Eat­ing it all in

Shark feeding wor­ries sci­en­tists and de­lights guests. It’s il­le­gal in some parts of Asia, the lifeblood of oth­ers. Why the frenzy?

Action Asia - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Si­mon Lorenz

FROM THE LARGEST WHALE SHARK TO THE SMALLEST cat-eye shark, I've got ex­tremely close to oth­er­wise-elu­sive preda­tors thanks to a va­ri­ety of bait­ing and feeding tech­niques. Many dives left me ex­cited. Oth­ers made me won­der if we fol­lowed pro­ce­dure. Or if there was one at all. Shark feeds are very pop­u­lar, and they've put des­ti­na­tions on the dive map. The feeds guar­an­tee that the sharks stay around divers for ex­tended pe­ri­ods of time, al­low­ing de­tailed ob­ser­va­tion and close-up pho­tog­ra­phy of th­ese apex preda­tors. Even in the shark-rich waters of Palau or the Gala­pa­gos, the count­less sharks will only swim past, im­par­tial to our pres­ence. For a great shot, the an­i­mal should be fac­ing the camera, some­thing the sharks will rarely do. Be­ing able to pho­to­graph th­ese species up close is an un­de­ni­able draw for me. But does that make it right to en­joy a shark feed?

What is a feed?

Shark feeding en­tices sharks to stay long enough for snorkellers or divers to ob­serve them. The WWF'S guide Re­spon­si­ble Shark and Ray Tourism dif­fer­en­ti­ates the “pro­vi­sion­ing” of sharks into chum­ming, lur­ing, and feeding. Chum­ming at­tracts sharks by spilling fish oil or mashed fish parts into the wa­ter, cre­at­ing a scent trail that sharks can smell over vast dis­tances. The ad­van­tage is that the sharks are not in a food-fueled feeding state, and will leisurely cruise around rather than ag­gres­sively ap­proach­ing. For ex­am­ple, nurse sharks in Ali­matha in the Mal­dives were orig­i­nally at­tracted by fish car­casses thrown away by lo­cal fish­er­men. Lur­ing uses fake or real shark bait, with­out ac­tual feeding. Great-white watch­ing in South Africa or Mex­ico's Guadalupe Is­land uses both chum­ming and lur­ing to get the big preda­tors close to view­ing cages. Sharks aren't meant to get the bait, but they of­ten get a bite, which in many na­tions is il­le­gal. Some op­er­a­tors take lur­ing even fur­ther by draw­ing a fake seal be­hind the bait, en­tic­ing great whites to at­tack the lure and leap from the wa­ter. An­other form of lur­ing uses a “bait box,” a metal de­vice full of dead fish, on a line. It will cre­ate both a scent and vis­ual trail of fish. My fa­vorite baited shark dive is in Umko­maas, near Dur­ban in South Africa, where a “bait ball” brings up to 30 ma­jes­tic oceanic black-tip sharks. For up to an hour, th­ese 3m sharks swim around the ball and the divers with­out any form of ag­gres­sion. Feeding sharks, of course, means the preda­tors are ac­tu­ally re­ceiv­ing food. Hand-feeding is one of the most dra­matic and dan­ger­ous ways to feed. Op­er­a­tors in Fiji, the Ba­hamas, Mex­ico and Florida spe­cial­ize in this. My ex­pe­ri­ence is that prob­lems can arise if the sharks be­come ag­gres­sive. Their move­ments are rel­a­tively pre­dictable to ex­perts, but novice divers may be at risk. Pro­vid­ing krill or bait­fish to whale sharks is much less dan­ger­ous but also falls into this cat­e­gory. Feed­ers will throw the bait in front of the whale shark, which will suck in gal­lons of wa­ter and ig­nore hu­mans.

Is it dan­ger­ous?

While the feeding of a docile whale shark or nurse shark bears no more risk than a nor­mal dive, there are many things than can go wrong when food is pro­vided to other sharks.

