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February 2006 Vol. 32, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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When Sharks Hunt Us

who's to blame, how serious is it?

from the February, 2006 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Despite historical research showing that the number of deadly shark attacks on divers in Western Australia is less than 0.2 per year, recent fatalities have shaken the public’s confidence in the safety of the sport there – and have led to a backlash against the ocean’s apex predators. Other scuba Meccas are joining in the controversy.

Starting with a government survey, researchers determined that 32,500 Western Australians had dived locally in 2004. Borrowing from other studies, they determined divers averaged 17 dives annually, or 550,000 dives per year. Visitors made an additional 25,000 dives, and with 40,000 training dives, at least 600,000 dives were made in Western Australian in 2004. Or so they concluded.

Only two fatal attacks have occurred on WA divers (one on scuba, one using a surface-supplied hookah rig) in the past 20 years. After projecting growth of the sport and applying simple math, they calculated that the risk of a fatal attack is less than one in three million dives. 1

But don’t tell that to the family of Geoffrey Brazier, a 26-year-old pleasure boat deck hand who was torn in half by a 20-foot shark while snorkeling north of Perth, in Western Australia last March. The coroner noted that there was “no spear fishing, bait or berley” (Australian for chum, mate) that could have attracted what was probably a great white or tiger shark. The previous December, surfer Nick Peterson was killed by a 16-foot great white off the southern city of Adelaide. A week earlier, a shark killed a 38-year-old spear fisherman on the Great Barrier Reef off northeast Australia. Last August, Jarrod Stehbens, a 23-yearold marine biologist, was killed by what was believed to be a great white, while collecting cuttlefish eggs for research off Adelaide. “Jarrod fought it off, then it came back and grabbed his leg and just took him deeper,” Stehbens’ buddy told the Associated Press. Only his scuba tank and BCD were found.

These attacks, on the heels of two previous tragedies, have led some Aussies to complain that the sharks pose a menace along Adelaide beaches. Fisherman Keith Klemasz said diving was unsafe because fishermen dump fish guts and waste in the water. “It is crazy; divers are shark bait,” Klemasz said. A local dive shop, Glenelg Scuba Diving, reported that basic and advanced certification class enrollment has dropped 50 percent. Shop instructor Von Milner said the shop would have closed its doors if not for the booming sales of its $600 shark shield devices. “We’re all in this mad panic about telling everyone where the sharks are,” she said, “but the sharks have been there for years. All you’re doing is scaring people out of the water for no good reason.” Local officials worried about the harm to seaside economies.

A Deadly Lottery

Australia’s eighth shark attack in a year, the mauling of a surfer by a 13- foot great white, prompted calls for the predators to be culled, angering environmentalists and tour operators. Jake Heron’s three children looked on as the shark bit his surfboard in two and pulled him underwater near Port Lincoln, in South Australia, last September. Heron, 40, received wounds in his arms, thigh and calf. “It’s time they started controlling the number of sharks,” Heron told the Bloomberg News Service, “We’re seeing more and more sharks and surfing has turned into a deadly lottery.”

Aussie shark dive operators are opposed to culls. Andrew Fox, whose Rodney Fox Shark Experience operates from Adelaide, claimed cage diving doesn’t cause extra attacks. “Sharks are a great attraction,” he said from Port Lincoln. “We definitely don’t make the great white sharks overcome any natural fear of humans.”

Sixty people have been killed in shark attacks in Australia in the past 50 years. (Most are swimmers or surfers – not divers). Vic Hislop, an Australian shark hunter, said, “We need a huge national cull, because sharks are a massive blight on marine life.” Hislop claims to have killed more than 1,100 sharks (does that sound like a personal agenda?). He says, “Humans are now right on the menu for these senseless eating machines,” claiming, “Attacks have been increasing about 10 percent a year. And that’s the ones we know about.” (Last month, a woman was killed in 5 feet of water by a bull shark, near Brisbane.)

Glenelg Scuba Diving reported
certification class enrollment
had dropped 50 percent due to
the shark scare.

