Concerns about diving in a cage and chumming to attract great white sharks
IT MAY not be everybody’s idea of fun, but the chance of lingering in a reinforced steel cage in front of a great white shark has thousands of British tourists reaching for their travellers cheques. Their thirst for underwater adventure has also set off a debate worthy of the bloodiest feeding frenzy.
With more shark attacks reported in South Africa this year than for a decade, scientists, marine environmentalists, conservationists and tour operators are locked in fierce argument over accusations that the booming shark-cage-diving industry is to blame.
“We don’t know enough about the risks. Until we do, we should stop it,” Craig Bovim, a marine engineer, said. He wants to see an end to shark-cage diving and particularly “chumming” — placing a noxious mix of blood and gore in the water to lure the predators to the cage.
Mr Bovim, 38, a lifelong surfer who survived a shark attack three years ago, has set up Shark Concern Group, which lobbies for an end to the new craze, already outlawed in Californian waters. He has received support from some of the country’s top sportsmen and scientists, including an eminent surgeon and award-winning Olympic yachtsman.
Mr Bovim also wants to seeks the proper enforcement of a code of conduct that forbids touching of the animal, particularly its highly sensitive snout.
“Baiting of leopards and lions is no longer allowed. We should not do it to sharks. They are magnificent animals as it is,” he told The Times, saying that he feared that the activity was creating a familiarity between two species historically deeply suspicious of each other — with fatal results.
Others, fearing a public backlash against one of nature’s most frightening predators, say that the great white is deeply misunderstood and a victim of irrational human fears.
“I’m dead certain shark tourism and cage-watching has had no effect on a shark’s behaviour towards humans,” Wilfred Chivell, a leading marine environmentalist, said. He runs whale and shark-watching businesses out of Gansbaai, the country’s undisputed shark-watching capital.
He said: “If the great white wanted to feed off humans, then there would be carnage in our waters. Compare the figures on water usage — how many people in the water — to the number of attacks. The accusations just do not measure up. They just feed the human primeval fear of sharks as an apex predator.”
The controversial debate has been given a further twist by ITV’s decision to film its latest television reality show in Shark Alley, a 60-mile stretch off Gansbaai, south of Cape Town.
Celebrity Shark Bait, which is presented by Ruby Wax and has just finished filming, involves the actor Richard Grant and the former athlete Colin Jackson being lowered in a cage to come face to face with a great white.
Environmentalists who have seen the early footage accuse ITV of frequently baiting the sharks and exploiting the animals for the sake of the ratings.
The truth about attacks is as murky as the cold Atlantic waters of Shark Alley. A few facts are indisputable. As shark-cage diving has increased, so has the number of reported incidents. After almost two decades with virtually no shark attacks, five — two fatal — have been reported in South Africa this year. Last year there were at least two serious attacks and several minor ones.
Meanwhile, in Australia, where shark caging is also popular, a teenager was bitten in two as he lay on a surfboard off Adelaide last December; in the same week a spear fisherman lost his life on the Great Barrier Reef in a shark attack.
Thousands of tourists, many British, now take part in shark-cage diving, an activity almost unknown as recently as five years ago. Chumming attracts the shark to the boat, where it is then enticed with the liver of a dead fish. Pursuing such delicacies, the shark swims past the cage so the tourists can take their pictures.
Opponents say that the shark often catches the bait, something it is never meant to do. In addition, the more unscrupulous operators touch the shark on its highly sensitive nose, leading it to open its mouth and display its terrifying array of teeth. Mr Bovim said: “This is all done against the code of conduct and for the sake of better pictures. We don’t know what effect it is having.”
Cage-diving defenders counter that the sharks in Western Cape waters are transient and not exposed to chumming and baiting frequently enough to condition behaviour patterns.
No one, however, is prepared to step outside the cage.
August 24, 2005 Marine biologist, 23, killed by a shark off Glenelg Beach, near Adelaide, Australia
March 2005 Geoffrey Brazier, 26, a charter-boat skipper, killed while snorkelling off the Abrolhos Islands, north of Perth
December 2004 Mark Thompson, 38, spear fisherman, killed near Cairns, Australia
December 2004 Nick Petersen, 18, a surfer, killed by two sharks off Adelaide
November 2004 Tyna Webb, 77, killed when swimming near Fish Hoek, South Africa
August 2004 Diver, 50, killed near San Francisco