By Richard Finkus
Diving with sharks is not dangerous, provided certain
rules of behavior are observed.
© Shark Foundation
Controversies between supporters and opponents of shark feedings have existed
since this form of diving excursion was called to life more than 30 years ago. Some
people believe they condition the sharks (see box) to associate food with
people, thus increasing the danger for people when humans carry no food with them.
In such cases the sharks could become aggressive and bite (a very anthropomorphic
argument). On the other hand, supporters consider it a useful tool to improve
understanding and a significant way of helping scuba divers become better
acquainted with these animals. However, both supporters and scientists do agree that
structured interactive shark diving should be carried out in accordance with some
basic guidelines and that certain feeding techniques such as hand or pole
feedings should be prohibited. A governmental resolution in Florida
- where most shark accidents occur - should now regulate the problem legally.
On September 8, 2000, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission
(FWCC), the government office responsible for animal protection in Florida, rejected
the bill which would have prohibited the feeding of sharks and other marine animals in
Florida but reported that guidelines were being established to allow more structured
feedings. Additional efforts to support the initiative on municipal level have also failed.
In September 1999 the South Florida Spearfishing Club under the direction of Steve
Pacardi and Dave Earp launched a campaign to eliminate the feeding of sharks and
other marine animals in Florida waters, claiming they would condition sharks and
result in accidents. Leaflets were distributed and petitions were laid out in various
places to help secure the necessary votes. As always when sharks become the center
of interest and their bad reputation is exploited, people do not hesitate to depict them
as stupid, primitive predators. The following slogans were thus found on these
petitions, e.g. "... sharks will soon learn to associate humans with food and this will
lead to attacks against family and loved ones ... ", or: " ... don't let your child or family
become the first victim ... ". Although over the past years many efforts have been made
to correct the exaggerated dangerous image of sharks, some individual scientists
decided to support the initiative and by doing so helped to rekindle this old negative
The first public hearing held in February 2000 in Fort Lauderdale was loaded with
emotions and opponents did not fail to mention every case in which feedings resulted
in later attacks on humans. The cited cases designed to underline this chain reaction
were, however, not the main weakness of their arguments, but rather the fact that the
feedings did not involve sharks but rather muray eels, alligators and bears. Without
having performed the respective research, it is very questionable to apply conclusions
made for one species of animal on another simply because it concerns feeding and
wild animals. Shark accidents resulting from feedings are very rare and in no way
comparable to the number of accidents experienced with other animal groups. During
the hearing the initiators could not even cite one feeding accident with sharks.
Sharks do not recognize humans and thus treat them as unknown objects.
Consequently, one cannot conclude that sharks who are fed will associate a human
being with this feeding at their next encounter.
Although it is true that more shark
accidents are recorded annually in Florida than anywhere else around the world,
none of these accidents are the result of feeding activities. Not even the scientific
experts called in by feeding opponents to underline this idea could convincingly
dismiss the arguments of feeding supporters.
A second meeting to prohibit feedings was held several months later in Florida's
capital, Tallahassee. Here too, representatives of professional diving organizations,
anglers and scientists took part and presented their arguments to the Commission for
the second time, but again no convincing basis for accepting such a ban could be
The final and decisive hearing was held on September 8, 2000, at which 9 to 0 votes
clearly rejected the initiative to prohibit shark feedings.
At the same time, however, those organizations with commercial interests in shark
feedings were assigned with establishing an association whose task would be to
develop binding guidelines for such feedings. However, to what extent the adherence
to such guidelines can be controlled remains to be seen. For this purpose the GIMEC
(Global Interactive Marine Experiences Council), whose members represent different
interest groups, was established to act as an advisory office. Dr. Erich Ritter, a Swiss
living in Florida and scientific advisor to the Shark Foundation, was asked to join
them. Their task in the coming months is to develop guidelines for shark feedings
which will be binding on all who offer such touristic services in Florida.
Interactive shark diving has an almost 30-year-old history. The leading nation when it
comes to this form of diving excursion are the Bahamas which counts about 30 such
diving bases. The only known accidents have occurred when diving instructors failed
to offer the bait in a proper manner, but no such incidents are documented with scuba
divers. Various forms of shark diving are offered in more than 100 locations around
the world. When carried out properly, they no doubt can produce an enormous
educational and psychological effect. Such educational work is necessary to reduce
prejudices both for the sake of the sharks as well as other animals. Only by spreading
a deeper understanding for biological connections and the animals themselves can
we prevent endangered animals from being decimated or even eliminated due to
Conditioning is experimental training in which a specific situation or stimuli triggers a certain
behavior. Generally we differentiate between classic and operative conditioning. An example of
classical conditioning is when an animal is offered food and at the same time a bell rings. After
repeating this many times, it suffices to ring the bell and the animal appears in expectation of food.
With the second procedure an animal must do something to receive food. For example, an
apparatus with several switches lets the food fall into the cage when the test animal presses the
proper switch. Initially the animal usually tries different switches at random, but after a while it learns
which one to press to get the food.
* Richard Finkus is shark research coordinator with the PADI
May be published only by indicating the source: Shark Info / Richard Finkus