By Dr. E. K. Ritter
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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