Disputing Hislop’s histrionics, John West, who runs the Australian Shark Attack File, told Reuters, “We are not seeing a trend of increasing shark attacks against a trend of increasing population.” Barry Bruce, a government marine scientist stated, “There are more people in the water, and the more diverse their activities, the more chances somebody will be in the path of a hunting shark.”

The Scuba Diving Federation of South Australia is formulating a shark policy: recalling divers to the surface when a shark is sighted in the area, wearing electronic shark repellant devices, recalling divers when bad weather looms, and using observers.

Great Whites Off Hawaii

Up north in the Hawaiian Islands, NOAA reports only eight great white sightings between 1926 and 1985. But, in the last three years there have been three confirmed sightings. Hawai’i Shark Encounters on Oahu’s North Shore runs cage diving trips to view mostly Galapagos and sandbar sharks. Boat captain Jimmy Hall got a real surprise on December 28, when a great white showed up. Hall told the Honolulu Advertiser that the 17-footer seemed very calm, Hall couldn’t resist leaving the safety of the shark cage to swim with the animal, getting close enough to touch it.

Hawai’i Shark Encounters is one of two Oahu companies that chum for sharks. The state prohibits the activity in state waters, so they work beyond the three-mile limit. Scientists are considering a study to decide if sharks follow tour boats back to Oahu’s beaches.

To Chum, or Not to Chum

The South African cage-diving craze is provoking similar debates. Critics accuse the industry of meddling with nature and possibly increasing the number of attacks on humans. Divers and surfers have had a spate of close shaves since November, when a shark ate Tyna Webb, a 77- year-old on a swim near Cape Town. Increasingly the attacks are concentrated in Western Cape. Some blame cage diving. The theory is that by using chum to attract sharks and then bait to keep them nearby, the great whites associate humans with food. “It is a Pavlovian principle. The animal comes to get its reward,” Craig Bovim, a diver who survived an attack in 2002, told the Manchester Guardian. “They get comfortable with humans, go to investigate, and something might happen.”

Cage dive operators, who are subject to government licensing, dismiss concerns. “Unless we’re waving frantically, the sharks don’t even know it’s humans on the boat or in the cage,” said Andre Hartmann, famous for out-of-cage encounters with great whites. “The water is no more dangerous than before. I let my kids go spear fishing,” he told the Guardian.

A study in southern Australia found that a few sharks become accustomed to baits and vessels, although that did not mean they associated boats with food. An unpublished study in South Africa submitted to the Journal of Biological Conservation indicated that out of 300 great whites tracked south of Cape Town, four became “conditioned” by cage diving. They learned to meet boats more quickly, spend more time circling and learned how to steal the bait. But the study did not find that sharks posed any greater risks.

Clearly, shark chumming is an emotional issue. Undercurrent subscriber Susan Jakubiak expressed her feelings after reading our review of a Bahamas shark diving trip in the August 2005 issue. “I was distressed at the basically laudatory article written about the MV Shear Water and its practice of luring sharks with ‘bait crates,’ ” Jakubiak wrote. “Although perhaps not as dangerous as shark feeding, using bait crates nonetheless attracts sharks which, it would seem to me, could lead to an accidental nip or nibble on humans by sharks whose appetites have been whetted. It is, of course, interference with nature—a practice that I would hope would be condemned by Undercurrent. In fact, bait crates are a form of teasing— akin to waving a good meaty bone in front of a dog and then taking the bone away without ever giving it to the dog. Surely you would not condone teasing.”

In our article, our reviewer acknowledged the controversy “about the notion of doing anything artificial to attract underwater life for divers.” These operators, like aquarium keepers, argue that they are increasing public awareness and respect for sharks, especially great whites, and calling attention to such dishonorable practices such as shark finning. Of course, chumming has been around ever since humans learned to fish. Yet we need more research to determine whether enticing sharks with chum and bait truly makes them more dangerous to divers, swimmers and surfers.

The decision to participate in shark feeding or cage diving is an individual one. Undercurrent will continue to report on such trips objectively, and let readers themselves decide whether to join them.

But, personally, we’re not keen on pleasure divers feeding any fish, for any reason.

1 Peter Puzzacott, “An Estimate of the Risk of Fatal Shark Attack whilst diving in Western Australia”, Journal of the South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society. 2005; 35: 92-4.)

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