The Shark Cage Diving Industry: above board or submerged in controversy?

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It’s a blisteringly hot day in the Kruger National Park as an open topped Land Rover, filled with sightseeing tourists negotiate a route through the bush. Trailing behind the vehicle is an Impala carcass attached to a 10 meter long chain. Every few minutes or so, a bucket of fresh blood is lobbed onto the track by a National Parks ranger. Suddenly the thick summer foliage is disturbed by a rustle in the undergrowth. Excitement is in the air; something is about to happen. The next moment a tawny shape hurtles towards the dangling carcass and pounces on top of it, massive fangs bared as its claws hook into the raw meat. For maximum effect the ranger plucks the lure towards the Land Rover and the lion follows in pursuit. Tourist cameras click away at the sight of the fully grown male mauling the carcass. R1000 per person well spent, may well be the common thought flickering through their awe struck minds. The operators guaranteed an incredible sight and they sure delivered. Unbelievable? Imagine the outrage from conservationists and the public in general.

Now let’s move 2000 kilometres south. It is a stunning day in Gansbaai, a small fisherman’s village on the south-western coast of South Africa, about 160 km from Cape Town. Several mini buses loaded with foreign tourists had been delivered to various shark cage diving outfits’ premises earlier that morning. Once again excitement is in the air as the prospective shark diving tourists are given their dos and don’ts regarding the morning’s excursion into the world of the great white shark. After boarding one of the eight boats, they are handed their wetsuits (hopefully disinfected after the previous sightseer pissed in them) and seated as the various boats head out towards Shark Alley, a channel between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock, situated about 8 km from the shore. The huge colony of Cape fur seals in the area make up the main diet of the local great white shark population. Chum (a combination of minced fish mixed with fish oil and sea water) is gradually thrown into the sea to create a chum slick, in order to attract the scavenging predators. Bait lines and/or decoys (seal shaped pieces of rubber) are dragged behind the boats, in order to lure the sharks as close as possible or get them to breach.

Once enough sharks have been attracted the intrepid adventurers are lowered into the water, encased in steel mesh cages, to do 30 – 40 minutes of oohing-and-aahing and clicking away with their expensive underwater cameras, as the sharks approach and sometimes brush against the cages. At R1000 – R1500 per person, the general consensus amongst tourists is that it is money well spent.

There are some lingering questions that consistently crop up with regards to the white shark cage diving industry (WSCDI) – some philosophical and others much more practical in nature.

Philosophically the question has been raised why it would create general outrage if a wild carnivore like a lion is baited and lured for the voyeuristic enjoyment of adrenaline seeking tourists, but it is okay for an ocean dwelling predator to be treated in a similar manner. Does the difference lie in the fact that the sharks are mere fish and as such do not elicit the emotional response that a warm blooded, land dwelling animal does? Or is it our consumerist, instant gratification obsessed society that sub-consciously wants to retain a measure of wildlife ‘pornography’? You only have to look at the countless pictures on the web depicting the breaching great white sharks, massive jaws bared, to understand the frisson created. Those images appeal to our primordial origins: man confronted by the danger and fury of nature.

On a psychological level it seems that modern Western society (because that is where most of the shark cage diving tourists traditionally originate from) has been so emasculated and become so jaded that the intentional harassment of a wild animal is fair play when it comes to commercial entertainment. Because that is what it is despite protestations from the industry to the contrary. Marketing material for the white shark cage diving industry invariably features statements about environmental awareness and contributions made to the study of marine wildlife. And there lies the rub. The web is saturated with sites and articles promoting and defending the industry. A minority, but increasingly vocal, have been agitating for stricter controls of the industry. The most prominent criticism revolves around the controversial issue of chumming and baiting. Opponents argue that it conditions the sharks to associate humans with a food source and that it has led to an increase in white shark attacks. Vociferous arguments have raged for the better part of two decades, with no conclusive evidence proffered as yet. Scientific reports are often manipulated to support either side of the argument. From a logical point of view does it make sense to continue behaviour that may impact on human safety? If the risk of shark conditioning has not been definitively ruled out, why not put a moratorium on chumming and baiting?

