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Dining out with the sacred cows
Appeared in DIVER June 2010
He's not a shark expert, hasn't studied shark behaviour and belongs to no shark conservation groups, though he was once hit by a shark that wasn't looking where it was going.
Good job HE Sawyer doesn't bear a grudge
IN THE BEGINNING, the day after I'd passed my Open Water, and become one of you, I bumped into the assistant instructor in the bar.
Free of newbies, he'd been out doing proper diving. "We saw a sh... H!... SH!!... SHARK!!!" he said.
He wasn't scared, or cold. He just had a speech impediment. Luckily for him. I'd missed the boat, having been kidnapped by a ruthless gang of papyrus touts. Even then, I knew I'd be a Jonah, and nobody would see anything decent with me for a buddy.
But I did wonder what it would be like to encounter a shark. I didn't go looking for them specifically, and figured it would just be a matter of time.
Three years later, I finally saw not one, but two, resting on the seabed. Biggest anti-climax of my diving life.
Now I'm sorry, but I don't care about sharks. I never have, and I never will.
They're fine on a T-shirt, although I don't get the buzz if a percentage goes towards their well-being, because I care about shark conservationists even less.
No doubt the feeling's mutual. By tonight I'll be suspended over water, my forearm dripping blood, while a henchman raises the door of the shark tunnel. They probably won't tie Jane Seymour up with me, either.
There's a sense that, because I dive, I'm expected to sign up for sharks. Because, if shark activists can't count on divers, who can they count on?
I've been considering this diver-shark relationship, following a "discussion" I had last year with a Scandinavian in a tinpot airport.
Lone travellers thrown together for a seemingly civil conversation, we were surreptitiously trying to trump each other with our exploits. A little further, a little deeper... a little dysfunctional?
Then I mentioned that I wouldn't mind an "interactive" dive to watch sharks feed - and I got the lecture.
In summary, feeding changed shark behaviour. He was a marine biologist, so he knew!! (He definitely used exclamation marks.)
One of us was standing his ground, and one of us wasn't, because thankfully my flight was boarding.
Views on shark-feeding are polarised, conservationists in one corner, financially interested parties in the other. The rank-and-file pick sides, then there's an ideological punch-up and, although I don't give a monkey's about sharks, I don't want to miss the opportunity to goad everyone on.
No contest? I can't find one marine-conservation group that thinks feeding is a good idea. Most suggest that it changes behaviour, distribution, feeding patterns and the nature of the shark's contact with man.
Instead of patrolling a large habitat for food, sharks may, as a result of organised feeds, stay in one relatively small location, and closer to more of their own species than would otherwise be the case. Anti-feeders fret that sharks will become dependent on "hand-outs", and may not put the same effort into hunting prey when they have a dependable food source.
Conservationists also fear that illegal shark-fishing could take place at shark-feed sites, once the diving audience has left for the day.
In 2001, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission banned feeding of marine life, after a group of divers (the Marine Safety Group) lobbied for action, having experienced an increase of intrusive sharks expecting food.
There were growing concerns that the feeding and baiting of sharks by dive operators and photographers was leading to an increase in shark attacks, although incidents have continued since the ban.
But in February 2008, the first diver was killed on an interactive dive in the Bahamas. The charter-boat operator had moved there from Florida to avoid the ban.
Of course, shark attacks of any description are rare: "You're more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a shark," we're told. Obviously. On this planet, far more people are exposed to the possibility of being struck by lightning than being bitten by a shark, at any given time.
Truth is, while we paddle, swim, surf, dive, capsize or wade across the Zambezi, we'll have incidents.
And regardless of the risks, divers will want to experience sharks, though conservationists maintain that actual encounters are not a prerequisite to encouraging shark-protection.
They claim that most divers would prefer genuine interaction over a circus act anyway. Dermot Keane of Sam's Tours, founder of the Palau Shark Sanctuary agrees: He has said that shark-feeding "not only endangers divers and snorkellers but also interferes with the sharks' natural survival behaviour.
"One of the beauties in diving Palau is that seeing sharks on every dive is almost guaranteed! There's no need to feed sharks in Palau," says Sam.
