How Diving with Sharks Works


Image Gallery: Sharks A great white shark, one of the most popular species with adventurers, explores the ocean off the coast of Australia. See more pictures of sharks.
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You can't hear a lot 60 feet (18 meters) below the surface of the ocean -- maybe just your own breathing into the scuba gear or the escape of air bubbles as they rush to the surface. You can feel your heart beating slowly as you watch fish glide past peacefully. You have let your guard down, you are relaxed and enjoying the sensation of the weight of the ocean above and around you, and the slow flow of the current deep beneath the surface.

Then, out of the corner of your eye, you see a large shadow slide its way through the depths. The light down here is tricky, but there's definitely something large circling you and the other divers. You catch sight of it again, but it has multiplied into two shapes, now three. You notice that the fish that were so calming have beat a hasty exit; it's now just you, the other divers and the looming shadows circling ever closer.

The shapes materialize. Five blacktip reef sharks swim into your view, and your heartbeat, so calm only a moment ago, is raging in your ears as the sharks slowly weave themselves among your group of divers. Their movement is smooth and fluid, so you know they are at ease with you and the other humans, and they seem curious about these visitors to their home.

You are diving with sharks, an activity that's quickly becoming popular with more than just the thrill seekers. In fact, diving with sharks has become a massive business around the world. For example, in South Africa, a prime shark-diving spot, the country earns about $30 million a year from tourists looking to see sharks up close [source: CNN News].

In the following pages, we'll see the different ways you can dive with sharks, what sorts of sharks you might find and the dangers that come along with submerging yourself with these predators of the deep. Read on to find out about most popular way to dive with sharks: cage diving.

Cage Diving with Sharks

The most common method of diving with sharks is cage diving. This method is by far the safest, yet it still allows divers to get up close and personal with the sharks. The cage, which is attached to a boat, is typically a rectangle and fits about four divers at a time. Once in the water, divers have a largely unobstructed view of the sharks as they swim within feet of the cage.

What will you need if you want to cage dive with sharks? A healthy grip on your fear, for one. After that, you only need the basic equipment to snorkel or scuba dive, such as a wetsuit, a snorkel, a weight belt to keep you underwater, and scuba gear if you are a certified scuba diver. Instead of snorkeling gear, the boat might have its own "hookah style" air system that pumps air directly to you through a long hose from an air compressor on the boat [source: Alaska Mining and Diving Supply]. This method means that you don't need a tank in the water but can still be fully submerged to get the best view. The company that charters the trip should have most, if not all, of the equipment you will need. You'll learn more about the various companies and costs later.

So, now you're in the cage and underwater. How do you know that sharks will appear? Again, the shark diving company will have you covered by trailing chum from the boat as you reach your anchor spot. Chum is a mixture of fish blood, oils and parts. It creates a bloody soup that smells delicious to all discerning sharks in the nearby area. Sharks, with their extremely keen sense of smell, will follow the chum trail to the boat. Once there, they will find bait that will hold their attention long enough for you to enjoy them. In most parts of the world, it's illegal to actually feed the sharks, so the bait is typically frozen fish encased in a box held off the back of the boat. This box gives off a wonderful aroma for the sharks, but keeps them from actually eating the fish [source: Shark Savers].

Once the sharks have arrived, the diver is free to watch them circle the boat from the safety of the cage. A typical dive will last about 20 to 30 minutes and give the diver plenty of chances to take pictures and marvel at the mighty creatures.

Now, if you're the type that sees a cage between you and the sharks as too much of a barrier, then read on for an all-access pass to the sharks: free diving.

Open-water Diving with Sharks

Open-water diving allows you to get up close and personal with different species of sharks.
Open-water diving allows you to get up close and personal with different species of sharks.
Photodisc/Thinkstock

The most extreme form of diving with sharks is to go all out and literally swim with them in their natural habitat. No cages, no safety link to the boat, just you and the sharks in the wide open ocean. At the moment, there are only a few places on Earth that will allow you to view sharks without a cage, but you may find it to be an experience that's well worth the trip.

Unlike cage diving, you can't just dive right in; there are some steps that you must take in order to be deemed fit to swim with one of nature's most feared predators. First off, you have to be Advanced Open Water certified, which is a higher level scuba diving certification. Basically, you have to prove that you can handle yourself in the open water as a diver [source: Shark Diving International]. That being the case, you will need all the equipment that a scuba diver would require -- wetsuit, air regulator, air tank -- and perhaps a stick or blunt object to stun the beast, just in case. Open water diving is a safe activity, but it is always important to remember that sharks are wild animals and can be unpredictable.

