Shark-feeding: right or wrong?
WHEN FAMOUS natural-world photographer Michael Aw was bitten on the wrist during a shark-feed dive in 2013, I was amazed at the outpouring of anger and vitriol towards him on the Internet – mainly from people who had never experienced such a dive but had strong opinions as to why it was wrong to feed sharks for the purpose of photography.
It was ironic that he had actually been bitten by a small grouper rather than by a shark.
Shark feeds always attract other fishes that hover around in the hope of getting some scraps left by the sharks, and nearly all carnivorous fish have teeth. Any are capable of giving you a nasty bite if you are so unlucky.
Recently, on a liveaboard in the Maldives, I happened to show some close-up shark pictures that were on my computer from a previous trip.
“We don’t believe in shark-feeding,” the dive guides commented rather snootily. We then spent 30 dives seeing plenty of sharks but only at the periphery of our vision, and certainly none close enough to photograph.
Our last dive was a night dive. The dive-guides dropped in a punctured can of fish cleanings, and two dozen nurse sharks and numerous assorted big rays competed for what smelt like a free meal.
It was frenetic and the best dive of the trip, but what was it if it was not shark-feeding?
Is it a sensible idea to stage these shark feeds for the benefit of attending divers? It seems that many modern-day divers have very mixed feelings about methods of getting close-up and personal with sharks. They want to say that they have dived with sharks but many don’t want them close enough to see properly, or for them to feel it’s they that have been seen by the sharks.
Dive-guides in the Red Sea will protest that they get plenty of close-up interaction with sharks without baiting, but these are oceanic whitetip sharks that are ocean wanderers and opportunistic feeders. They will make a close pass at anything, including a diver, to see if it’s a potential meal. Interactions are exciting but brief in the extreme.
On the other hand, the big populations of grey reef sharks and other reef species have generally long since gone from Egyptian waters.
Most sharks are cautious. That’s how they get to grow old in a shark-eat-shark world, and size matters.
Divers are usually bigger in comparison to most sharks, and sharks usually prefer to stay away from them rather than risk injury from what might be another large predator.
Offering some bait is generally the order of the day. Of course, there are many different ways to do it. Bearing in mind that sharks tend to be big animals with mouths full of sharp teeth, my opinion of the different methods I have seen around the world is quite variable, from the orderly method of using one piece of bait at a time at the end of a short spear, as developed by Stuart Cove, to the rather risky methods I witnessed in French Polynesia.
There, the dive guide carried a severed mahi-mahi head under his BC and would cut bits off with a knife, offering it in his bare hand to passing hungry sharks.
I questioned if this was not just a bit too risky. I think he finally agreed, after he had his hand sewn back together later.
Probably more sharks get fed by divers in Bahamian waters than anywhere else.
I recently spoke about the latest generation of shark-feeders with Graham Cove, Stuart Cove’s cousin, who used to feed sharks for the benefit of my camera when he was a younger man.
Then, he went in protected only by chain-mail gloves and arms, offering the bait at the end of a short spear.
Today, the feeders at Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas do the same, but wear full chain-mail suits and helmets.
I asked him what he thought about those people who were so against shark-feeding. He said: “I’m sick of people living in cubicles looking at YouTube and chiming in with rubbish on things they know nothing about.
“It’s crazy how people generate opinions not based on observation and sensible thought, but more on a 30-second spot on the Internet.”
I asked him if he thought that every operation was doing it in a safe way, and he replied: “I have found myself questioning it from time to time. Stuart has it down to a science, yet I find many other dive operators don’t take the same care or precautions to keep it safe in the long term. There are examples of lack of organisation and dedication to safety and longevity of a dive area.”
What about the people doing it, the feeders themselves? Are they doing it for the thrill or the glamour?
Most of them sustain a bite at some time, and II’ve noticed they soon lose their enthusiasm for it afterwards.
Graham said: “Now that the shark-feeders have full suits and helmets, everyone wants to do it. Even so, when I was back at Stuart’s recently, it was clear that some people did not have a gift for it, though.”
We hear all sorts of arguments about how sharks lose their ability to hunt naturally if they are fed. I would suggest that the amount of food offered at a typical shark feed is tiny in proportion to the number of sharks present, so it represents nothing more than a free snack.
According to shark behaviourist Erich Ritter, a bull shark needs to eat 4% of its own body weight in fish each day. That means some of these animals are eating up to 14kg. So with 30 sharks at a feed, the feeder would need to take in 340kg of fish-cuts to substitute for their normal feeding behaviour, whereas around 9kg is a generous estimation of what they actually use at Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas feeds.
SHARKS HAVE A HIERARCHY and defer to larger sharks. None of them wants to get injured by another shark, so when dead bait is offered, there is little sense of competition among the animals.