According to the International Shark Attack File for the Eastern and Western Cape:
From 1852 – 1990: 213 shark attack incidents were reported over a 138 year period
From 1990 – 2011: 112 shark attack incidents were reported over a 21 year period
The vast majority of 1990 – 2011 attacks and fatalities were ascribed to great white sharks. That seems to be prima facie evidence of an increase in shark attacks since the advent of the WSCDI in South Africa in 1992.

On closer analysis of overall media output a disturbing pattern emerges. Many of the marine biologists quoted in media reports have cosy relationships with the owners of shark cage diving operations, often conducting their research from boats owned by operators – a fact that undermines the so-called independence of the scientific research. Research should be conducted by independent bodies with no affiliation to any commercial operators with vested interests. For example, one of the most prominently quoted marine biologists and a shark cage diving supporter, Alison Kock, has in-laws who are involved in the shark cage diving industry.

An active media campaign is being waged by operators – by way of spamming the web with multitudinous front companies regularly posting pro-shark cage diving articles. At present eight operators have permits to operate in the Gansbaai area. Their combined web output makes it seem as if there are thousands of yea-sayers to the industry. Add to this the tour companies and accommodation owners, who are also trying to get a slice of the lucrative shark cage diving industry, and there is a tsunami of pro shark cage diving information and marketing on the web, overwhelming the minority voices expressing concern and doubt about the effective regulation of the industry.

And it is a very lucrative industry: according to the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) the eight operators in the Gansbaai area derived over R30 million from direct ticket sales in 2008.

The DEAT allocated 14 permits in 2010: 8 in Gansbaai, 3 in False Bay, 2 in Quoin Point (Agulhas) and 1 in Mossel Bay. It is the DEAT’s stated policy to facilitate access to the industry for previously disadvantaged groups. This has led to permits being issued to new operators owned by individuals with no prior experience of the industry, marine ecology, conservation or the ocean in some cases. In 2009 two marine officials were investigated for alleged corrupt relationships regarding the allocation of permit exemptions in the WSCDI. Obviously the smell of money attracts a different type of predator.

Questions have not only been asked about new entrants to the WSCDI. Recently shareholders in and employees of a well-known and very vocal shark cage diving operation were arrested for alleged involvement in illegal perlemoen (abalone) smuggling worth billions of South African rand. The main shareholder denied any knowledge of the alleged illegal activities of his fellow shareholders and employees.

The backgrounds of many owners of WSCDI operators seem quite colourful at closer inspection: diamond diving, police involvement during apartheid, commercial fishing, wreck-diving and construction. Not much evidence of a sincere, lifelong conservationist history or ecological awareness.

The operators have sharpened their PR skills exponentially as the outcry over chumming and other industry related issues have intensified. Many of the prominent players have boosted their conservationist credentials by forming conservation trusts and allowing aspiring marine biologists to intern themselves with an operator. In effect this is quite a handy way to cover up the fact that these are multi-million dollar enterprises out to exploit a public asset.

The exploitation of public assets is not just limited to the creatures of the ocean. The small Kleinbaai slipway close to Gansbaai, where most of South Africa’s shark cage diving boats depart from, is a public harbour – the maintenance and development of which is paid for by the South African taxpayer. Traditionally it was used by small scale fishermen and recreational boat owners. Since the advent of the WSCDI most of the available space has been taken over by the WSCDI operators. Their huge boats are parked there on a permanent basis and their traffic makes up the vast majority of activity on the slipway. In 2010 it was estimated that shark boat operators averaged about 36 launches each per month. Not much space left for the father and son team wanting to launch their small dinghy. Shark boats paid R27 772 per year in 2012 for the right to park and launch their boats from the little harbour. Compare that to the R30 million made in direct ticket sales as mentioned earlier.

So a public amenity is used for heavy commercial activity and the cost is less than 0.008% of direct turnover. There is no evidence of any infrastructure development financed by the industry, despite the fact that a once quaint little harbour is being degraded by a huge volume of traffic, with the eventual cost of repairs falling to the general tax payer. On the contrary it seems that most operators run their offices from converted houses zoned for residential use. The original tranquillity of the waterfront area has been severely impacted, leading to the devaluation of residential properties close by. This seems to be as clear a case of muscling in on a public asset in the pursuit of financial gain if ever there was one.