That being said, how should you behave in an open-water dive? The best thing to remember is that you are a guest in the shark's home. Therefore, let the shark swim to you instead of chasing him around. Also, be as close to the bottom as you can and remain upright. Being low in the water tells the shark that you aren't of great concern, and sharks are typically less threatened by taller, vertical beings than long, flat ones. Also, it is important to remain in sight of the other divers, but do separate yourselves somewhat. Sharks seem to become more nervous around pods of divers than several individual people [source: Martin].

Finally, enjoy yourself! You are sharing the home of one of the most majestic creatures on the planet. Sharks are naturally curious and will be happy to check out the newcomers. Having them so close will give you a chance to see sharks in a new way and will almost certainly change your perspective on how they live.

Are you ready to jump in and hang out with some of these amazing animals? Read on to discover the best spots to dive with sharks.

Shark Stomping Grounds

One of the important things to know about sharks is that they are creatures of habit and will haunt the same areas year after year. They travel to these places as the seasons change and their food sources move. Companies have popped up around the globe to ensure that their customers are in the right locations at the right times.

Southern California, South Africa and Australia reign as some of the best places for shark sightings. Typically, shark diving companies operate from the mainland and travel to the ocean waters around islands for dives. For example, Isla Guadalupe off the coast of Baja, California has become a popular spot for U.S. travelers interested in spending time with sharks. As for non-U.S. destinations, you can check out Dyer Island close to South Africa, or the Fiji Islands if you're coming from Australia. These are all spots that the companies know well and are typical shark "hang-outs" that will give divers a great chance to get their money's worth [sources: Shark Diving International, Africa Diver].

Since diving with sharks is such a specialized business, the companies will often supply their customers with all that they need for a successful dive. To begin with, many trips are all-inclusive and include accommodations and meals on the boat. Also, as we mentioned earlier, all equipment is supplied by the company, and you'll likely take some basic safety classes before the first dive. Most companies offer insurance that can cover everything from a lost bag to accidental death or dismemberment.

The cost of the trip will vary depending on the amount of time you will be diving and how far you must travel to get there. Day trips will start from $700 while five- to nine-day trips will run upwards of $3,200 [source: Shark Diving International].

So, you have booked your trip, received your dive instructions on the boat and are ready to hit the water. Read on to find out what types of sharks you'll see as you descend into the deep.

Oh, the Sharks You'll Meet

More than 375 species of sharks swim the world's oceans, but you'll probably only see a fraction of those in your diving experiences. Your shark encounters will be limited by where you're diving, as different species of sharks, much like bears or snakes, are comfortable in some ocean areas and not in others. Where they are found largely depends on the same things that keep brown bears out of the Great Plains: climate and availability of food. Companies will know exactly where to go to find the most sharks.

Perhaps you are eager to see a great white shark. As a result of this intimidating animal's fame, entire companies devote their time to taking people out to see the great white in action. That being said, there are numerous sharks that you might see on a dive, and all of them hold the same power and excitement. Some common species that might swim by include blacktip reef sharks (which look very similar to the great white except for a black mark on the dorsal fin), tiger and bull sharks, and the very distinctive hammerhead shark.

It's worth repeating that no matter the species, these are all predators, and swimming with them poses as much risk as any outing involving wild animals. Most sharks, though, are only curious about divers and will leave them alone unless they feel threatened or are agitated to the point of attack. Of the 375 species worldwide, only about 30 have been identified as attacking a human, and only a dozen or so of those should be considered dangerous. The species that have been most associated with unprovoked attacks are great white, tiger and bull sharks [source: National Shark Research Consortium, Shark Attacks].

All this begs the question, what is the actual risk of a shark attack, and how should you handle an attack if it happens? Read on to find out.

How to Avoid Unsightly Teeth Marks

We said it before, and we'll say it again: Shark attacks are rare, but they do happen. The majority of times an attack occurs, it's a case of mistaken identity; for instance, a shark might confuse the flash of a piece of jewelry for the shiny scales of a fish. When the shark attacks, it quickly realizes that the human it has bitten into is not nearly as tasty as the fish it was hoping for, and it will let the person go and swim away. Called "hit-and-run" attacks, these types of run-ins usually result only in relatively minor lacerations for the diver [source: Burgess].

