Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Media and the Thrill-Seekers: a bad combination for shark ecotourism

I've been involved in some video editing and so, my apologies, I have been tardy on my posts.

There has been a significant buzz generated the past few days within the shark ecotourism community regarding a Today Show/MSNBC segment that ran on Monday regarding shark diving in the Bahamas - an area that has seen increasing reckless behavior on the part of some dive operators. And, unfortunately, that was the tone of the media piece, showing shark divers as thrill-seeking, adrenaline junkies. Whatever half-hearted attempt on the part of the leader of the trip to offer comments about moderate shark behavior was lost under the news commentator's slant of irresponsible thrill-seeking divers asking for trouble.

Well, in hindsight, they were asking for trouble. Shark diving neophytes, no cage available as a safety option, hand feeding, direct human-shark interaction (touching, grabbing) - that is a recipe for disaster.

In the past, I have commented on the thrill-seekers in shark diving and the difference between those who pay to see sharks (tourists, paying customers) and those who are paid to see sharks (scientists, filmmakers) - Click here and here. And with this latest round of negative media attention, there have been two excellent posts on the subject from my colleague, Patric Douglas of, and Fiji's Beqa Adventure Divers. (Click here for Patric's and here for Beqa's.)

Patric correctly describes the growing shark diving industry as having three legs: commercial, political, and conservation. Thrill-seeker operators focus on only the commercial aspect, using short-term gain strategies that ignore - or thumb their nose at - the political realities (government regulations, lawyers, insurance companies, etc.). It certainly does not help the long-term interests of shark ecotourism. In the next few weeks I'm going to be speaking with several California lawmakers regarding Isla Guadalupe's white sharks and some issues of concern between the Mexican government and San Diego dive operators. And thanks to this recent media attention, I know I will be having to do a lot of backpedaling before I can move the agenda forward.

But conservation also plays a key role in the future of ecotourism. Working with marine scientists and educators, shark ecotourism must play an active role in supporting research studies and focusing their reason for existence on the preservation of our dwindling shark populations. The thrill-seeking approach will ultimately run afoul of the political and ecological trends that are growing, but I am afraid those punitive actions will be broad and impact shark ecotourisim as a whole.

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