Diving with sharks

Diving with sharks –

safe or not?

By Mike Bhana

For many of us, seeing a shark underwater is not an experience that we look forward to. Yet increasing numbers of divers are taking to the water in search of a shark experience. The question of safety is one that is always at the front of our minds: after all, the vision of being torn limb from limb by some great underwater demon is one that, thanks to Benchley and Spielberg, haunts us all.

So, how safe is shark diving?

As shark diving operations have begun springing up all over the country, growing numbers of people (largely non-divers) have been expressing concern regarding the safety of others. ‘What if they habituate the sharks to specific areas?’ ‘What if the numbers of sharks rise because we’re feeding them?’ ‘Won’t the sharks begin following boats around waiting for a free feed?’ I have heard these concerns voiced in several areas that now boast shark diving operations. Well, to answer all those questions in one, it won’t happen. Fishermen have been luring sharks to boats for more than a century in this country – why should things change now? Besides, the sharks which shark dive operators are targetting in New Zealand are pelagic species (of no fixed abode) and the chance of habituating these animals is about as likely as getting your dog to make you a cup of tea in the morning.

In 1993-94, and 1996-97, Craig Thorburn and I spent vast amounts of time at sea working with and filming mako and blue sharks. These are the two main species that New Zealand’s shark diving operators target. Both are open water pelagic species that travel about as far south as Dunedin in the summer months, and then follow the warm currents up to the tropics over winter. Not once in our four year study did we see the same sharks twice, and we spent large amounts of time filming in the exact same spots over both short and long periods. In areas like the Bay of Islands, Tutukaka and Kaikoura, operators are not attracting sharks to the area: the sharks are already there. They are merely luring up those that are already near the boat.

I know that there was concern over Glen MacFarlane’s operation out of Tutukaka. Questions were asked of the Department of Conservation regarding the legitimacy of burleying within the boundaries of the Poor Knights Marine Reserve. Why not? The sharks were already there. In fact, there is a growing number of bronze whalers being seen around Northern Arch. This is not because one diving operation had a dozen or so shark dives last season. It is more likely to be because of the dropoff of fishing in the Northern Island area.

I make a note here: please be careful of these whalers. They most likely will not attack a diver unless provoked by being chased, but they are considered dangerous sharks. In fact, the last fatality from a shark attack in New Zealand involved a bronze whaler. Don’t swim after them to get a closer look. This is an absolute no-no. The bronze whaler will consider you a threat if you chase them, and will respond by a defensive attack. So be warned.

Anyway, back to the story. Take a look at another point. Not only are these sharks pelagic, but the operators are putting no more burley into the water than the average snapper fisherman. The only difference is that the burley is being released from the surface, not the bottom. All the concerns aside, the opportunity to dive with sharks should be welcomed as a new and great opportunity for New Zealand divers. It is a rush that only those who have done it can understand.

But for those of us in search of a shark dive, doing it locally is not the only option. There are many operators around the South Pacific. Shark diving in the tropics comes in various forms. Operators in Tahiti, Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia will show us species like black tips, silver tips, white tips and whalers. These operators are dealing with non-pelagic species, and these animals have become habituated, coming to a specific place at a specific time for a free feed. And diving with these sharks is wild! There’s no cage, just you and the sharks.

But these operations do have their dangers. In New Caledonia a couple of years ago, a shark dive group was cruised by a great white. It was potentially the worst case scenario. Luckily, the white was just window shopping. Occasional visits by tiger and bull sharks also raise the odds of an accident happening in these areas. These operations are far more dangerous than the New Zealand experience.

Across the Tasman we are given the opportunity to safely dive with the legendary great white sharks off the coast of Port Lincoln in South Australia. And what an experience that is. There is something very special about watching a 4.5 metre two-ton animal bearing down on you with teeth that could easily cut you in half. And make no mistake, step outside the safety of the cage and odds-on you’ll be dinner! All this rubbish about us tasting like three-day-old pizza … wrong! We taste just fine, thanks; if we tasted that bad we wouldn’t have been still eating each other a few decades ago!

A recent trip for us to film for Natural History had us heading out with Ian Gordon from Off the Edge Adventures in South Oz, and the result was insane. We saw around a dozen different great whites over the ten days, and a huge blue shark. There was only one day out of the trip (the first one) that we did not have sharks around the boat all day! This is a diving adventure I strongly recommend, but go late in the season – March through to May is a good time. Unlike the Pacific Islands experiences, makos, blues and great whites are not guaranteed. These sharks have incredibly wide ranges and there is a chance that your trip will lure in only blue water. It’s a risk we take, but the result when the sharks do come to visit is worth it.

The fact that the operations in New Zealand have such a high success rate during the season goes to show just how many sharks are around our country. Just think about it for a moment. On a good day off Napier, for instance, one may have a couple of dozen blue sharks and a few makos come to visit over a four to six hour period. If the burley is travelling out at one kilometre per hour, and spreading at five degrees per kilometre, the area that all these sharks happened to be in or swam through is pretty small on the grand scale of things!

Yes, shark diving has arrived in New Zealand and it’s here to stay. And the reality is that of all the operations around the world, the operators here in New Zealand are probably the safest and least intrusive in the environment and on the animals. So if it’s time to try a dive with a difference, check out shark diving!

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