the psychology?
Sharks live in another world; a world in which we are hopelessly ill equipped to perform even the most simple, rudimentary functions. As gangly, air breathing bipeds we humans can’t even see or move properly under water, far less breathe! The ocean quite simply isn’t our domain. It’s no more hospitable to us than deep space. Of course with the aid of technology and life support tools we can pass over it, or even through it, but when those technologies, however basic, fail us, life more often than not becomes measureable not in years but in minutes and hours.
Almost every coastal culture, modern or ancient, reveres the sea. It is a source of life, bringing food and commerce, but those who live with it know that it can turn on you in meteorological heartbeat, and when things go wrong out there they REALLY go wrong. Lives are lost. The ocean’s dizzying, fathomless depths are a well of fear, and so how should one feel about those creatures which not only live and move in that unseen and unknown world of inky, nebulous dread, but which hunt in it also? Viewed from this perspective it’s no surprise that sharks commonly conjure such unpleasant emotions. Just as H R Giger’s 1982 ‘Alien’ creature, with its emotionless mask and double row of teeth (features shared by sharks), continues to instil fear into the hearts of cinema audiences worldwide even more than thirty years after the Alien franchise first hit the big screen, so too do sharks, even after they and modern homo-sapiens have shared the planet for hundreds of thousands of years.
We fear the sea with or without apex predators, and so those things which lurk beneath it and which can do us harm wear a double veil of terror. Any horror film director will tell you that the scariest monsters are the ones the audience never sees, and true to this model, from the viewpoint of a human swimmer, sharks lurk deep below and out of sight until the moment that they choose to strike. Ridley Scott; James Cameron… Neither could have written a more terrifying scenario if their lives depended on it. And of course Steven Spielberg – director of the most famous shark movie ever made… Well, in effect he needn’t even have tried! The star of Jaws, the great white shark, brought the terror with it. Nature had already ticked all the circumstantial boxes for the perfect movie monster. All Spielberg needed to do was tell the story.
But all of this is plain to see and easy to understand. Even the least travelled and most uninformed amongst us could deliver a compelling account of why sharks are scary. But then so are lions, bears, leopards, tigers, wolves, cougars… The list of predatory land dwellers with which we share our space is a long one, and you needn’t look far for instances of human lives being lost to these animals. In fact more people are known to have been killed by bears than by sharks, and yet we wrap our children up in bed with likenesses of bears and spend millions, internationally, on their protection. What makes the shark so different? Why doesn’t it deserve our protection? Perhaps it’s because the shark doesn’t play by our rules? Bears breathe with lungs like ours and see with eyes like our own. They smell our sweat with a nose like we have and when they chase us they do so using legs, feet and fingers, much like the ones we would use to run away! We can understand and even empathise with all of these things! We can even imagine what it feels like to be hungry as a bear. With so many physical similarities, why should the feeling of hunger be any different to a bear than it is to us? Why should it be any less painful? But to a shark? What does hunger feel like to a shark? A shark doesn’t hear us with ears, but senses us through electrical impulses in the water. They breathe water through gills, not air through lungs. They don’t chase us on legs, but pursue us using fins through the three-dimensional space of the ocean. When a man confronts a bear or a leopard he knows that he’s at a disadvantage as the playing field is far from level. But when a man confronts a shark… That playing field is absent altogether! At least you can run on a playing field! Sharks operate in a different universe.
But why do we hate them? Lions, bears, wolves… These are animals which, if they chose, could literally take our children from their beds! A shark can never do this. If we are in danger from a shark it’s because we have wilfully taken ourselves from the relative safety of our world and put ourselves knowingly into theirs. – A world where nothing is on our side. By entering the ocean we knowingly step off the playing field. So, surely, when a shark attacks, the responsibility lies with us. No?
Sometimes in life it’s hard either to explain or to justify why we feel the way we do. It doesn’t matter what the context; feelings can be as difficult to rationalise as chicken flavoured ice cream or as abstract as a Tait Modern nightmare. Feelings, more often or not, are something which we do not choose but which simply take up residence in our heads and bodies like Gypsies in a scenic lay-by, i.e. you expect them and in a sense you understand them, but they’re still bloody inconvenient! But, we do have the faculty to reflect on those feelings and choose our actions. Why do we hate the shark? Is it really born of fear, or is it resentment?
Sharks are masters of their environment. They are equipped to live their entire lives in places where Homo sapiens, unequipped, would last minutes only. In the water, they win. Does that sting our pride? If so, what about bears? Polar bears are masters of their environment also, and again, the Arctic Ocean is a place where an unequipped human would count his lifespan in hours. And what’s more, polar bears actively hunt us! They knowingly stalk us and, when the opportunity presents itself, they kill us, for food. Sharks do not predate on humans. All the evidence suggests that shark attacks are little more than cases of mistaken identity. They no more want to eat us than most humans would salivate over a bowl of frogspawn. But still, we respect and even love polar bears while sharks lag behind, perpetually dangling somewhere on respect’s waiting list.
We could hunt sharks to extinction and the truth would remain unchanged that they, not we, will always be masters of the deep. We are the invaders. This dovetails into an interesting issue: the question of what exactly constitutes a monster. What is a monster? In most stories penned by man a monster comes from an alien place and stalks us using the familiar as a shroud. The bogeyman creeps into our bedrooms and takes us as we sleep. Vampires come under cover of darkness and again prey on us in our own homes. Dragons descend from the sky and pluck men of legend from their own fields or battlements. What of sharks? Only when we enter their world do things turn sour for us. But for them, we are the danger. They patrol their realm, taking what they need, whilst unseen and unknown to them, creatures come and strike them from above using technologies and methods completely alien to them. And when the two worlds meet nowadays, more often than not it is the shark who suffers either injury or death. Perhaps, when awe and fascination are permitted to wane in the face of ego and greed, and when we forget the respect which first drove us to learn more and to come face to face with these spectacular creatures… When sharks are baited, wrestled and battered into providing a spectacle which is doubtless thrilling to the sightseer but at minimum painful and ultimately potentially fatal for the shark… Perhaps then it is we who are the monsters, not them.
Sharks are every bit as spectacular, every bit as frightening and every bit as irreplaceable as the snow leopard, the polar bear, the Bengal tiger, the cheetah, the timber wolf, the Condor, the golden eagle, the orca… Just pick any one of the land, sea or sky-dwelling predators which we revere, appreciate and protect. Sharks, irrespective of the threat they pose to us, deserve every bit as much respect, care and protection. By damaging them through irresponsible tourism we not only endanger these spectacular animals, but we discredit ourselves. To tolerate double standards within the eco tourism industry is to detract from the integrity of that industry.
It is true that in some cases the greatest challenge faced by conservationists is establishing the relevance of a responsible approach, but surely we needn’t preach about relevance to those who ostensibly make a living off people’s awe in nature.
Knowingly perpetrating irresponsible and damaging interactions with sharks, of any species, is a flagrant violation of the basic principles upon which nature tourism is based in modern society. It is ignorant, it is disrespectful and it is stupidly short-sighted. Some operators conduct themselves responsibly, showing pride in their product and respect for the sharks. Other operators not only damage the sharks and compromise the industry, but they make a fool of themselves in full view of everyone. They know who they are, and so does everyone else.