Op­por­tunis­tic smaller sharks like black tips and grey reef sharks can whip into a feeding frenzy when food is around. They might blindly dart about, in­creas­ing the risk of ac­ci­den­tal bites or bump­ing into divers. Large sharks may not act as fast, but their teeth and bulk can in­flict con­sid­er­able dam­age even if ac­ci­den­tally in­ter­act­ing with hu­mans. Most op­er­a­tors pre­pare ac­cord­ingly, be­cause one mis­take could ruin the en­tire op­er­a­tion. Divers must usu­ally stay close to the sea floor, or even hide be­hind man-made struc­tures, while “han­dlers” hold bars to push sharks away if they get too close. To date, the global track record is good, with very few ac­ci­dents. For divers, it is im­por­tant to choose wisely, and make sure the dive op­er­a­tion ap­plies the nec­es­sary safety mea­sures. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, lured and chummed dives pose less risk be­cause the sharks don't get into a frenzy. Most sharks will swim around when the food is first pre­sented. When not sa­ti­ated, they cruise in prox­im­ity, in wider cir­cles. But some sharks can get feisty when food is in the wa­ter and they aren't get­ting any. I re­mem­ber one baited dive with a tiger shark. Be­cause the food box stayed closed, a large fe­male used to be­ing fed be­came in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive to­wards divers, to the ex­tent that the dive had to be aborted. Even on lured dives, it is im­por­tant to stay low and keep an eye on the sharks. As­sum­ing a baited dive is done safely, and with no risk to hu­mans, does that make it right?

Who benefits?

Trav­ellers get a thrill out of see­ing sharks up close, and they are pre­pared to pay for the ex­pe­ri­ence. So a bur­geon­ing shark-tourism in­dus­try has de­vel­oped in re­cent years. In Fiji's Beqa La­goon, an en­tire dive busi­ness has de­vel­oped around the feeding of bull and tiger sharks. On the white sands of Tiger Beach in the Ba­hamas, divers can wit­ness hand-feeding of tiger sharks and great ham­mer­heads. Rod­ney Fox pi­o­neered shark feeding in 1976 in South Aus­tralia. Since then, sev­eral op­er­a­tors in Port Lin­coln have been lur­ing great whites in the nearby Nep­tune Is­lands. The im­pact of shark tourism can­not be ig­nored. “The lo­cal tourism sec­tor has ben­e­fit­ted tremen­dously from the cage-div­ing in­dus­try,” shark ecol­o­gist Char­lie Hu­ve­neers of Flin­ders Univer­sity says. Divers “are in Port Lin­coln to ex­pe­ri­ence white sharks in the wild,” but they “stay ex­tra nights supporting lo­cal ho­tels and restau­rants.” Os­lob, in the Philip­pines, put it­self on the map by lur­ing whale sharks close to snorkellers. In 2011, the tiny fish­ing vil­lage was just a cob­bly beach at the tip of Cebu Is­land. In 2017, it re­ceived more than 250,000 guests.

Where’s the ac­tion?

That kind of im­pact in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries is im­mense. But it sends a mes­sage home, too. Divers re­turn and rave about their trip. Amanda Cot­ton, vet­eran big-preda­tor ex­pe­di­tion leader, has seen many divers pro­foundly changed by shark dives. “The con­trolled and safe ex­pe­ri­ence has a deep emo­tional im­pact on peo­ple,” she says. “I have seen many peo­ple fun­da­men­tally change their lives after such an ex­pe­ri­ence, be­com­ing shark ad­vo­cates or supporting con­ser­va­tion.” Some 25% of the whale-shark tourists in Os­lob are Chi­nese na­tion­als. Will th­ese trav­ellers be less likely to con­sume shark prod­ucts when they go back home? An­other 50% are do­mes­tic Filipino tourists, many for the first time ap­pre­ci­at­ing their own pre­cious un­der­wa­ter world, which suf­fers from over-fish­ing and pol­lu­tion. They may see the ben­e­fit of pro­tect­ing it.

There's noth­ing like first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence to en­cour­age en­gage­ment on marine is­sues. In the so­cial-me­dia age, pos­i­tive mes­sages about shark in­ter­ac­tions rip­ple across net­works. But dou­ble-tap­ping on In­sta­gram or shar­ing to your Face­book feed doesn't spare an ac­tual shark. “Sim­ply ‘rais­ing aware­ness' of whale sharks and their con­ser­va­tion sta­tus isn't hugely use­ful at this point,” Si­mon Pierce, co-founder of the Marine Me­gafauna Foun­da­tion, states. “They are en­dan­gered species. They need real ac­tion.” Hard cash does, how­ever, pro­vide a mo­tive for tourism op­er­a­tors in re­mote lo­ca­tions to pre­serve those spots. Ar­eas that were once prime ter­ri­tory for shark poach­ers may re­main pro­tected through com­mer­cial pres­sure. Most sci­en­tists be­lieve shark-feeding op­er­a­tors and travel des­ti­na­tions that profit from sharks should also con­trib­ute to shark re­search and con­ser­va­tion. This process could in­clude sys­tem­at­i­cally re­port­ing num­bers and not­ing down be­hav­iours. Tourists can check if a shark op­er­a­tion is do­ing so, and even ask to par­tic­i­pate in the stud­ies. Hu­ve­neers warns, though, that some op­er­a­tors may say they are supporting re­search, with­out do­ing much more than talk­ing about it in their mar­ket­ing.

