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June 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 44, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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More Tiger Trouble in Cocos

getting to grips with a troublesome shark

from the June, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

On April 28th, a 30-year-old German diver had a lucky escape after being harassed by a tiger shark near Manuelita Island, Isla del Cocos, Costa Rica.

Details are slowly in coming, but Avi Klapfer, owner of the MV Argo and the MV Seahunter, has information from those who witnessed events, which happened during a dive from the MV Okeanos Aggressor I. He tells Undercurrent that the diver had separated from his group and was waiting to be picked up at the surface by a panga (skiff). He'd already slipped out of his BC and tank when the tiger shark grabbed it from him. The diver was shaken but unhurt.

If you are grabbed by a tiger, stay as passive as possible. It will probably let you go.

Klapfer told Undercurrent, "We were not present, [but] we did recover the gear the next trip. It shows a definite shark tooth rip but was in no way shredded. It looks more like an investigating bite, which is not a small matter whatsoever. We do look at it as a valid attack."

"We are following this strange behavior of what seems like one individual female shark around Manuelita and Chatham Bay. She tends to investigate divers on or near the surface. She is slow, investigative and not quick to approach."

Klapfer continues, "On our side, we [have] increased training for our dive guides. We descend and ascend as a group and keep a vigilant eye on it. Our divemasters are briefed and equipped to deal with any aggressive event if necessary."

Deirdre Boyle and Cynthia Flynn (Wilmington, DE) wrote to say they had witnessed a similarly close encounter during their trip on MV Argo in April. Boyle also told Undercurrent about a close encounter another group had in December.

Some might dismiss this as of little consequence. Others might see a pattern emerging, since last November, an American diver, Rohina Bhandari, died after she was severely bitten by a similar tiger shark at the same location (Undercurrent January 2018). This is the sixth confirmed unprovoked shark attack in Costa Rican waters since records began.

David Shem-Tov (London, UK), a repeat visitor to Cocos and someone who has had a close call with a saltwater crocodile (Undercurrent August 2009), writes, "The thought weighing on my mind if this continues, is which is worse: The destruction of the tiger shark, providing it is just one responsible for these attacks, or the effective ending of recreational diving in Cocos, which would lead to the probable unsustainability of the already marginal marine protection program in Cocos by the Costa Rican authorities due to loss of income/incentives?"

I first reported on tiger sharks at Cocos while testing a new rebreather there in 2013. It's important not to take your eyes off them. Although they appear to move ponderously, they're sneaky, and it gets difficult when there are more than one of them.

Several times at Tiger Beach in the Bahamas, I've had to push an impressive yet persistent tiger shark away from me, because it was simply getting too close. I was surprised to find that they felt quite squidgy in places, especally behind the gill-slits.

I felt strangely detached when a huge tiger shark, 18 feet (5.5m) long, grabbed my tank and swam off with me. In fact, it happened twice on the same dive in February 2013, and I had started to think that my luck was running out.

A tiger seemed to have developed a predilection for camera rigs and other metal objects. My problem was that the animal took my tank while I was still wearing it. What do you do when a huge fish with teeth grabs you? Well, there's not much you can do.

I remained as passive as possible and waited for it to lose interest. I knew that to struggle would put me in conflict with those razor-sharp teeth. Those other divers who witnessed it preferred to stay out of the water for the next dive. You can read the full story in my book, Shark Bytes (available on Amazon).

If you are grabbed by a tiger, stay as passive as possible. It will probably let you go.

Recently Undersea Hunter added this announcement to its website: "Since December 2017, Undersea Hunter has taken all precautions to avoid any kind of incident with sharks at Cocos. We have implemented several new procedures to enhance the safety of all our passengers, including: having all our divers enter and exit the water together; increased training for the dive guides; equipping our dive guides with specially constructed aluminum sticks that can deter close encounters if necessary."

"Prior to December 2017, the Cocos Island National Parks Department did not allow the use of any kind of defense stick, and furthermore, in the history of diving at Cocos Island, there had never been any kind of shark incident [before]."

"We strongly believe that by following the above procedures, any kind of serious incident with sharks can be avoided. This is a reminder to all visitors to Cocos Island how important it is to follow the safety guidelines of dive guides at all times."

-- John Bantin

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