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Is it ethical to swim with sharks?

There is an increasing trend among adrenaline junkies and wildlife enthusiasts to swim with the ultimate predator. But is cage diving with sharks an ethical way to see the ocean's top predator?

Cage diving with sharks entails being locked inside a metal cage while being lowered in the water to come face-to-face with a shark, usually a great white. The sharks may be enticed with 'chum', a soup of blood, mashed pilchard and sardines which is thrown overboard to lure them in.

The issues
Cage diving with sharks raises several concerns, the main one being that feeding any wild animal can affect their behaviour and disturb the natural balance. For this reason, Florida introduced a ban on feeding wild sharks in November 2001.

Links have also been made between feeding sharks and an increase in shark attacks on humans. Campaigners are concerned that chumming conditions the sharks to swim closer to shore in search of this regular source of food. Cape Town's Shark Concern Group says: "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."

A shark attack victim in South Africa - one of the main locations for cage diving with sharks - has called for a moratorium on cage shark diving activity and chumming, concerned it has lead to an increase in shark attacks. The community also feels it is an unnecessary activity of which the ecological implications are largely unknown. Some people argue that the practice shows no respect for these endangered species.

Diving operators say chumming only attracts sharks that are already in the area. "Chumming has got nothing to do with it," says Michael Rutzen, owner of Shark Diving Unlimited. "We chum with animals that occur naturally. Chum where there are no sharks and you don't get any." Rutzen adds that shark diving has a vital role to play in re-educating the public and protecting the great white. "We have to show people these animals to ensure their survival. It's no different from viewing leopards and lions."

This is a view shared with those who believe cage diving with sharks can help to improve the animal’s negative public profile. Ali Hood, director of Britain's Shark Trust, said that cage diving could serve to educate the public, be educational at the same time as allowing tourists to see a great white up close. The Shark Trust says it has yet to receive compelling evidence to connect shark tourism with an increase in shark attacks and recognises that, in the vast majority of cases, attacks do not take place near shark dive locations.

Diving with sharks is a large contributor to tourism in South Africa, where the animal is now designated a 'marine tourism species' - a status already enjoyed by whales and seals - meaning it may in no way be impaired or injured. This makes it possible to legally control tourism activities with these animals and disturbances must be reduced to a minimum.

While some shark diving trips are used for carrying out research on shark behaviour and sexing the animals, others are mainly for the entertainment of tourists, although they often claim to play an educational role. There are things operators can do to minimise detrimental effects, such as limiting the number of people diving in one location, preferably some distance from the coast and other areas frequented by people, and providing lessons in shark biology for diving representatives.
Our view
Sharks would ideally be allowed to approach the cages without enticement with chum. If the diving is done sensitively, in small numbers and with minimal obtrusion to the marine environment, diving with this misunderstood predator can be a breathtaking experience. In addition, some of the research carried out in cage dives with sharks is essential for the conservation of these protected species. Diving with sharks can be awe-inspiring for anyone wanting to learn about sharks, contribute to shark conservation, or overcome their fear of "Jaws".

Shark facts
  • There are over 440 species of shark
  • 100 million are caught each year, while fewer than 6 human beings are killed worldwide by sharks (just three deaths were reported in 2014)
  • The great white can grow to 6.5 metres, weigh more than 2,000kg and swim at up to 70km/h
  • The great white, bull and tiger sharks are responsible for most attacks
  • There were 72 shark attacks across the globe in 2014, and 75 in 2013.
  • The great white is protected in South Africa, Australia and California
  • The largest number of shark attacks occur in the USA - with half of these off the east coast of Florida
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Shark Links: by Iris Knoop

For more information about animal welfare check out our animal welfare section here.
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