Divers can take precautions to avoid these mistaken attacks. In addition to ditching the shiny jewelry, try to avoid bright colors on your wetsuit or gloves [source: Burgess]. When you do see a shark, remain calm and hold your position. Too much erratic movement might agitate the shark and encourage it to attack. As long as the shark is swimming in a very fluid and smooth pattern, then you're fine. It is only when the shark begins making jerky movements that you know it is becoming a bit unsettled.

If you should find yourself in the very unenviable position of being attacked, there are some steps that you can take to protect yourself and get out of the situation. The most important thing to remember is to fight back; remaining still will not deter an attacking shark. If you have a spear or a long pole, use it to poke the animal in the nose, eyes or gills. All are very sensitive areas for the shark and hitting them will allow you time to leave the area. If the shark does appear to leave, then slowly swim to the surface, all the while keeping your eye on the shark in case it decides to turn back to you [source: Burgess].

While cage diving is much safer than free diving, accidents do happen. In 2007, a shark-diving company left the bait too close to the cage, and a shark got caught in the bars. In the shark's struggle to free itself, one of the walls of the cage was destroyed [source: ABC News video]. In the end, no one was injured, but it does highlight the fact that, much like riding a bike or driving a car, no activity is 100 percent safe.

We've talked a lot about the divers. Read on to find out how diving affects the sharks themselves.

The Controversy Circling Shark Diving

A great white shark swims by a cage in Gansbaai, South Africa, one of the most popular shark-viewing spots in the world.
A great white shark swims by a cage in Gansbaai, South Africa, one of the most popular shark-viewing spots in the world.
DAN KITWOOD/Getty Images

It is important to mention that there's some controversy surrounding the practice of diving with sharks. The major concern is that as sharks see more people, the sharks become more accustomed to humans and tend to attack more often. The logic behind this argument is that when boats bring bait for the sharks, the sharks will begin to associate boats and people with food. It's the same logic wildlife parks use when they insist that you avoid feeding the wild animals [source: Shark Savers.org].

The majority of scientific research does indeed show an increase in shark attacks, but it has very little to do with the practice of diving with sharks. The first of two main reasons behind the increase is that many more incidents are being reported than have been in the past. Therefore, there is simply more data to feed the statistics. A second reason is that as the world's population increases, so will the number of times that humans and sharks are in the same areas. It follows that the more times a human is in contact with a shark, the higher the chance of an attack [source: International Shark Attack File].

In respect to a conservationist view of diving with sharks, many groups tasked with protecting sharks fully support the activity. Diving with sharks increases exposure of the creatures, allows humans to see the gentle side of the sharks and provides a great opportunity for researchers to gain valuable information.

All told, diving with sharks is as safe as hiking through the woods. There will always be some risk of danger, but if you are careful, prepared and remember that you are a visitor to a wild animal's home, it can be a wonderful experience. If you'd like to learn a little more about sharks from the safety of your computer screen, then head over to the next page for some great links and other information.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Africa Diver. "White Shark Cage Diving." 2006. (August 5, 2010).http://www.africadiver.com/White_Shark_Cage_Diving_Cape_Town.html
  • Alaska Mining and Diving Supply. "Diving." 2010 (August 11, 2010)
  • Anderson, Julie, et al. "Debunking myths about shark diving." 2010. (August 5, 2010)http://www.sharksavers.org/en/education/shark-myths/550-debunking-myths-about-shark-diving.html
  • Burgess, George. International Shark Attack File. January 2010. (August 5, 2010)http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/isaf/isaf.htm
  • CNN News. "Anderson Cooper free dives with great white sharks in South Africa." December 2008. (August 11, 2010)
  • Hayes, Rob. "Shark Adventure." ABC News/Yahoo Video. 2007. (August 5, 2010)
  • Martin, R. Aidan. "Diving in the Company of Sharks." Reefquest Centre for Shark Research. 2007. (August 5, 2010)http://www.elasmo-research.org/research/diving.htm
  • SharkDiving.us. "Cage Shark Diving." 2006. (August 5, 2010)http://www.sharkdiving.us
  • Shark Diving International. 2010. (August 5, 2010)www.seesharks.com