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Shark Info   (12-15-2000)



Diving with large sharks - a foolish pastime or scientific necessity?

Shark Info

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Diving with large sharks - a foolish pastime or scientific necessity?

Dr. E. K. Ritter

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Basking Sharks

Dr. E. K. Ritter

Diving with large sharks - a foolish pastime or scientific necessity?

By Dr. E. K. Ritter

Free Diving

Free diving with white sharks, often a nightmare for scuba divers but for scientists an important experiment.

© Shark Foundation

Experience has shown that diving with sharks is a relatively harmless undertaking, provided that certain basic rules are observed.

The number of international organizations offering touristic diving with sharks are shooting up like mushrooms. On the one hand, we see that divers are beginning to increasingly defend sharks, not only because they marvel at their beauty and grace, but also because they have come to understand their importance in the ecological chain. On the other hand, there is a continually growing fear and hatred for sharks being exhibited by spear fishers, swimmers and surfers (the main groups of people involved in shark accidents). The only way to counteract this sad state of affairs is through applied research.


Initial Situation

Not very long ago people were advised to stay out of waters where a shark had been seen the previous day. Today, divers are virtually addicted to seeing, observing and photographing these animals. However, many scuba divers show a tendency which sooner or later could backfire and confirm what other people interested in water sports already believe, that sharks are indeed dangerous animals. With shark diving as well as other activities marked by adrenaline kicks, maintaining the attraction of the event often means constantly increasing the stimulus. Less than 20 years ago, observing reef sharks was something very exceptional, but soon it had to be blue sharks, bull sharks, lemon sharks or even oceanic whitetip sharks. And the latest craze now gaining popularity is free interaction with white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias). In this case, however, we are directly confronted with the problem of their size, a fact which can no longer be ignored.

Building up one's ego at the expense of animals

Overstepping one's limits can be dangerous, but when it comes to sharks the effects can even be disastrous. Sharks are not all the same. Behavior which may be correct and applicable for one species can be entirely wrong for another species and hence could lead to an accident. Applying inductive generalization to sharks must be avoided at all costs and any approach should be guided by species-specific principles. At the same time we should not apply human rules to sharks, but rather should respect theirs. We must try and understand sharks and their language through their interaction with the unknown - humans. As with other animal groups, humans tend to view sharks from an anthropocentric point of view, assuming that their feelings are similiar to ours. This, however, is the wrong approach because sharks see and experience their environment from a different perspective. What makes no sense to humans can play an important role with sharks. This is one of the biggest problems because quite often people are too insensitive to recognize that other behavior is called for, besides not being sufficiently informed to understand and properly interpret a shark's signals. In most cases this makes no difference when encountering reef sharks or similar-sized species, but it does become a problem when interacting with large sharks. In such cases the mere size of the sharks plays a key role, for in most people it unconsciously triggers fear, and fear - i.e. the resulting bodily reactions such as higher pulse and quick breathing - is what causes the shark to first take notice of the diver and this can very quickly lead to a situation in which the diver loses control. But what can we do when the diver is not even aware of this danger? Can we simply wait and see what happens? Certainly not! Laws must be passed which prohibit any touristic dives to large sharks except in underwater cages or other protective safety devices. Interacting with large sharks without protective measures should be left up to scientists who must determine why these animals are involved in accidents and who seek to develop useful patterns of behavior for those possibly endangered while enjoying water sports.

Studying sharks in their natural environment

EObviously sharks cannot be studied in aquariums or pens but only in open waters. Any restriction of their habitat automatically leads to a change in their behavior, a fact which applies not only to sharks but to all living beings. It is thus compelling that laboratories are moved under water, a step which should not be underestimated! The work settings for many other research areas are often limited to universities, institutes or purpose-oriented rooms, one reason why little progress is made in such areas. It is thus not surprising that the most frequently found predator on earth has only been researched directly underwater by a handful of scientists and that large sharks are by far the least researched predators on our planet. What we need to do is clear: More scientists must risk their way into the water because it is the only way to investigate this animal‘s behavior in a reasonable time frame. Our objective is to maintain an intact ecological balance in the marine world, a goal much dependent on informing the general public about these animals.
Of course with more than 460 shark species to be researched, it is virtually impossible to study them all! Effective press information must thus be found: The white shark guarantees media interest. Applied research on this shark will demystify the general image of sharks, hopefully paving the way for a change in human consciousness. This reversed thinking is needed to remove the potential threat of an ecological catastrophe caused by overfishing and senseless slaughtering out of fear or motivated by economic interests.
But what do we know about white sharks and where does current research stand? What we appear to know stems from accident reports, painstaking scientific research, or from the images recorded by a camera behind the bars of an underwater cage.

Where should applied research on white sharks begin?

The first essentially important step is to observe and record encounters with these animals in their natural environment. This information can then be compared to already collected data on other species. Initial results are promising. Apart from its size, which may cause some problems with those interacting with the animals, the white shark does not appear to be so substantially different from other large shark species.

What is the next step?

First-phase investigations on how various shark species react to certain events, e.g. blood in the water, the color of diving suits, the movement of people on the water's surface, etc., have already been carried out. In the next few years such tests will also continue with white sharks. The first objective is to develop behavioral guidelines for swimmers and divers which should help prevent any possible accidents. The next goal is to more closely observe the phenomenon of surfboard biting. Once we are in a position to better comprehend these events and as a result develop potentially successful countermeasures, the "Jaws" image will disappear once and for all from man's mind. This will help to improve the sharks' bad reputation and give them a chance for survival on our planet.

* Dr. Erich K. Ritter is a shark biologist, senior scientist of the Green Marine Institutes and assistant professor at Hofstra University, New York.

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



last change: 06-04-2016 11:48