For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a deep fascination with wildlife and the environment, and I’ve always felt a strong desire to help protect both. I believe in supporting ethical and sustainable companies, and I’ve made a personal pledge to do so whenever possible. I also strive to avoid organizations and activities that exploit or mistreat animals, but I’m not perfect, and I’ll admit I’ve done some things I’m not proud of in the past.
In 2013, I went cage diving with great white sharks in South Africa, and I’m starting to wonder whether or not I made a decision that aligns with my personal values and morals.
I’ve been fascinated by sharks (especially great whites) since I was young, and had always dreamed of seeing them in the wild. When I stumbled upon a South African volunteer website and saw a great white conservation project, I was elated. Visiting South Africa, seeing great whites, and contributing my time to a good cause sounded exactly like what I had been searching for without even knowing it.
The company I volunteered with, Marine Dynamics, is known for their various conservation efforts, so I assumed I was making a good decision. My overall experience with the company was absolutely positive, and it seemed like the marine biologists, volunteers, and other staff were genuinely interested in studying and protecting great whites and other local wildlife. However, cage diving itself raises some serious concerns (which I wasn’t fully aware of at the time), so I have to plead ignorance on this occasion.
I will admit that I loved cage diving – not for the fleeting rush of adrenaline it provided, or because it gave me the opportunity to take a selfie with a shark to use as my Facebook display picture. I loved it because it allowed me to observe great white sharks in their natural habitat, which is something I had been dreaming of for years. It gave me the opportunity to witness their unique hunting techniques and to see their sheer force and power up close.
I left Gansbaai with an even greater sense of respect and admiration for these amazing predators.
A controversial activity?
I was somewhat aware of the controversy surrounding the use of chumming, but it’s only one of many questionable aspects of cage diving. It wasn’t until after I returned home from South Africa that I read a few disconcerting articles (and blog posts), and they opened my eyes to many issues associated with this activity. While there are some points I don’t necessarily agree with, a few issues from the article really struck me.
“Chumming taunts and teases sharks”
This may sound stupid, but I honestly had not thought of the use of chumming and decoys as teasing. I guess when you’re so excited about something, and so convinced that it’s not bad, you can become blinded and impartial.
If someone were to ask me whether or not I think it’s okay to slather zebra blood all over a safari vehicle in order to lure lions to get as close as possible without actually feeding them, I would say not only is it irresponsible and unethical, but it’s downright foolish. But isn’t that essentially what people do to attract sharks when cage diving?
I went out on the Cage Diving boat everyday for a week, and there were at least 3 or 4 other boats in the water at any given time. Considering each boat can accommodate approximately 30 passengers, and they make roughly two trips per day – it equals a high number of people in the water interacting with sharks. I think it begs the question: how much is too much?
“Cage Diving perpetuates myths”
This is a point I actually disagree with. The author of the article claims that people go cage diving for the sheer thrill of coming face-to-face with a great white shark and then go home to brag about how “they made it out alive.” While I’m sure that is the thought process for some, I believe most people are simply curious about and fascinated by the sharks – much like myself.
When I told friends and family I was going cage diving, I heard “you’re crazy” more times than I can count. Even though you’re more likely to be killed by a vending machine than a shark, I was continually told I was “crazy” for wanting to see sharks from the safety of a cage. This is proof that people still have a Jaws mindset when it comes to great whites, and that there are serious misconceptions about sharks in general.
After I had returned home, I didn’t tell people cage diving was the craziest thing I’ve ever done, and I didn’t brag about how brave I had been to get close to a great white. I explained how it wasn’t dangerous in the slightest, and made sure to stress how the sharks paid little attention to the boat and our cage; they were really only interested in the seal decoy. Maybe it doesn’t make as big a difference as I think, but I believe spreading this type of message might (slowly) start to change people’s perceptions of sharks.
Other arguments about how chumming and cage diving have conditioned sharks to associate boats and people with food haven’t been proven (as far as I know), and I won’t touch upon them since I’m really in no position to make an educated argument.
Conservation or profit?
It’s no secret that cage diving is a lucrative business, and any company that stands to make such profit from an activity is reason enough to question whether or not their intentions and efforts are honest.
Marine Dynamics founded the Dyer Island Conservation Trust which focuses on a number of projects, including tagging and studying Great Whites and funding conservation efforts for Southern Right Whales, African penguins, and Cape Fur Seals. During my time volunteering with the company, we spent an afternoon collecting trash from a beach and helped to gather branches and brush used to build penguin nests for the local endangered penguin colony. There seemed to be tangible evidence of funding and volunteer programs benefiting the local wildlife.
However, there is always a question of how much money is actually being allocated to these programs and initiatives, and I don’t know if the information is readily available to the public.
What’s the answer?
If cage diving is the main source of income used to fund conservation efforts (and essentially) protect and study the sharks in the Gansbaai area, does it justify the continuance of the activity? Could an alternative and sustainable activity ever create the same amount of awareness and funding as cage diving?
There are so many arguments and complexities when it comes to this subject, and I honestly have no idea what the right or ethical answer is. I’ve been reflecting on my experience since reading these cage diving articles, and I’ve been wondering whether or not I made a mistake by supporting this controversial industry.
If I had known then what I know now, would I still have chosen to go cage diving? I honestly don’t know. It definitely would have made me think twice about it, though.