When I, in years gone by, compared the different shark-feeding operations in the Bahamas, in some cases safety was less than assured. Spearing live fish on site sent the sharks into a frenzy, whereas dead bait left them circling round in a relaxed manner.
II’ve noted that many of the suspect operations have changed their methods now or are no longer in business.
Sharks are not the undiscerning predators depicted by the media. Stuart Cove will tell you that he uses different types of bait for attracting different species of shark.
For instance, Caribbean reef sharks love grouper heads, while great hammerheads look for sting rays in the sand. In the absence of any sting-ray cleanings being available, the shark-diver will use barracuda parts. For an expedition to photograph oceanic whitetips, I saw Stuart buy 225kg of bonito, and so on.
We also hear that shark-feeding encourages sharks to associate humans with food, yet there are no facts to back this up. There are still far more shark attacks off the coast of Florida, where shark-feeding has been banned for years, than almost anywhere else in the world.
David Diley, a British diver who gave up his career to specialise in shark-awareness films, told me: “Between 2001 and 2012, Florida recorded the most attacks with 257, with Hawaii and Brazil not far behind with 57 and 24 respectively. Feeding is banned in each location, or at least there are no recognised feeds.
“In the same period, Fiji recorded only 11 attacks, and the Bahamas, where feeding is a major industry, had just nine.
“The feeding discussion has been done to death, but rarely in a public medium by people qualified to discuss it with any real credibility. By that I mean behaviourists, researchers studying the effects on location-specific individual sharks, dive operators and science-based local conservation groups in areas where feeding provides economic and/or ecological benefit. Feeding sharks has been happening since the first time man went to sea, and when done with correct protocols, it’s perfectly acceptable and causes no harm whatsoever.
“That said, not all shark feeds are run responsibly, and not all shark feeds use proper protocols designed to ensure their well-being. Also, shark-feed protocols are species-specific and location-specific; some dives are riskier than others.
“The arguments for and against feeding seemingly centre on people speaking on behalf of sharks. Unfortunately, most of those people don’t understand how sharks work, their behaviour or the influence of the locations, and so the arguments rely on hearsay, rumour, misunderstanding and misinformation on both sides.”
UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHER Pete Atkinson, now Thailand-based, offered this: “Sharks desperately need economic value with their fins still on, and shark feeds are one way to do this. Because it gives the sharks value, that value can be turned into dollars, for example, for Fijian villages. Without shark-feeding dives, they have far more value as fins.
“As a secondary benefit, feeds create thousands of ambassadors for sharks. And these ambassadors have helped push through protection for endangered species that might otherwise have failed.”
Mike Neumann, the Swiss owner of Beqa Adventure Divers in Fiji, confirms that he is against the “shark-huggers, those people who say that sharks are harmless and need our affection.”
I think we can all agree with him that sharks generally have a mouth full of sharp teeth, and if you want to get close to them, you should be aware of that.
Liz Parkinson, a senior shark-feeder with Stuart Cove’s operation who likes to freedive with sharks, makes the distinction that different species have different feeding patterns. She had this to say: “In the Bahamas, we are fortunate to dive with several different shark species. It was only when I began working with them that I learnt how much their behavioural patterns differ.
“Taking photographs and videos of sharks gives a photographer the fantastic opportunity to get a closer look at these amazing animals. Depending on the species, different feeding methods are used to draw the sharks in.
“We use the sharks’ natural food source in all cases, be it live or dead bait, to attract the sharks to us. You have to feed sharks to get the close action shots photographers desire for education and publishing purposes.
“There is definitely a difference between a shark that is being drawn in by bait and a shark swimming up to a person of its own accord. Either way, it is an experience you will never forget!”
A final word from Charlotte Faulkner, another young English shark-feeder presently working for Stuart Cove: “Seeing shark dives daily, and a variety of species first-hand, I know the massive difference they make to educate people about shark behaviour and conservation issues.
“They are not completely safe, but I am proud to say that no spectator has ever been injured here.
“All participants sign a statement of risk. Feeders get bitten and expect to be
so, but they are the people who are most passionate about sharks and won’t even register the injury as a shark-bite. The importance of re-educating the brain-washed public about the nature of sharks is of such importance for the future.
“There have been many studies that show that feeding does not significantly affect the spatial pattern or sexual segregation of some shark species. The more we can narrow the gap between humans and sharks, the more chance we have to stop sharks being wiped out in our lifetime.”
|Shark Bytes: Tales of Diving with the Bizarre and the Beautiful by John Bantin|
In his latest book, the diving veteran and former DIVER chief correspondent recounts many tales of his adventures with sharks over the past four decades, accompanied by his own spectacular photography.
The animals, ranging from blacktips to whale sharks, were encountered in locations all over the world.
Fernhurst Books, ISBN: 9781909911451
Dimensions: 24.2 x 19.6cm, Softback, 224pp, £17.99