The Palau Shark Sanctuary was formed in 2001 to stop the finning and poaching of sharks and, with political assistance, this great natural resource has been protected.
Dermot is a lovely bloke, a true patron saint of sharks.
However, it's easier to take the moral high ground when your desk is less than an hour from Blue Corner and other sites where you're "almost guaranteed" to see sharks under natural conditions. Few destinations have that luxury.
Incidentally there's a PADI Blue Corner Diver Distinctive Speciality course, if you're interested. And opponents say that PADI supports shark-feeding only because it
wants to sell PADI speciality shark-diving courses...
You can also join Dr Erich Ritter's SharkSchool week with Sam's Tours. Ritter is the shark behaviourist who was badly bitten by a bull shark, after chumming the shallows in an "experiment" to show the Discovery Channel that sharks aren't interested in humans, even when there's food in the water. Remember, this was an "experiment", not an attempt to orchestrate shark behaviour for the cameras.
SO WHAT ARE THE ARGUMENTS for feeding sharks? For starters, PADI and DEMA (the US Diving Equipment & Marketing Association) support operators who offer shark interaction, whether feeding is on the menu or not, though they opposed the Florida ban.
Why? Because shark shows generate tourist revenue, which boosts the local economy, so the shark is worth more as a live performer than fished and dead.
Opponents say that sharks, whether fed or not, bring tourism. But, ultimately, doesn't it depend on how big the shark is in the viewfinder as to whether you'll return, rave and recommend?
This may be how some underwater professionals become pragmatic about the need to bait sharks for a close-up. A grainy image 20m away won't cut it, and magazines aren't shy when it comes to putting glossy sharks on the cover.
There's the belief that close encounters promote conservation and education. People indifferent to, sceptical or fearful of sharks can experience them first-hand, and in turn will, it is hoped, pass on the word and back the cause.
Though whether the genuinely fearful will volunteer for a shark dive as "therapy" is debatable.
Arguably the industry leader in shark-feeding tours is Stuart Cove of the Bahamas. "Click Here to Experience The World's Most Exciting Underwater Adventures." I did. It's all Hollywood teeth and day-glo Technicolor, and I see why critics use a dismissive "theme-park" tag for the experience.
But Stuart Cove believes it has learned a lot about sharks in a relatively short time, thanks to the opportunities close observation affords, including which food sharks prefer because, given a choice, sharks express a preference.
SC makes the point that, apart from supplying a dependable food source, it does nothing to modify shark behaviour. Of course, the food source itself is the issue.
I suspect that most divers tempted by interaction will have one shark-feed dive and buy the DVD.
They'll nonchalantly show this to their non-diving friends (who will be more impressed than they were with "Wrecks of Scapa Flow") and if, in retrospect, there's guilt, it's no worse than having Spandau Ballet in your record collection.
Those against shark feeds will frown at this, but it's not illegal to own Spandau Ballet - just to play it (I keep the second album hidden under the pornography).
Shark divers opposed to Stuart Cove won't care anyway, not while they're enjoying natural-encounter expeditions.
They sell raffle tickets in aid of sharks, but first prize isn't a berth on their boat.
Last thing they want is a repeat of the Red Sea, where hordes of divers have already impacted on the shark's traditional habitat, sending them south and changing their behaviour.
Orchestrated shark dives serve a practical purpose - of controlling the number of shark divers in the wild.
THERE'S NO SCIENTIFIC CONCENSUS regarding behaviour modification through feeding, though you sense that this is just around the corner.
According to PADI and DEMA, numerous scientists do not endorse the idea that feeding experiences are harmful. But harmful to sharks, us, or both?
The death of a French tourist snorkelling at St John's reef in the Red Sea in 2009 occurred during a natural encounter, but it was immediately linked to suspicion of illegal feeding in the area.
The ensuing HEPCA (Hurghada Environmental Protection & Conservation Association) statement referred to the practice of shark-feeding in the Caribbean, for no apparent reason other than to imply that the Red Sea was ecologically responsible. And the Caribbean was not.
It probably didn't want to lose business as a result of a shark fatality, so pointed the finger at the competition.
I don't know, I'm just guessing.
