Once upon a time, it was only the luckiest of researchers who got the opportunity to cage dive with the apex predator of the sea, the Great White Shark. However, in the past 15 years, South Africa has turned cage diving into one of its biggest tourism activities. In fact, the nation’s capital city, Gansbaai, alone has 8 different tour operators that take guests out on any given day. Most of those operators, as well as the tours that run throughout the rest of South Africa and other parts of the world, use chum slicks, seal decoys, and even baited hooks to lure the animals in close enough to the guests to see them. The question has arisen as to whether or not the activity is negatively affecting the sharks’ welfare.
Cage diving with sharks has been criticized almost since the day it became a tourist attraction. Other divers, fisherman, and surfers have all expressed concerns that diving with sharks could potentially lead to an increase in attacks worldwide, though no evidence has been collected to prove such claims. As for the ecological concerns, many are now arguing that cage diving is actually helping the conservation of the animals.
Historically, managing the conservation of a species is driven by three major things: an expression of public concern, scientific evidence, and/or an economic value attached to the species. Simply put, sharks and their associated conservation concerns don’t have a ton of scientific evidence or public support, so relying on dollars from ecotourism might be the best way to protect them.
As for the specific concerns, it’s important to note what makes great whites tick. People are paying to get an up-close look at the sharks. A great white isn’t going to stick around a boat unless there is something in the water to entice them. That means chum, bait, or a decoy. While avoiding baited hooks is probably a good idea, there is no evidence to show that chum has any negative health effects on the animals. The same could be said for the seal decoys many tours use to lure in the sharks, but those who oppose cage diving argue that chumming and decoy deployment could be altering the animals’ natural behavior in ways that we can’t understand.
While there still remains a lot of evidence to be collected to support either side of the argument, all one has to do is visit South Africa to see what the dollars brought in from the shark tour business are doing for conservation efforts in the area to see that it would appear all parties concerned—humans and sharks—are benefiting from cage diving.