Shark Diving, Shark Feeding, and Common Sense

Posted on May 18, 2012
Written by: Christina Zenato
Tags: Cristina Zenato 

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. Second of the series. (See first in the series here).

handfeeding2.jpgI am a shark feeder: I have been feeding Caribbean reef sharks for the past 18 years. One might assume then that any discussion coming from me would always conclude that feeding is the only way to conduct a shark dive. Not so.

Simply defining the interaction with all sharks as a feeding or a non-feeding situation is too simplistic. It would collect approximately 400 species of sharks under the single umbrella of generalized gray, tubular, finned, toothed creatures who just swim around the oceans behaving as we would want them to behave. Instead we can, and should, take the time to learn how each and every shark species behaves. This can be a controversial and difficult topic to present -- please understand that there will always be unique situations and habitat niches. As with any complex issue, knowledge and understanding are key.

I have traveled all over the world to observe sharks and have experienced different kinds of operations and different feeders. I have participated in shark dives focused on natural gatherings, chumming, scent-bait trails, frozen ‘chummsicles,’ and I have fed several shark species using a variety of methods. The discussion below is based on these experiences.

Natural aggregations

Despite heavy fishing pressure on many species of sharks, happily there are still some natural gathering places where sharks can be found. In an ideal world we would find these locations, protect them, and become silent, unobstrusive observers of the event without interfering with nature at its best. A prime example is one of the most fascinating sharks: the giant, seemingly hard-to- find whale shark. Hard-to-find, that is, until they congregate to feed on plankton during certain times of the year in places like the Yucatan where you can sometimes find yourself swimming through dozens of them.

In fact most shark dive encounters have a “season.” Even the ever-present Caribbean reef sharks that I work with move out of the area during mating season. During that time the feeding trigger is absent and the sharks stay away while nature takes a more important course: reproduction. So once dive operators establish and understand this seasonal behavior they can correlate it with the presence of the animals and their reaction to food.

Unfortunately, natural and predictable shark aggregations are few and far between, and are usually difficult to reach in distance and depth, and can be expensive. To see sharks and to have successful encounters with these animals in the wild, we need the presence of food. However we can customize and limit how bait is used and may rarely and selectively need a ‘direct’ deliverer or source of food.

Beyond natural

There are dive operations that use simple scent to attrack sharks. Generally, sharks are already in the area and it is just a matter of getting them interested in the dive site. The standard method used is a slick of fish oil that trickles out from chum often made from fishermens’ scraps. The dive vessels are positioned up-current and rely on natural water movement to carry the scent stimuli to the sharks. For example in South Africa, dive vessels that promote diving with great whites use this method where sharks are already aggregated to feed on marine mammals concentrated in the surrounding areas. When sharks arrive at the dive site, they are visually engaged using a piece of bait or a decoy on a rope. Because sharks are not allowed to be fed, the visual cues keep them around the boat so they can be viewed by the divers and observers until they decide to move on.

There are some important considerations with regard to these kinds of bait-scented shark dives. First, as responsible divers and operators, we should consider what species of sharks we would like to attract and in which areas we would like to attract them, while maintaining our respect for their natural populations, behaviors, and safety. For example, what kinds of sharks we are attracting? Are these sharks surface feeders [those species of sharks whose natural behavior includes searching the surface of the water for prey, such as great white and oceanic white tip sharks]? If so, this scent-bait method works well and may not alter their overall distribution in their natural feeding zone. If they are not ‘surface feeders,’ then we should consider using a different attraction method, something that compliments where these specific sharks tend to feed and move.

Secondly, as responsible shark dive operators, we need to consider what happens to the animals once we have attracted them to the boats for viewing: are we going to be there the rest of the year or only seasonally? Are we aggregating the sharks in an area that could then be targeted by fishermen? How do we assure that this ‘relationship’ we’ve started does not harm the sharks, now or in the future?

Surface feeding of sharks for diver encounters is sometimes criticized as a possible means of “teaching” the sharks that vessels carry food thereby creating a potential danger to future visitors to the location should they decide to enter the water. However, a logical review of shark behavior and historical human-shark interactions can provide a better context for this criticism. Sharks’ primary concern is survival, and as such they have learned to follow vessels from the first time our ancestors took to the water and started to fish. That relationship precedes shark dive operators. Therefore under most maritime circumstances we need to consider the safety of both sharks and humans.

Feeding methods

Shark behavior, location and human safety are three determining factors for feeding dives. First and foremost, feeding dives should be established and conducted in areas where sharks are usually and naturally found. And the method used to ‘feed’ should be carefully selected. Here are some examples…

Drifting bait and diver cages

sharkfeeding_saachiscuba.jpgUsing this method sharks from the area are drawn to the vessel by creating a scent trail up current. The location is close to natural feeding grounds, away from landmarks; big animals are attracted and guests observe from cages. There should be no major issues with this method, but again, because of popular perception, such operations should be kept away from any other human activity areas.