FOR THE BIRDS
How the effects of feeding sharks will play out long-term is uncertain. Sharks are difficult to study because they're free-ranging, though this contradicts the fear that they're simply circling man-made auditoriums until showtime.
Dr George Burgess, Director of the International Shark Attack File in Florida, opposes feeding. He says that sharks lose their natural caution around human beings: "For the same reason on land you don't feed alligators or bears."
I've seen sharks and bears in the wild and, trust me, they're completely different. For starters, there's nothing
to stop a hungry bear bowling down the main drag of Mariposa looking for food, whereas I think we can safely say that no shark will come thrashing up the beach at Nassau after barbecued tourists.
Comparing a shark to a bear is like comparing sharks and bears to birds.
We feed birds, changing their behaviour, bringing them to our gardens.
Birds are our canary in a coal-mine. They give us an accurate visible reading on the health of our environment, in a way that sharks and bears cannot.
We rip up hedgerows, fortify towns and cities, domesticate cats and spray pesticides. Birds control insects, rodents, and distribute seeds.
With the blessing of arguably the UK's most successful conservationists, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, I can learn how to entice different species to my garden by providing a variety of sustainable foods. I can learn how much to feed, when to feed, and the importance of feeding hygiene.
The British have been feeding birds since the newspapers suggested it during the harsh winter of 1890-91. In 10 years, bird-feeding had become a national pastime. It's now one of the fastest-growing activities in America, where 18% of the population regularly indulge.
Yet despite feeding birds in my garden for 20 years, remarkably they still fly away when I open the door. Feeding has not changed their behaviour, causing them to abandon self preservation - or self-sufficiency when I go on holiday.
I'm not suggesting that what applies to birds will apply to sharks, but if the reason for not feeding sharks relies on comparison with bears, we need more research and a new approach.
Everyone, including the US Park Service, maintains that wild creatures should not be fed, but no one mentions birds, and their symbiotic relationship with us, which is solely on their terms.
The possibility that the same might be true of sharks could at least be explored.
Ah, I know what you're going to say. Sharks (and bears), can kill you, and birds can't. Although, according to the World Health Organisation, H5N1 (the viral strain of bird flu), has killed more than 250 people since the first human cases in 2003, 26 of them in Egypt.
According to the International Shark Attack Files, there have been 464 shark-related deaths - since 1958.
So it wasn't as risky diving with sharks in Palau, or the Bahamas, as it was being sneezed on by a duck in Kowloon. Or will you allow testosterone to suggest that dying from a bird-bug is less statistically worthy than being ripped limb from limb by a man-eater?
In nature, the prey outnumbers the predator, although shark-conservation groups are hardly rare. Perhaps it's the glamour associated with apex predators, but this high profile is not attached to rarer species. Turtles, for example, are lower down the food chain, yet some are part of the shark's natural diet.
If sharks survive, let's hope they don't have to rely on hand-outs, because activists were too busy saving them to save their meals.
The numbers game I'm not sure what Florida's Marine Safety Group was doing when it had its "Whoah! Jesus!" moment (I read somewhere that it was spear-fishing), but I'd suggest that its actions were initially motivated by self-preservation rather than shark-protection.
So has shark behaviour become an excuse for one group to browbeat another? Sharks have been around for 400 million years, so there's no need to patronise them. They were outwitting sea monsters long before we evolved, and chances are they'll be swimming the oceans long after we've gone.
They're not doe-eyed orangutans, clinging on for dear life in a diminishing jungle. A convenient 100 million sharks are killed annually so, playing Devil's Advocate, they must be doing something right if there are still that number to kill.
I'd rather see 93 million sharks killed next year, providing we know whether this is due to sharks:
a) becoming rarer, or
b) legislation having been implemented and enforced to reduce the catch. Trumpeting 100 million shark kills, year in, year out, serves no purpose other than to provide easy propaganda that's ultimately counter-productive.
If feeding changes shark behaviour, because it suits the sharks, they might survive and even thrive as a result. There's no point waiting around for mankind, because it's highly unlikely that we'll change our behaviour before it's too late. Blue-fin tuna, anyone?
Sharks simply cannot trust us to do the right thing. Not that they ever have, or ever will. I'm no expert in shark behaviour, but I suspect that they don't give a monkey's.