IN THE BEGINNING, the day after Id passed my Open Water, and become one of you, I bumped into the assistant instructor in the bar.
Free of newbies, hed been out doing proper diving. We saw a sh... H!... SH!!... SHARK!!! he said.
He wasnt scared, or cold. He just had a speech impediment. Luckily for him. Id missed the boat, having been kidnapped by a ruthless gang of papyrus touts. Even then, I knew Id 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 didnt 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 Im sorry, but I dont care about sharks. I never have, and I never will.
Theyre fine on a T-shirt, although I dont get the buzz if a percentage goes towards their well-being, because I care about shark conservationists even less.
No doubt the feelings mutual. By tonight Ill be suspended over water, my forearm dripping blood, while a henchman raises the door of the shark tunnel. They probably wont tie Jane Seymour up with me, either.
Theres a sense that, because I dive, Im expected to sign up for sharks. Because, if shark activists cant count on divers, who can they count on
Ive 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 wouldnt 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 wasnt, 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 theres an ideological punch-up and, although I dont give a monkeys about sharks, I dont want to miss the opportunity to goad everyone on.
No contest I cant 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 sharks 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.

CHANGING HABITS
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: Youre more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a shark, were 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, well 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 Sams 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! Theres 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, its easier to take the moral high ground when your desk is less than an hour from Blue Corner and other sites where youre almost guaranteed to see sharks under natural conditions. Few destinations have that luxury.
Incidentally theres a PADI Blue Corner Diver Distinctive Speciality course, if youre 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 Ritters SharkSchool week with Sams 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 arent interested in humans, even when theres 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, doesnt it depend on how big the shark is in the viewfinder as to whether youll 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 wont cut it, and magazines arent shy when it comes to putting glossy sharks on the cover.
Theres 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 Worlds Most Exciting Underwater Adventures. I did. Its 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.
Theyll 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, theres guilt, its no worse than having Spandau Ballet in your record collection.
Those against shark feeds will frown at this, but its 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 wont care anyway, not while theyre enjoying natural-encounter expeditions.
They sell raffle tickets in aid of sharks, but first prize isnt 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 sharks 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.

THERES 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 Johns 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 didnt want to lose business as a result of a shark fatality, so pointed the finger at the competition.
I dont know, Im just guessing.

FOR THE BIRDS
How the effects of feeding sharks will play out long-term is uncertain. Sharks are difficult to study because theyre free-ranging, though this contradicts the fear that theyre 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 dont feed alligators or bears.
Ive seen sharks and bears in the wild and, trust me, theyre completely different. For starters, theres 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 UKs 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. Its 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.
Im 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.

PREDATORY CHAIN
Ah, I know what youre going to say. Sharks (and bears), can kill you, and birds cant. 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 wasnt 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 its 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 sharks natural diet.
If sharks survive, lets hope they dont have to rely on hand-outs, because activists were too busy saving them to save their meals.
The numbers game Im not sure what Floridas Marine Safety Group was doing when it had its Whoah! Jesus! moment (I read somewhere that it was spear-fishing), but Id 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 theres no need to patronise them. They were outwitting sea monsters long before we evolved, and chances are theyll be swimming the oceans long after weve gone.
Theyre not doe-eyed orangutans, clinging on for dear life in a diminishing jungle. A convenient 100 million sharks are killed annually so, playing Devils Advocate, they must be doing something right if there are still that number to kill.
Id 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 thats ultimately counter-productive.
If feeding changes shark behaviour, because it suits the sharks, they might survive and even thrive as a result. Theres no point waiting around for mankind, because its highly unlikely that well change our behaviour before its too late. Blue-fin tuna, anyone
Sharks simply cannot trust us to do the right thing. Not that they ever have, or ever will. Im no expert in shark behaviour, but I suspect that they dont give a monkeys.
FIN