WATCH: Second shark cage incident sees heated debate around shark cage diving

2016-10-19 13:33 - Selene Brophy
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Cape Town - We could hardly catch our breath following the insane footage, which shows this great white shark totally breaching a cage off the coast of Guadalupe Island, near Mexico and briefly getting stuck inside the cage and then injuring itself in the process as it tries to get out. 

SEE: WATCH: Great white totally breaches shark cage with diver still inside

A second incident has since come to light via Blue Water Dive Travel. This incident, also off the coast of Mexico's Guadalupe Island almost ended in disaster when a 13-foot (3.9m) great white known as Big Mamma, jammed its body inside the open top of the dive cage. It was widely confused with the incident mentioned above.  

Below is footage posted by Katie Yonker, who describes the seen that took place in September by saying, "I was in the bottom part of the cage when a great white shark swam between the bars of the top part of our cage and began to thrash. After about a minute of thrashing, I turned on my GoPro, which is when this video begins. I was able to capture the last few seconds before the cage got to the surface, Air Demon aka Big Mama swimming within feet of our cage, and my exit out of the cage and to the boat, which required navigating around a 12 - 15 foot great white.

I'm aware this video will receive many angry comments about shark cage dives and chumming. Many of you think baiting is wrong and this isn't fair to the sharks. Guess what? In some respects, I agree with you. 

Allowing people to experience these majestic animals raises awareness that these are calm and curious animals enticed by the scent of tuna, not humans, and has influenced advocacy efforts worldwide.

"With a set of jaws selling for thousands on the black market, the sharks are also at risk of poaching, which is greatly deterred by the presence of the shark dive boats. In going on a trip like this, we all must accept that there is an element of risk to ourselves. But incidents like the one in my video are unacceptable...for the sharks.

"As a group of ocean-loving environmentalists, we should not allow this to happen. Whether it's a redesign of the cages, prohibiting "chum bags" in the submersible cages, or ending wrangling, it's time to start a serious conversion about what can be done to better protect the sharks, the divers, and the future of Guadalupe operations." 

While this is different to the footage of the first shark cage dive, in which a cage suspended off the side of a boat is used, an EarthTouch report indicates that the above footage shows the operator is in complete breach of the shark Cage Dive code of conduct since a bait bag is tied to the cage - highlighting that this is not a shark trying to get at humans but rather a shark trying to get at the tuna bait it smelling. 

A number of upset comments have been posted in relation to both videos with many questioning whether you would tie a piece of meat to a Safari vehicle in order to lure predators. The practice of baiting has been heavily debated in South Africa as well. 

Ken Chuba posted a comment saying, “I think building cages with big enough holes for these sharks to get caught up in and injured should be banned. That company should be highly fined for injuring an endangered species in the race of the all mighty dollar. Let’s face it. They charge a ton of money to do this and if it wasn't for the dollar value no one would be doing these things."

Sylvia Rebecca Berthelson says, “I read an interesting point on this: You don't drive through wildlife parks with meat dangling off the back of your car, so why should it be allowed in the ocean?"

Rita Groenewald wrote, "I agree wholeheartedly with banning chum... any wild animal that loses its fear of humans or associates humans with food is far more dangerous. That poor shark was petrified and injured!"

Craig Glatthaar says, "Consider that in some cases chumming desensitizes sharks. They are highly intelligent animals that learn quickly that chumming doesn't necessarily result in a meal. We have seen in some cases chumming doesn't increase shark activity and can have the opposite effect. This will always be a polarized debate. Ultimately we need to consider that shark interactions with humans has a positive influence on bringing attention to conserving these creatures and dispelling the many myths around them. Sometimes the greater good will outweigh the immediate negative. It is important that operators follow the rules. They are there for a good reason."

Traveller24 caught up with Marine Dynamics, one of eleven operators in South Africa  - 8 Gansbaai, 3 False Bay, 1 Mossel Bay - who  work within the strict parameters as set out by the Departmental of Environmental Affairs when it comes to South Africa's codes of conduct for shark cage diving. 

Here are five things about this massive tourism industry in South Africa you might not know:

1. Banning shark cage diving could lead to an increase in poaching

According to Wilfred Chivell, CEO Marine Dynamics Tours and SharkWatchSA, should shark cage diving in SA be banned, the level of poaching activity is sure to increase without the current daily monitoring and research being done on the great white shark population.

