The Bahamas is hailed as the ‘Shark-Diving Capital of the World’. But how dangerous is this practice, for shark or for human?
A recent shark attack story in the Bahamas caused a stir after a professional underwater photographer had a run in with a Tiger Shark.
Well, ‘attack’ is a strong (and unfair) word. Photographer and conversationalist Russell Easton was taking pictures of the 12ft creature when it swam over to investigate. Easton said he didn’t think the shark was attacking him but that: ‘he was just curious and wanted to know what I was’. As sharks use their mouths to find out what things are, chances are this critter wasn’t trying to attack, but simply trying to suss out the unknown.
Unfortunately for sharks, they still get a bad rep for being dangerous, man-eating monsters. Whilst there is no denying the damage these hunters of the deep can do to a puny human, a neglected fact is that we pose a much greater threat to sharks than they do to us.
Shark meat has become something of a social fad amongst the Asian elite, with overpriced dishes like the infamous ‘shark-fin soup’ becoming a necessity for all sorts of celebrations. The demand for shark meat is rising by an ample 5% per year and with a promising financial yield, the business has contributed to the killing of 73 million sharks in the last year alone.
Unsurprisingly, this has caused something of a problem for our shark population. A study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that a whopping 30% of shark species are currently under threat or near-threat of extinction, and it is only last year that we have seen governments actively try to combat this.
With sharks under global threat, the related risks to the entire ecosystem mean that many others species are also in danger. After many a plea from marine biologists, the importance of maintaining a healthy balance of marine life was finally recognised, and bans against shark fishing were implemented in Honduras, Maldives and Palau, and finally in the Bahamas. Home to over 40 different species of shark, 243,000 sq miles of the Bahamas’ waters have now become ‘shark sanctuaries’.
And it’s not only for their role in the ecosystem that we should begin to respect our subaquatic counterparts. Apart from preserving important coral reefs and sea species around the Bahamas, sharks play a key role in the nation’s tourism, as visitors the world over flock to dice with these fascinating creatures up close and personal. The IUCN say that a shark is worth $60 when used for its meat but is worth an estimated $250,000 when kept alive on the reef. As such, this type of tourism has been an economical boon to the tiny island, creating jobs for locals, and generating nearly $80 million per year.
So, sharks are an important part of nature AND they play for the big bucks, but don’t they still eat humans?
Well the answer to that one isn’t as simple as it seems.
Essentially, sharks are predators and if they mistake a human for food then they may attack. Along with shark-diving, shark-feeding excursions have become more and more popular in the Bahamas, which, although it does contribute to the economy, has incited some criticism from researchers and marine biologists. They argue the practice could be detrimental to both sides.
Michael Bright, marine biologist and author of Wild Caribbean, explains: “Sharks are not stupid. If people feed sharks, then sharks begin to associate people with food. If there’s a person swimming around without any food the shark might take umbrage. However, as far as I know the sharks have not yet bitten the hand that feeds them.”
But these are awe-inspiring creatures, and unprovoked attacks are extremely rare. In the Bahamas there has been only 1 unprovoked attack in the last five years, and zero fatalities over the past decade.
There are many types of shark diving excursions available in the Bahamas, and it is difficult to know which to choose. Sophie Dubus, who is studying MSc Responsible Tourism Management at Leeds Metropolitan University, offers some helpful advice:
“When participating in any activity involving animals, whether you are simply viewing them or interacting with them, you should ensure that the operator is acting responsibly. Do your research, question their motives, and ask for evidence. Are they trying to increase awareness and support conservation, or are they merely exploiting the animals for financial gain? If their primary motive is financial, can you be confident that they will guarantee your safety?
“Activities like this can help raise awareness, particularly of misunderstood creatures such as sharks, but those in charge must be acting in the animal’s best interests. Remember, no matter how tame animals may seem, they are still wild and deserve our respect.”
So, whilst sharks must be treated with respect and the proper caution exercised, as long as you shop around for a program that you feel entirely happy with, any risks are minimal. Many companies also offer a PADI certified Shark Awareness Course, where you can learn in-depth about how to safely encounter sharks. With statistics proving that you are 30 times more likely to be struck by lightning than be killed by a shark, there is no reason why you shouldn’t pay homage to these wonderful beasts by observing them in their natural habitat.
To summarise, your chances of being chomped by a shark are…
· 30 times less likely than being struck by lightning
· Less likely than being killed by a bee, wasp or snake
· Nothing compared to the risks related to drowning, heart attacks, beach accidents resulting in spinal injury, sunburn, cuts from stepping on sea shells, dehydration, jellyfish stings, and traffic accidents going to or from the beach
· 1,072 times less likely than fatalities from bicycle-related accidents (according to figures between 1999 – 2009)
· Extremely small when holidaying in the Bahamas. Over the past 5 years there has been only one shark attack, and zero fatalities in over 10 years.