Full admission, I am TERRIFIED of sharks, have been since I was a child. A great many people share that fear, Galeophobia if you want to be technical, and the countless films and TV shows depicting the “terror” of sharks have helped to reinforce that fear. It’s no secret that education is the best cure for fear, so hopefully we can all find some ways to reduce (or eliminate) our fear through knowledge. There are actually a great many reasons to appreciate, and even love, sharks. Maybe you won’t be swimming with them anytime soon, but this may help you enjoy seeing them, even if just a little bit.
First, a little perspective. Despite what Jaws might want you to believe, there have only been 828 recorded shark attacks. Since 1580. And 160 of those were provoked. Over 435 years, there are an average of about 2 attacks a year. Add to that the fact that out of the 503 species of sharks (that we know of), there are only 34 that are suspected of unprovoked attacks on people. It turns out that a great many shark species are actually fairly cuddly! Well, at least passive towards us. Avoiding the Great White, Tiger Sharks, and Bull Sharks is obvious, but other species are not so aggressive. There are even some that have no problem with humans sharing their waters!
Swimming with sharks can be a great way to overcome your fears, or just an incredible way to experience a gorgeous new world. There are a number of ways to experience sharks up close, but the three main ones are readily accessible around the world.
Each one offers a very different experience, although they also come with some very real downsides. As always, do your research before jumping in with natures perfect predator!
Probably the most common image when one mentions swimming with sharks is that of a person decked out in scuba gear inside a steel cage. There are countless places that offer this experience, pretty much anywhere there are shark populations, there is someone willing to take you down. While not necessarily the “safest” way to dive, it is something that offers a great deal more security, and is the only way to observe great white sharks.
The issue with cage diving is the use of chum to attract the sharks. Chum is a mixture of blood, offal, and meat meant to attract sharks, who can smell blood for up to 3 miles away. This is believed to effect sharks natural hunting pattern, as well as teaching them to associate humans with food, which isn’t something anyone wants. The moral and environmental debates over how chumming effects shark behavior has led to it being banned in a number of countries, including some states here in the US. If you plan to try cage diving, do your research to make sure it’s the right decision for you – and make sure they don’t chum so that it’s the right decision for the sharks too.
A more personal (but scarier!) way to visit sharks in their natural habitat is with the assistance of scuba gear. Obviously, a familiarity with scuba diving is necessary, so this isn’t a spur of the moment option while you’re on vacation. However, if you are an experienced diver, visiting the deep can be unbelievably rewarding.
Shark scientist Riley Elliott produced a list of “rules” to follow when scuba diving with sharks. First, he stresses to make eye contact with the shark. Their senses are almost supernatural in comparison with ours, and they can see the eye contact very clearly. It lets them know they are spotted, throwing off their ability to sneak attack (their normal feeding strategy), making them far less likely to see you as prey.
Staying in clear water is also vital. If you can’t see them clearly, that doesn’t mean they can’t see you! Remaining calm is also vital when diving. Sharks can actually read electrical signals from other animals, meaning that if you are nervous, frantic, or moving with any sort of panic, the shark will sense it. Splashing around, a common folk remedy for scaring off sharks, is actually more likely to attract them.
It’s obvious why being an experienced diver is so important. Being in that situation could make a novice panic, which could lead to any number of dangers, sharks or no. And, as with any wild animal, it’s really best (for both your sake and the shark’s!) to avoid touching them. However, if you can dive farther, seeing sharks up close underwater can be breathtaking.
Another fantastic way to observe sharks under water is the more user-friendly snorkeling.
There are numerous friendly shark species that can be visited while snorkeling, and staying close to the surface is a much more comfortable situation for novice shark watchers. Finding a group to take you snorkeling with sharks is fairly simple, and it is a safe and authentic way to visit the more benign sharks without disturbing their normal patterns.