"Should we ban this industry, it is inevitable that in a few years we will be questioning where our White sharks are. The eco-tourism is a form of policing as it is in the Mountain gorilla habitat for example. Should gorilla tourism be removed it is understood by many that the conflict and poaching would likely see their demise," says Chivell. 

2. 'Shark cage diving is not an immediate threat, but it has many...'

"It is a sad fact that the great white shark population in Southern Africa is threatened and the numbers are considered low. The sharks face many threats – in SA we can lose up to 25 or more in the Kwazulu-Natal Shark nets and drumlines alone.

"They also migrate to unprotected waters such as those off Mozambique where they are targeted by local fishermen and sadly their fins are sent off to the Far East.

"These issues and the millions of sharks taken by fishermen including the longlining industry should be where conservationists direct their attention versus an industry doing much good. It is a fact that other species currently being targeted support the fin trade – South Africa is one of many countries sending fins to China."

3. Shark cage diving aims to be about observing the species in its natural environment to raise awareness

"The cage diving operations attract 90% international tourists. Most South Africans critical of the industry have never experienced cage diving or visited the Gansbaai area so are often falsely informed by sensationalist footage on social media which is not accurately representative of the experience." 

"Every day, after observing the species in its natural environment, people are becoming great white shark ambassadors" says Chivell.

"It is important to note, as mentioned in a recent National Geographic piece,  'diving in shark cages to witness sharks first hand has helped to raise awareness of sharks' dwindling numbers and nuanced behaviour, and it's helped spur advocacy efforts worldwide.'

Says Chivell, ten years ago very few people were concerned if a great white shark dies but now most have a perception change about this species, as a key result of seeing and understanding more on their biology."

4. Feeding is prohibited 

"To adhere to the permit conditions cage dive operators are required to practice skilled bait handling techniques and feeding is prohibited. The chum is simply a mixture of bony fish product and oils designed to attract the shark to visit the vessel."

Conduct regulations adhered to by the operators include anchoring the boat in an area in which the sharks naturally are present, which varies seasonally. Marine Dynamics operates around the Dyer Island ecosystem.

"Here the natural chum slick from the almost 60 000 Cape fur seals on Geyser Rock attracts some of the highest numbers of white shark in Southern Africa as they move through the area."

Chivell says it is important to note that these sharks are migratory often travelling large distances before they may be seen in the area again.

"During the winter months they hunt around the island system as young Cape fur Seal pups take to the water for the first time. Shark boats will then work nearby. However in the summer months no matter how much fish oil you may put in the water if the sharks have naturally moved to inshore areas then the boats must follow in order to get an encounter.

Despite it being a major hunting ground for these Great White Sharks, Chivell says Gansbaai has never been a fatal shark human incident inshore.

5. SA Shark conservation research recognised globally

"Research of the great white shark is key to their survival. If we understand the pressures on this species we can help drive conservation decisions on a government level. The level of research supported through this industry is internationally and nationally recognised." 

Chivell says behavioural effects of shark cage diving are being investigated in South Africa and other cage diving locations worldwide and that Marine Dynamics is visited by sustainable tourism advocates on a regular basis and has in fact been used as a case study for other countries to follow.

"People are comparing the baiting of lions and feeding of sharks. Even our ‘wild’ lions are in designated game parks created by man and usually a game ranger will know exactly where to find them.  Often they are collared making that task easier.  

"Marine Dynamics believe that Your Choice Makes a Difference so we encourage any visitor to do their homework and choose an operator that is putting their money where their mouth is and actively supporting conservation efforts - not just saying so on their website."

Chivell says while the income of cage diving is often regarded as lucrative; the employment created is critically important for the area. The businesses also endure tough conditions such as weather and shark behaviour which can sometimes limit the ability to operate. The overheads are massive and are generally overlooked when making such statements. The costs of boats, engines, fuel are a major consideration.

See recent comprehensive report on shark diving tourism worldwide for more info 

What to read next on Traveller24:

- Minister of Tourism in the shark pit – Derek Hanekom goes cage diving

- WATCH: Swimming with sharks in Cape Town looks so peaceful

Hook, line and sinker: Great White danger along SA's coastlines