What about the sharks?

Divers did not start feeding sharks. The tech­niques of bait­ing and chum­ming were per­fected over decades by re­searchers and wildlife doc­u­men­taries. With­out it, we would know much less about th­ese highly elu­sive an­i­mals. Most re­searchers be­lieve ac­tive shark feeding does im­pact the an­i­mals, per­haps neg­a­tively. “As long as we still don't know what im­pact shark pro­vi­sion­ing has on the species, we must as­sume that it does,” Andy Cor­nish, the global shark-pro­gramme leader at the WWF, says. “If you can ob­serve the shark with­out pro­vi­sion­ing, it shouldn't be nec­es­sary.” So con­ser­va­tion­ists err to­wards cau­tion. Divers can en­counter many shark species by chance, just not nec­es­sar­ily pre­dictably or for pro­longed pe­ri­ods. But there are sharks that divers will never en­counter, even if the sharks fre­quent the area. The chances of com­ing across a great white, blue or mako shark are slim, since they are oceanic. Most con­ser­va­tion agen­cies will not ar­gue against pro­vi­sion­ing for an­i­mals that are oth­er­wise al­most im­pos­si­ble to see. My first en­coun­ters with both a tiger and a bull shark came on baited dives. Not only was I able to cap­ture some very strik­ing shots, I also learned a lot about shark be­hav­iour, physique and body lan­guage.

Should the sharks move, or you?

Whale sharks of­ten move based on food sources, such as fish or co­ral spawns. In Don­sol in the Philip­pines, Yu­catán in Mex­ico, and Mafia Is­land in Tan­za­nia, hun­dreds of whale sharks come in nat­u­rally at cer­tain times of the year. But snorkellers must travel to th­ese des­ti­na­tions in narrow time win­dows. A whale-shark feeding site such as Os­lob, Cen­der­awasih or Tri­ton Bay can pro­vide the ex­pe­ri­ence all year around. “There are, of course, clear eco­nomic benefits to the town of Os­lob,” Pierce ad­mits. “But there is, at pre­sent, no par­tic­u­lar ben­e­fit to whale-shark con­ser­va­tion from those ac­tiv­i­ties.” In­stead, there are “ob­vi­ous short-term and po­ten­tial long-term im­pacts on the sharks' health.” Shark feeding can change migration pat­terns and there­fore mat­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. Stud­ies have demon­strated a change of move­ment in whale sharks, bull sharks and great whites. If there's too much pro­vided food, the an­i­mal's abil­ity to feed nat­u­rally may also de­cline. Un­usual food may hurt gen­eral health. An­i­mals can ac­tu­ally be hurt in the process. On many shark feeds, you can see fresh wounds on the sharks, some caused while try­ing to dis­lodge food or squab­bling over fish scraps. Whale sharks have been in­jured by boats and have sen­si­tive skin that hu­mans should not touch. After many baited dives, I would not want to see an out­right ban on shark feeding, de­spite the pit­falls. When car­ried out re­spon­si­bly and with min­i­mal im­pact, it's a unique ex­pe­ri­ence. Why should it be re­served for con­ser­va­tion­ists and TV doc­u­men­taries? The in­dus­try should, how­ever, do a bet­ter job of sel­f­reg­u­la­tion. There should be rules heed­ing both shark and hu­man safety, and op­er­a­tors should fol­low them – I have seen some that do not. Out­right reg­u­la­tion may even be nec­es­sary. Divers and snorkellers should choose care­fully. But they should not be robbed of a po­ten­tially life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. I have seen the emo­tional re­ac­tion from my guests, and of­ten a new-found con­nec­tion to sharks and ocean con­ser­va­tion. Sharks face much greater risks when it comes to shark finning and over­fish­ing. The more ad­vo­cates they have, the bet­ter.

LOAD OF BULLS A sick­lefin lemon shark joins a feed in Beqa, Fiji, third in the peck­ing or­der be­hind tiger and bull sharks. Sci­en­tists say the events have drawn in­creas­ing num­bers of larger bull sharks, but it's not clear how this af­fects the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion of bulls or other species long-term.

FEED HIM FOR A DAY This page: A lemon shark at a fish feed in Caribbean waters, where a few sharks may dom­i­nate the hi­er­ar­chy. Eat­ing a larger amount of large fish con­cen­trates chem­i­cals.

Op­po­site: Fish­er­men feeding whale sharks in Tri­ton Bay off In­done­sian Pa­pua. A study in the Philip­pines showed whale sharks stayed twice as long as nor­mal when fed, lost body con­di­tion, and bore the scars of pro­pel­ler con­tact.

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