Thursday, December 11, 2008

Media Picks Up On 2007 Shark Cage Breach: sending the wrong message on the Internet

There has been a lot of media attention in the past few days on a YouTube video showing a great white shark breaching a shark cage at Isla Guadalupe. While this event happened last year, it has suddenly become an item of interest across several online and broadcast news media outlets. As often happens with the media regarding shark-related incidents, the event has for the most part been presented for the benefit of its sensationalistic aspects - with key facts that would place it in its proper context being left out.

The breach occurred as a 15-foot white shark swallowed a fish suspended from a line to the boat (known as "hangbait"). The shark took the bait and continued forward, careening into the cage and once wedged between two bars, proceeded to thrash and severely damage the cage - much to the chagrin of the two divers inside (who escaped unharmed).

What is clear in the video is that the boat crew in charge of handling the hangbait in the water did not adhere to proper and safe baiting techniques - primarily in allowing the hangbait to float in front of the cage, leaving a shark that approaches from directly behind the bait without any room for maneuvering away from the cage. Comments have been made in some reports that the shark rolled its eye back (a protective action often part of the bite reflex) and in so doing, blinded itself to the oncoming cage. That's nonsense to blame the shark. Because of the position of the bait, the 15-foot shark was put on a collision course with the cage. Fortunately, the shark did not appear to be injured and ultimately freed itself.

Eco-tourism of all kinds involves a certain measure of risk, even in the best of circumstances - charging animals on the defensive, harsh locales, etc. But with the many misconceptions that surround sharks, any incident involving these predators becomes a hot item for the media and fuel for the critics of shark diving. With the volume of shark videos across video Internet sites like YouTube, shark eco-tourism operators and concerned shark divers/advocates must be acutely aware as to the public relations implications (FYI: The diver who took the video made a very poor showing on Thursday's TODAY program. So much for his 15 minutes of fame.).

Within the Mexican government, there are forces who would prefer to see Isla Guadalupe closed off entirely to all shark eco-tourism. This would be a potentially tragic step because:
  • Shark eco-tourism at Isla Guadalupe, properly run and managed, can educate and enlighten people to the true nature of these important animals while providing a needed revenue stream for supporting the island's "biosphere" status.
  • The shark eco-tourism operators have provided an effective platform to support Mexican and international research efforts - both logistically and financially.
  • The Mexican government does not have the resources to effectively watch over the population of sharks that migrate to the island in the late fall/early winter months. Shark eco-tourism operators have acted as unofficial watchguards, keeping commercial fishing boats and/or poachers away.
While accidents can and will happen, operators must adhere to dive protocols that promote safety for both divers and sharks if they wish to see their business continue. And when divers and/or eco-tourism operators promote shark diving under the antiquated model of "macho adventure", "staring down the malevolent man-eater", etc., they are sealing the fate of an important avenue for conservation awareness.

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