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Shark Info   (03-15-2001)



Communicating with Sharks

Shark Info

  Main article:

Communicating with Sharks

Dr. E. K. Ritter

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Sharks seen through the eyes of filmmakers

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  Article 2:

Whale shark tourism in the Philippines

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  Article 3:

GIMEC Meeting in New Orleans

Dr. E. K. Ritter

  Article 4:

Successful launch of the Shark Exhibition in St. Gallen

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  Fact Sheet:

Smalleye Hammerhead Shark

Dr. E. K. Ritter

Communicating with Sharks

By Dr. E. K. Ritter


Animals communicate in their own special way when interacting with humans. Most pet owners thus usually understand what their animals are trying to say by certain signals which they send out. Such signals include a cat's purring and rubbing against a person's legs, or the excited wagging of a dog's tail.

The same holds true for sharks who also send out specific signals when they come into contact with people. Unfortunately, up until now we have not been able to interpret them properly except in extremely rare cases. It is thus not surprising that until a short time ago divers who encountered sharks were advised to simply react passively until the animal lost interest in them.



Interpretation Method Several years ago we began to analyze the body language of sharks observed in Walker's Cay, Bahamas. We attempted to find out which movements by humans triggered a reaction with the sharks and how these reactions must be interpreted. The purpose of this research was to establish a method which would allow swimmers, snorklers or divers to interact with sharks, either by letting them get closer to the animals safely without risk, by keeping them away or simply in order to better understand their body language.

After we had developed the initial phase of this interaction concept, the next step was to test it under various circumstances with different shark species. For this purpose we travelled to the most remote locations around the world and worked with various species under varied conditions in order to outline as best possible all of the concept's necessary limits. It was tested on all potentially dangerous species, including the white shark, and this without a cage or other protective measures. We call this interaction method "ADORE-SANE", an abbreviation in which each individual letter refers to specific descriptive terms in the concept. "A" stands for "attitude", referring to the shark's position or behavior. For example, we noted the tail strokes in relation to speed, tried to evaluate tail stiffness during a movement, or the angle of the pectoral fin to the body. All of these observations helped us interpret very special meanings to a shark's individual body language. Another example is the letter "D" which stands for "direction" - the angle at which a shark swims up to a larger object such as a human is very significant and obviously also related to the animal's attitude. The system with the remaining letters is the same.

Each letter refers to a complex categorization of qualities and should enable us to quickly analyze and react properly to any encounter with a shark. The concept can be viewed from two angles, either from ADORE, or SANE. ADORE refers to the shark, SANE to the observing person.

ADORE (Shark-Oriented)


In what manner is the shark swimming towards the diver?


What is the shark's angle to the diver?


At what distance was the shark first noticed?


Is the shark swimming underneath, above or alongside the diver?


What are the water conditions?

SANE (Human-Oriented)


What is the diver's situation (water current, problems, fatigue, etc.)?


What is the diver doing at the moment?


Is the diver nervous or excited (makes the ADORE analysis more difficult)?


Is the diver familiar with the location and the sharks which he or she expects to see there (the ADORE analysis becomes easier); is the diver experienced?

Initial tests have already clearly shown that we humans can actually trigger and create a situation, even if not on purpose. It is thus important for divers to recognize their feelings and behavior when encountering a shark. "S" stands for "Scenario" and refers to the situation the divers find themselves in. This can mean everything from a "lost fin" or problems with the mask, up to a cut or other injury. Different situations distinctly affect both the diver's frame of mind and movements, and this, in turn, triggers different reactions with a shark.

Quite often the diver may not have time to go through all nine points of the concept. We thus also developed a short procedure, singling out only the most important points in order to help divers react appropriately in certain situations. We termed this the "QAI", or "Quick Assessment of Intention" method. This part deals only with the shark and calls for divers to observe the animal's body position, his spatial distance to the diver and the direction he is swimming in. Applying the QAI method provides divers with a quick and fairly reliable picture of the situation in which they find themselves in.

Do all species react the same in different regions?

No. Just as the language and dialects of people differ, so does the body language of sharks change depending on the region. Even if the same species shows the same behavior in similar situations everywhere, the threshold values which trigger specific behavior may be higher or lower in the different regions. ADORE-SANE is a dynamic and flexible method which can be extended as well as changed. It should not be considered a rigid interpretation tool, especially since the body language of species can change regionally and is different from species to species.

Why is application of this method necessary?

In most media sharks still have a bad reputation, either because of the many bloodthirsty films which have been shown in the movies and on television over the past years, or because simply too many untruths are attributed to these animals. The media report on practically every shark accident, regardless who was at fault - the shark or man. In most cases man's behavior is the main reason for an accident. Another objective of ADORE-SANE is thus to test situations which were previously considered dangerous and which led to bites. Reacting in the proper manner could in most cases prevent accidents. But ADORE-SANE also has another purpose: Providing people who are afraid of sharks with a method which allows them to approach sharks at short distances and which can help them reduce and even overcome this fear.

Does this concept have a future?

The future of this concept depends on whether it is applied and promoted. People who find themselves in or near the water on a daily basis, or for that matter only occasionally, and who have good chances of encountering a shark, should be able to learn and implement the method. The method must also be refined and broadened to cover as many species as possible. No two species react in the same way in similar situations. Differences have even been registered between males and females, young animals and adults of the same species. We try to analyze many of the small differences with species who come into frequent contact with humans. By spreading the respective information we can help prevent the shark's already bad image from being damaged even more due to avoidable accidents.

* Dr. Erich K. Ritter is a shark biologist and adjunct assistant professor at Hofstra University, New York (USA)

May be published only by indicating the source: Shark Info / Dr. E. K. Ritter



last change: 06-04-2016 11:48