Drifting bait and free swimming

This is generally the same method as above, but guests are allowed to enter the water and snorkel, no scuba. There are several concerns with this method. Operators should consider the species showing up on the dives, their behavior and the experience level of the people allowed in the water with the animals. Preferably, swimmers should be kept above and separated from the released scent, kept together in a group and remain close to the surface support and safety of the support vessel. This can be one of the most challenging methods to manage especially with pelagic surface feeding sharks because of their behaviors.

Frozen chum or ‘chumsicle’

This is one of the original and preferred methods to attract sharks, frequently used in the widening market of recreational shark encounters. It is also, perhaps, the most unpredictable method as the animals are allowed full access to the bait. This is because, once the frozen bait starts falling apart control over the source of food and sharks reaction to is lost. Separation between observers and food becomes difficult. It can be a spectacular experience from a visual point of view, but often out of control from another point of view.

Feeding buckets and crates

MaryO-1453-650.jpgWith this method, the possibilities are endless as the bait containers can be fixed on the bottom, carried back and forth, lowered from the above surface support of the boat or held directly by the dive leader. Observers are usually on scuba and the separation between bait/food and guest divers is more defined. In theory, it may be one of the safer methods, unless one of the animals grabs hold of the container and damages it and/or swims away with it -- inevitably followed by all its fellow sharks, potentially creating havoc among divers, loss of visibility and loss of control between sharks and divers. This method lacks the direct control over the food source and can then require the operator to intercede between the sharks and bait.

When using this method special considerations are necessary when interacting with one specific shark: the tiger shark. Professionals have long observed tiger sharks being inquisitive about everything, from a piece of dead coral, to a camera, and even a leg. Therefore, it is necessary to establish rules adapted for the highest safety when a tiger shark(s) is present. Using bait crates on tiger shark dives requires time and observation, and any new, incoming operator needs to understand location-specific protocols and respect the established rules of shark handling based on existing safety records.

Hand-feeding dives

sharkfeeding_thaddiusbedford.jpgWith hand-feeding of sharks a variety of containers and methods are used. In various locations, worldwide, several species of sharks are hand fed, from Caribbean reefs to bulls and sometimes even tigers.

One of the benefits of this method is that the separation between the observers and the food is complete. The food is under the constant control of the trained, experience feeder, and if handled correctly, out of the reach of sharks that othewise might steal the fish. Of course, it can present a direct risk to the food handler and therefore should be used with sharks and in locations that allow comfortable control. Most sharks can be hand fed and divers can swim through the same area at a later time without any concerns. However, hand-feeding of sharks should be considered on a case-by-case basis taking into consideration the experience of the handler/feeder, the location and ocean conditions, the safety record of the operator, and the comfort/experience of the divers/observers.

When attracting sharks for recreational viewing using feeding, baiting and scenting, we need to consider the relationship between safety for the guests, the animals and the operators.

One fact is undisputed: most divers want to see sharks. Shark tourism provides a financial incentive to keep sharks alive and responsible shark diving is an excellent tool for conservation, however, we need to be mindful and smart about it. Sharks, as with all wild animals, can and do bite, and some bites can be potentially lethal to humans.

Tossing some chum in the water and ‘opening the pool’ for divers right after the sharks show up is not a well-planned dive. It is the dive operators’ responsibility to evaluate the guests on the dives and adapt the dive to the average experience and skill level. Some shark dives and some rules are not for beginner divers, and market-demand for the next ‘big thrill’ with sharks should not be the driver for running an operation or establishing new dive sites.

If we want to consider a series of ‘guidelines’ on how best to see sharks, we might summarize them as:

  • Find natural gatherings we can use to observe sharks.
  • Find feeding grounds of sharks and experience the animals as an unobtrusive observer. Examples include whale sharks gathering for plankton, sardine runs, and great whites congregating around seals and birds colonies.
  • Keep the feeding/baiting of sharks related to where they naturally occur and in keeping with their natural behavior and prey.
  • When and where appropriate, maintain seperation between the food source where the sharks will aggregate and the divers.
  • Leave the ‘feeding’ to the professionals who keep control of the food source.
  • Carefully consider the natural behavior of the shark species with relation to the method of attraction, feeding, and interactions with observers.
  • Dive with reputable, established shark dive operators with clear, effective dive and safety protocols.

“Not everything that can be done; should be done”. It is a statement that summarizes my approach, and I believe a logical approach to responsible shark-diver interactions.


Exciting news about Cristina:

Cristina will be the focus of an important documentary, in development, that will spread public awareness about the importance of sharks. The film, SHARK WHISPERER, focuses on her work and career as a world-renowned diver and shark behaviorist. This tireless champion of shark awareness has been instrumental in putting their terrible plight on the public radar. Her amazing videos on Youtube have generated over 2 million hits! Please check out this link to learn about the film project :

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1389072496/shark-whisperer

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