The Nautilus Project
The last decade has seen an encouraging rise in Eco-tourism, resulting in all sorts of new environmentally-driven industries, bringing many financial benefits to the surrounding regions. To a large extent, this has driven down the scourges of poaching as many people prefer to see animals in their natural environment rather than at a zoo. The rise of digital cameras has fueled an increase of images on social media alongside many majestic wild animals. Shark diving in particular has become progressively popular as people come face to face with their deepest fears. But is luring wild sharks towards a tourist filled cage a step too far, or has it indeed a net positive outcome once all is considered?
In the interests of impartiality, I feel obliged to declare that I have done a fair amount of shark diving with one notable exception – never in chummed* water and always without a cage! *[Chumming: Luring various animals, usually fish such as sharks, by throwing ‘chum’ (bait) into the water, which then attracts the fish – particularly the sharks, owing to their keen sense of smell.]
I started as a young snorkeller exploring Gibraltar’s coastline. I sometimes caught a glimpse of blue sharks in the periphery; an outline was all I ever saw and they never hung around. At that impressionable age it was a scary experience and, on many occasions, I would haul myself out onto the urchin-covered rocks expecting an imminent attack. It never happened. Given time, my confidence grew to the point that I even revelled in the moment.
Years later, I joined the London Aquarium and as a diver in the Pacific tank, had to undergo training with various shark species at close quarters. Sharks have electro-receptors which can pick up the beating of our hearts and I vividly recall the first time I slipped into the water with them. I descended to the bottom of the tank and my heart rate increased with my nerves. You cannot bluff a shark in this department and consequently my elevated heart level peaked their curiosity which brought them in closer. In turn, this did nothing to alleviate the nerves and it took many dives before remaining calm was mastered and the training was complete. I loved every minute of it.
With time I grew to realise that part of my original training was as much to acclimatise me to the sharks as it was them to me. Much like a dog might be curious when you have a friend around the house for the first time, sharks tune into our cardiovascular rhythms and can use it to identify someone new.
Sharks in an aquarium environment tend to lack the levels of iodine than their wild counterparts receive and consequently tablets are added to the food in order to supplement it. These medicated fish cannot be thrown into a tank of sharks in hope that they all eat one each. This results in a need for divers to get in the water with food, and target feed the sharks individually. Not for the faint hearted, as they become very frisky when divers drop in the tank with food!
By contrast, wild sharks are often enticed close to the cages of tour operators through the chumming of the water. The cages are filled with tourists eager to grab an iconic shot of themselves with the shark and there is some evidence to suggest that the association between chumming and divers might be teaching the sharks to identify humans as food. The Shark Concern Group based in Cape Town South Africa have been reported to say that “It is not a good idea for humans to taunt an apex predator by throwing food and blood into the water. It is no surprise that human interaction is leading to more attacks.”. It is claimed that South Africa have seen an increase in the number of shark attacks in coastal areas close to where such excursions frequent.
But an under-represented aspect is the quelling of the innate human fear we all have of sharks. These interactions certainly help to replace that fear with curiosity, and even respect for species that have been around for hundreds of millions of years. It is no coincidence that some of the best protected species are simultaneously very popular with humans. By way of an example, people love cetaceans and although whaling has taken its toll on many species, the recovery of the humpback whales is a perfect anecdote. It follows that by getting people engaged with sharks through these interactions that the will to preserve them will increase. I would suggest that shark protection has increased precisely because of research programmes which have required divers to get in the water with sharks at some point or another. There is only so much that can be done through tags and cameras; firsthand observation is ultimately key.
Further, turning poachers into game keepers has seen an improvement to the abundance of animals in reserves within Kenya. It has also brought a way of earning a sustainable living for many impoverished regions. Evidently, removing commercial fishermen and turning them into tour guides in a marine protected area will surely follow a similar success path.
Ultimately, I found my time at the aquarium to be a self-conflicted one because holding these majestic creatures captive seemed far from ideal, both from a shark/human interaction perspective as well as a welfare one. However, it became very apparent that many people would never even see these animals without the aquarium and hence it can be argued that it is a necessary evil. Once I had come to terms with that, the idea of observing them in their natural environment became more appealing. Given the level of fear our species has of these animals and the damage we are still presently doing to their wild populations, I believe that it is extremely important for people to see them in the wild. On balance, the loss of sharks would be catastrophic!
Marine and riverine aquatic environments
Sharks have existed for over 420 million years. That is longer than land vertebrates!