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?
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?
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.