Florida shark diving
For the last three years, I have been traveling extensively with one goal in mind: to learn as much as possible about the shark diving industry and the companies at the forefront of shark ecotourism. This mission has taken me to many well known shark diving hotspots such as Fiji, Australia, Mexico and The Bahamas, where it is possible to encounter some of the world most iconic species, and as the popularity of this activity continues to increase, other destinations are now beginning to explore the possibility of diving with sharks.
It was during a stopover in Florida, on my way to the Bahamas last year, that I decided to investigate the shark diving scene in Jupiter, Florida. In the past few years, local operators have had success attracting a variety of different sharks to an area of just over three miles offshore, and having seen images of tiger sharks, great hammerheads and bull sharks all in the same location, I couldn’t resist checking it out.
One important detail to mention at this point is the current restrictions in place regarding baiting and attracting sharks in the United States. In 2001 all shark feeding was banned in state waters and so any company wanting to offer reliable shark diving encounters was forced to venture further offshore into federal waters, where currently the activity is still legal. Although there are no restrictions in federal waters, it does mean that the diving takes place in deep water and currents are often strong. You will need to be comfortable drift diving in the blue and Nitrox is highly recommended.
When I first made enquiries about shark diving in Jupiter, I must admit that I was unsure if it was such a good idea. Three deep dives below 90 feet in one day and rumours of questionable safety protocols did little to reassure me that I was doing the right thing, but I was curious to see how the activity was being managed and went ahead and booked a three tank dive trip to see what all the fuss was about.
Immediately upon entering the water for the first dive, it was clear that things were done very differently with this particular operator than what I have seen elsewhere. Descending quickly, our dive guide immediately shot the first large fish he could find with a speargun and then proceeded to hack of chunks into the water column to attract the sharks. As the group drifted above the reef in a strong current, numerous bull sharks appeared out of the blue from all directions to investigate the struggling and dying fish that was now being used as bait. Apparently, it is completely legal to spearfish on scuba in Florida, and while I do not wish to get into a debate about the ethics of this activity, it does have serious implications when diving with sharks. Personally, I am more accustomed to watching my dive buddies shooting images of fish on camera, rather than actually shooting them, especially in the presence of large bull sharks, with no protection. As unsafe as this dive may sound, the sharks were still very wary of the group and kept their distance, and after forty minutes of drifting in a ripping current, we surfaced without incident.
Fortunately, the next two dives were a little different and more what I would expect from a baited shark dive. The group descends together to the bottom, to a wreck or reef that offers some protection, and then sharks are attracted to the site and fed pieces of fish from a box to bring them closer to the guests. Very quickly we were surrounded by a number of different sharks. Not only did a few tiger sharks and a great hammerhead make an appearance, they were also at the same site, at the same time, something that is very rare. Add to that the resident lemon sharks, the bulls, a few sandbar sharks, and a pesky nurse shark that sat at the bait box for most of the day, and it cannot be denied that Florida is a very sharky place.
Once the group reached their maximum bottom time, we slowly ascended and spent the rest of the dive drifting in open water with as many of the sharks that decided to follow. This is when things become harder to control for the operator and is, in my opinion, the most dangerous part of the dive. Numerous times I watched as one of the tiger sharks snuck up on photographers too busy fiddling with settings or taking pictures of other sharks to notice. At the end of the dive, some of the group were still at depths of 90 feet while others were on the surface trying to get on the boat! This seemed pretty stupid to me, but nobody else seemed too concerned. I just assumed they were all happy to have seen some big potentially dangerous animals and survived the experience!
Now I know this is only one operator and there are others who do things differently, but this is part of the problem.There are no regulations in place and a general lack of concern for safety is why I now worry about the future of shark diving in Florida, and the implications it may have for the rest of the shark diving industry.
The Dolphinization of Sharks
Once viewed as mindless killing machines, the public perception of sharks is thankfully beginning to change. There is no doubt that the thousands of images of humans swimming with sharks that have appeared in the last decade have helped, but now some people are taking it to far and seem to have forgotten that they are potentially dangerous animals capable of causing real damage.
Having spent quite a bit of time underwater with sharks, I am confident that they do not view humans as food. In fact, they can be incredibly tolerant of our presence as long as there is an incentive, and the fact that so many divers, many with no previous experience, are able to enter the water every day without incident is in itself a great indication that sharks have no interest in attacking people. That, however, does not mean that they are harmless animals that want to be hugged and love interacting with humans.
Operators who constantly handle sharks as part of their show claim they are demonstrating to others that sharks are misunderstood creatures and that it does the sharks no harm, so there is no problem. Does giving the shark a nose rub, which seems to be the current trend in Jupiter, cause it permanent damage? Probably not, but that certainly doesn’t mean you should devalue what is already an amazing experience by constantly grabbing, chasing and basically harassing wild animals.
We now find ourselves in a position where certain operators and divers think it is perfectly acceptable and safe to swim up to large apex predators, even without basic safety equipment, and mess with them for entertainment. What happens when one of these sharks does not want to be touched and lashes out? This pointless attention seeking will then result in a well-publicised accident that will permanently damage the reputation of the entire industry. If these people care as much about the conservation of sharks as they claim, then it is time to stop all the nonsense and start showing the animals a bit more respect.
Ecotourism and conservation
I want to be completely clear that I actively support and agree with responsibly operated baited shark dives. I do not have an issue with the feeding of sharks in Florida, I just believe it must be done in a more sustainable way. As long as strict safety protocols are established and enforced, shark diving is statistically very safe and it would be great if the operators could at least get together and agree on a common code of conduct. Tried and tested procedures already exist and it surely makes sense to follow in the footsteps of other successful dive operators such as those connected to the Global Shark Diving alliance, who have set the bar for what should be considered responsible shark tourism. Another great resource that will hopefully encourage shark diving operators to abide by best practice recommendations is www.sustainablesharkdiving.com. Here you can read reviews and ratings about companies all over the world and find out for yourself which ones you should trust to take you shark diving.
Science is important and every operator should be making an effort to contribute however they can. Lots more data is needed about the sharks that visit Jupiter each year, and the companies who spend time with these animals on a daily basis are in a unique position to help out. Simply identifying and recording shark individuals, numbers and diversity during each dive would be a good start, and although local NGO’s such as the American Shark Conservancy have been working hard to try and collaborate with operators to gather this information, so far the response has been unenthusiastic at best.
If shark divers in Jupiter really want to contribute to the conservation of sharks in Florida and argue against current fishing legislation, then it is time to assist scientists to acquire important information that can help back up their claims.
A ban on all feeding?
There is no doubt that Florida is a great place to get close to sharks. There are few places in the world where it is possible to encounter such a variety of species in one dive, and as long as the activity continues without incident then divers will continue to visit. I managed to capture some great images while diving in Jupiter and I guess this is another reason why so many people are willing to ignore basic common sense and take unnecessary risks during the dives. Underwater photography is just as accessible as shark diving these days and people love to return from a trip with extreme images to share on Facebook and with their friends. Unfortunately, for the local shark diving community, not everyone is ignoring what is happening in Florida and a new high profile bill, proposing to ban the feeding of sharks in federal waters was recently under serious consideration. If the government have their way, nobody in the entire United States will be able to feed or bait sharks, and the manner in which the activity is currently managed must bear some of the responsibility for this action if that happens. In order to demonstrate that shark provisioning should be allowed to continue, it is time for action. At the very least, an effort should be made to deliver safer and more organised dives and prove that shark tourism can be done responsibly and is good for the state of Florida.
Note: I actually wrote this article nearly a year ago after some interesting shark diving in Florida, but the information is still valid and more relevant now than ever before!