An article that ran in the New York Times on shark diving in Fiji has been making the rounds of several of the shark-related blogs, not because the article is some scathing expose but because it is a well-balanced look at shark eco-tourism as practiced at Beqa Adventure Divers.
What caught my attention was how the article, in a broad sense, highlighted the fact that shark eco-tourism (or shark diving, if you like) is a varied activity - something that proponents, and even opponents, need to keep in mind when discussing it. Unfortunately, it often is generalized under one heading: "You've gotta be crazy." But there's much more to it than that.
When discussing shark eco-tourism you have to consider the location, the species of shark involved, and the methods involved.
Shark diving should only take place in areas where there are recognized or resident populations of sharks. The anti-shark furor that occurred in Oahu several months back was initiated because someone wanted to start an operation in an area not known for sharks but highly populated by recreational beach goers. Bad business move.
In Fiji, the shark diving operations work in areas where the reefs are healthy and protected from overfishing (ie: a healthy reef includes resident sharks as part of a balanced marine ecosystem) and the boats keep an eye out to preserve what is a valuable source of tourism revenue for the islands.
Great whites, tigers, lemons, bulls, Caribbean reef, Galapagos, whale, and many more species have been the center of attention with different operators around the globe. But each species has its own behavior, it's own level of interest or disinterest in the participants; and so each species requires its own set of protocols so as not to endanger the shark or the diver.
In Fiji, there are large groups of various reef sharks that can be active and put on quite a "show", but at deeper depths, bull sharks require more specific handling. And the great white sharks, that I have spent so much time with, require close attention not so much because of their size but their curiosity.
So, because of various behaviors presented by different species, the methods by which divers can be safely exposed to these animals can also vary. From open water experiences to using chain mail suits to working within a cage - these decisions must be carefully considered to insure both the most educational and enlightening experience while also being the safest for the divers.
And there must be consideration as to any adverse or disruptive behavioral impact on the sharks and their surroundings. To date, the available research seems to indicate that, if carried out responsibly, there is, at worst, only a temporary effect on the shark's conditioning behavior and that there is nothing that indicates negative changes in their natural feeding or migratory behaviors.
Shark eco-tourism can be an effective way to communicate the importance of shark conservation whether to a specific audience of participants or to a non-participating public at large - if it is done right. And it must be done right because shark diving doesn't fly under the radar of media scrutiny.
Congrats to Beqa Adventure Divers for some well-deserved and balanced media coverage. One of these days, I'll get back to Fiji and you guys can introduce me to some of your sharky friends!
Read NY Times article.