How Safe Shark Diving Procedures Can Help Protect Sharks

Posted on November 5, 2012
Written by: Cristina Zenato
Tags: Cristina Zenato 

MO_divercage.jpgIn the last twenty years shark diving has developed from a specialty dive for thrill-seekers to an industry trend. It has been a great development for the sharks. More and more divers and non-divers are exposed to beautiful images and tales of shark encounters of any size and species. Videos and pictures of giant sharks swimming side by side with divers make people shiver, smile and enjoy.

Conservation agencies have also increased in numbers and efforts to expose the plight of sharks, primarily in the market of finning, but also as a threatened animal in certain parts of the world and for certain species.

Research has provided us with knowledge of shark behavior, paths, reproductive patterns, and disclosed the need to extend the protection for sharks to environments we did not even directly connect with them.

This is all good news for sharks and for us. With the growth in interest for sharks, there has been a growth in interest for shark encounters. Islands and locations where sharks were hard to even find are now seeing the birth and growth of new shark dives of every kind and style for a very different variety of sharks.

Shark diving was born as a trial-and-error industry. In the beginning, the pioneers of this activity tried with both success and failure to attract sharks closer. With time these trial and errors became rules and regulations. As the consumer base for this product grows, so grows the need to have very controlled and safe shark encounters offered for commercial use.

As members of the public, we should understand these rules and welcome them as an indication that an operator understands sharks and also has everybody’s safety at heart, including the sharks. 

Divers should look more or less at these following issues:

  1. Ask if the encounter is free swimming/SCUBA or confined in a cage
  2. If it is free swimming, determine where it is located, on the ocean floor with SCUBA gear, or on the surface in free diving gear
  3. Make sure you are required to wear full body protection, a black wetsuit and gloves, and preferably dark fins
  4. If there is feeding, be sure to understand and respect the separation required between you and the food and/or between you and the feeder/handler 
  5. Make sure to keep that separation during the entire length of the interaction
  6. Be sure there is safety diver present in the water
  7. Follow the safety diver’s instructions and during the encounter assess your position and re-position yourself if necessary
  8. Ask what evacuation procedures are in place for SCUBA diving accidents and for specific shark diving accidents
  9. Never become complacent with the animals and the action

MO_oceanic_diver.jpgMore than once I have welcomed a student for my shark feeder course who wants to come and learn what I do, and then move somewhere else and open a shark dive adventure. I am glad these guests want to at least learn how it is done before jumping in with their own company.

In my limited capabilities I do not just take them through a wonderful adventure and experience, but I also talk about the complex teamwork behind what we are doing. They leave with a new understanding of how commercial shark diving has to look easy to the eye but is sustained by strong rules and regulations. I believe when we talk about an encounter with species that could be potentially dangerous for us, these rules need to be strict and never broken.

Operators should be looking at the same issues that divers are and analyzing them to make sure they can be properly answered.  Operators should also ensure that:

  1. Your operation has distinct shark dive procedures
  2. There are regulations on the extent of interactions and they are monitored
  3. There is an evacuation plan
  4. Emergency equipment is available on the boat
  5. Somebody is in charge of enforcing rules and regulations
  6. The crew is trained and checked out before allowing to become safety divers and/or handlers
  7. The crew understands shark behavior and is ready to call the dive and evacuate if deemed appropriate
  8. Each team member is ready to deal with medical emergencies
  9. Consideration is given to each species of shark, location, distance from shore, distance from emergency facility, communication capability and team coordination back at base
  10.  Remember: It’s team work

I have read blogs about the need to have personal freedom to interact with sharks however we like. While the concept is absolutely correct, when we as professional divers take others to see sharks, our own personal pleasure takes secondary importance to the need to set up a safe learning environment to better teach others about these amazing animals.

Protection for the team, for the guests and for the operation is key to protecting sharks. These shark encounters have proved fundamental to developing knowledge and education for the public.

Sharks have never had a stronger voice in their favor as they have now, but we need to make sure that voice is sustained by a respectful and strong experience for all those involved. 

Cristina Zenato is Head of Diving at UNEXSO, Grand Bahama Island, a world-renowned shark diver, and a member of the Women Divers’ Hall of Fame. Cristina is sharing her considerable knowledge of and experience in diving with sharks through a new Shark Savers' blog series. This is the fourth in the series.


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