using bait to attract sharks…the risk

a young reef shark, just before it mouthed my camera...

a young reef shark, just before it mouthed my camera…

Using bait to attract sharks so that divers & snorkelers can more easily observe these over-fished but wonderful creatures is controversial.  I’m in favour of these controlled encounters, because it helps the education and advocacy that these endangered animals need. But there are some risks.

I became more alert to it after a friend expressed her discomfort while trying to exit the water at the end of a dive.  The sharks had been attracted by a steel box containing fish remains, but in open water the guides lift the box onto the boat until divers safely exit.  Only then do the sharks get the reward of a fish head or two.  But the sharks had learned to anticipate it and started closing in as the dive was finishing.  I found myself in the same position recently and watched sharks come very close aboard as I climbed onto the boat.  But it was my experience in water where I felt the risks more acutely.  Here’s what happened.

In open water, 3 young reef sharks broke away from a stately group cruising in big circles.  One came to investigate my flash guns, which emit electrical fields that the sharks’ amazing sensors can detect.  Sometimes the sharks mouth the flash units to test what they are. It’s happened to me before, but on this occasion the young shark grabbed the strobe a bit more forcefully.  My reaction was wrong.  I shook the camera hard to encourage the shark to let go.

The sudden movement made the shark back off, but it also peaked his interest and he turned back hard into me, at which stage his 2 buddies sensed something interesting might be happening and in a heartbeat they closed in at an alarming rate.  One mouthed the dome port of my camera and left a small scratch to add to one that I had recently collected from some human mishandling.  The other sharks did not touch anything, but for a few seconds they circled at speed within touching distance.  My heart rate went up and they seemed to sense that too.  I was relieved to be joined by a dive guide who saw what was happening.  The pattern of shark movements soon returned to normal.  My heart rate took a bit longer to recover!

An experienced shark diver declared to another diver/photographer friend that of all the sharks he had dived with, reef sharks were the most twitchy.  I should put this in perspective, though.  My overwhelming experience of shark diving is of controlled engagements with inquisitive creatures that are interested in us, but which very rarely threaten.  Statistics reassure: I am at far greater risk of injury every time I drive my car, no matter how carefully I do that.  So I’m certainly not put off diving with sharks.  I’ll just learn from this experience to control my body language more carefully when around sharks (keep cool)…and continue to respect these wonderful animals when I enter their world…

…on which note I’m out looking for blue sharks in British waters again.  I’ve been unsuccessful finding and photographing these elegant sharks thus far.  Tomorrow’s another day as they say…and I’ll be in the water solo with them if we’re lucky enough to find them, so should get plenty of opportunities for good images.  Fingers crossed…

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