From an article in issue FEB 98 Dive International:
There can be no question that diving with sharks is the hottest ticket in the dive travel market today. Public fascination with sharks, by people in general and by divers in particular, has never been greater and - compared to the Jaws hysteria of the Seventies - never more enlightened. But only to a degree.
One needn't be a rocket scientist (or a marine biologist, for that matter) to recognise that there has never been a more urgent need than at present for the mass of humanity to take an interest in sharks. Humans are destroying millions each year with a terrifying industrial efficiency.
The reason why the great white shark (named culprit in a majority of human fatalities) was granted protection in Australia, California and South Africa was that public opinion was manipulated to pro-shark. This would probably not have happened if divers and filmmakers had not been encountering and studying the animal for two decades, bringing back images and stories that swayed public perception. Scientists publishing research papers obviously played a valuable part in the process, but the swing in opinion was largely achieved via media professionals and laymen preaching to the congregation - not the choir - in print, on TV and in a thousand small public forums.
There are places where seeing sharks going about their routine business naturally is common - for example, the islands of the Eastern Pacific (Cocos, Gal‡pagos, Malpelo, Socorro) or the islands and atolls of the Pacific and Indian Oceans (Maldives, Tahiti, Papua New Guinea). However, the human preoccupation, some might call it a lurid fascination, with the business end of the shark - its terrible jaws and teeth - are what the punters are after. Sharks au naturel are, with some exceptions, cautious and wary by nature. For the most part, they keep their distance from divers, especially if the water visibility is good (and the diver has a camera filled with unexposed film in his hands). Hence, the business of shark feeding. Research shows that the best way to get close to a shark is to dangle some food in front of its snout. Guaranteed.
Commercial dive operators in different parts of the world have been feeding sharks for the entertainment value for more than 20 years. The strategies employed for bringing sharks and divers into such close contact can be conveniently divided into two types of operation - albeit with variations on a theme. The first is the equipment and crew-intensive, anti-shark, cage-diving set-up; the second the more user-friendly, shark feeding station with a shark-feeder professional of some description, be it a divemaster or charter operator.
Shark cage diving is conducted in South Australia and South Africa for the express purpose of experiencing great white sharks. It is also conducted off California and New England for blue and mako sharks; while in Australia, a dive-boat operator keeps a permanent cage moored at a site on the Great Barrier Reef for grey reef and whaler sharks. White shark trips are an expensive way to experience sharks (US$4,000 per week, plus airfare, and rising). Blue and mako shark dive trips are a quarter of the price, but then the subjects are decidedly less 'shark'.
For the average recreational diver with an interest in seeing sharks up close and personal, many liveaboard dive boats and land-based dive operations created shark feeds for the sake of variety or as a bonus to their traditional diving programmes. Some have even argued that shark feeds were added to bolster diver interest, especially in areas where the diving could be described as tame, mediocre or lacklustre.
Probably the first commercial operation to feature reef-situated, non-cage shark feeds was Herwarth Voightman's pioneering grey reef shark feeds in the Maldives in the early Seventies. They soon became popular with European diving tourists and reached a level of absurdity when, reportedly, Voightman's daughter began feeding the sharks by a new and interesting method. Taking the regulator out of her mouth, she would hold her breath, place the tail of a dead fish in her mouth, then lean forward to let the sharks take the bait. And all while diving topless. Several near-accidents, not to mention brushes with sandpapery sharkskin and the odd scrape of teeth, soon saw the operation reverting to less exhibitionistic methods of shark feeding.
But shark feeding's crowd-pleasing popularity with divers was noted and, as word of this activity got around, bookings increased. The economic value of feeding sharks could not be overlooked and the practice spread, first slowly, then like wildfire, to other points on the global diving map.
Nowhere is this better observed than among the commercial diving operations in the islands of the Bahamas. One cannot open a dive magazine without being bombarded: 'Bahamas diving equals shark diving' is the message of the advertising campaigns of the Bahamian dive operators association. If you go to the Bahamas and don't see sharks, you haven't dived! Currently, more than 20,000 divers a year experience sharks via shark-feeding operations in Bahamian waters and the figure is increasing by 20 per cent a year.
This was not always the case. For years, divers went to the Bahamas to explore pretty but tame reef and fish life. Occasionally, a shark could be seen cruising at the perimeter of a diver's vision. But the sharks were there, and in abundance - ask any spear-fisherman. Blood in the water or the vibrations of fish in distress would quickly attract a variety of species: Caribbean reef sharks; blacktip sharks; bull sharks; great hammerhead sharks; nurse sharks; tiger sharks and lemon sharks.
Organised shark feeds in the Bahamas probably originated concurrently at Stella Maris on Long Island and with Stuart Cove and Frazier Nevins on New Providence. Stella Maris catered to a German clientele familiar with the Maldives operations and began reef shark feeds to draw divers to their remote centre. Cove and Nevins, both avid fishermen as well as divers, fished for dorado, wahoo, tuna and billfish at the autec buoy (owned and operated by the US Navy to calibrate its submarine fleet), which is anchored in 2,000m of water 22km off New Providence. They had long noticed an abundance of silky sharks resident under the buoy and one day began to chum them to the boat and dive with them. Over time, they began hand-feeding the sharks and bringing out paying guests to watch.
Silky sharks are evil-looking little sharks, quick and quirky, with pointed snouts and long, lean bodies. They appear more fearsome than they actually are - nonetheless, the sudden appearance of a group of them can be intimidating to divers. That said, the silkies under the autec buoy are small, in the one to one-and-a-half-metre range, and after their initial buzzing of divers, they tend to settle down. Diving with sharks loses its excitement value after long exposure to them, so Stuart Cove began to 'play' with them by grabbing hold of their tails. In doing so, he made a remarkable discovery. When the tail of a small silky shark is grabbed and slightly twisted, the shark stalls, ceases moving and becomes paralysed. It is a phenomenon called 'tonic immobility', which is loosely defined as 'a state of prolonged muscular contraction'.
Apart from the bravado value of catching a shark by the tail and holding it helpless, Stuart discovered tonic immobility to be a tremendous vehicle through which to remove stray fishing hooks from the sharks' jaws. To the delight of paying guests, Stuart and his divemasters perfected shark-catching, performing displays of tonic immobility and the release of said fishing tackle. Whether the sharks had any definite feelings about underwater dentistry or being put into a state of paralysis is unclear. The fable about Androcles and the lion has no underwater equivalent.
The popularity of diving with silky sharks - and the
premium divers would pay to do so - led Stuart to experiment with other
programmes. He began taking a plastic crate filled with filleted fish
carcasses to a shallow spot on the reefs where Caribbean reef sharks had
frequently been seen, not far from a drop-off into deep water. Through
trial and error, Stuart created a shark feeding routine to bring divers
into contact with sharks in a relatively safe manner. The shark dive still
occurs nearly every afternoon, although not necessarily at the same site
or with the same sharks.
© COPYRIGHT Dive International Publishing Ltd, for personal use only