The Marine Living Resources Act of 1998 expressly makes provision for the following:
‘To provide for the conservation of the marine ecosystem, the long-term sustainable utilisation of marine living resources and the orderly access to exploitation, utilisation and protection of certain marine living resources; and for these purposes to provide for the exercise of control over marine living resources in a fair and equitable manner to the benefit of all the citizens of South Africa.’

The act also emphasizes a precautionary approach regarding the management and development of marine living resources.

In a 2008 policy document on WSCD, the DEAT stated as policy objectives:

  • improving the regulatory and compliance framework for the industry through more effective monitoring of the impact of shark cage diving on White Sharks and the ecosystem
  • promote the growth of the South African WSCDI through the allocation of a greater number of permits
  • the transformation of the WSCDI

Strangely enough the policy document prohibits permit holders from operating in the Seal Island (False Bay), Quoin Rock (Agulhas) and Mossel Bay areas from 1 December till 20 January, ostensibly due to municipal requirements. No reference is made to any specific requirements, but it may be deduced from the dates that the restriction is due to the seasonal influx of holiday makers to those areas. Which is a little bizarre if you take into account that 1) the majority of shark boats operate from Gansbaai, 2) the Gansbaai and Quoin Rock areas fall under the same municipal body, The Overstrand Municipality, and 3) there is more than enough evidence that great white sharks travel long distances up and down the coastline.

In terms of the policy document, permit holders may be required to carry independent observers upon written instruction by the DEAT. It is unclear who these independent observers should be, their qualifications and in what circumstances permit holders would be required to carry them on board. In theory it is a good idea to ensure compliance to permit regulations, but in practice it is difficult to find evidence that it has been implemented. One of the regulations for permit holders stipulates that no feeding of sharks should occur, but a cursory glance at internet pictures, reading of blogs and anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. There is obviously a lack of compliance enforcement in the industry, with operators mostly left to self-regulate.

Under the criteria for renewal of shark cage diving permits the DEAT’s policy document states that permit holders who demonstrate that they made an investment in local infrastructure will be rewarded. Despite no evidence of infrastructure investment by long standing operators, permits are still renewed on a yearly basis.

In 2008 one of the Gansbaai shark cage diving boats capsized which lead to the drowning of three tourists, two Americans and one Norwegian. The morning of the tragedy my father and I were scanning the ocean and came to the conclusion that the sea was way too choppy to launch our own recreational boat. Eye witness evidence corroborated by several people who were in the area that day as well as some of the paid up tourists on board the fatal boat. We were quite surprised to see some of the shark cage diving boats head out despite the inclement conditions. However, spokespeople for the industry and the NSRI (National Sea Rescue Institute) held that the conditions were fine and that the accident was caused by a ‘freak’ wave. One went as far as to say that the sea was flat and conditions were perfect. Anyone who knows that particular part of the South African coastline would know that the area is notorious for the odd ‘stand up’ wave, especially in choppy conditions. Allegations have been levied that the crew had not received rescue training, none of the passengers were wearing life jackets and no manifest was filed by the operator. Despite a charge of poor judgement against the skipper by the South African Maritime Safety Authority he continued working for the operator.

In 2005 a British tourist had a narrow escape when a great white shark popped the buoy holding up one side of the cage he was in and then proceeded to crush the side of the cage. No sign of a DEAT investigation has emerged.

The WSCDI has been hit by another scandal when it was revealed that they used unprotected shark livers in their chum. In 2011 it was calculated that 1.5 tons of sharks were sold to the industry. It makes comments from owners of shark boats that they care about sharks and oppose shark finning almost comical.

The Western Australian government banned shark cage diving in 2012 as a pre-emptive measure since there is currently no shark cage diving operations in Western Australia. The decision followed a spate of four fatal shark attacks in the region as well as research done by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), at shark cage diving sites in South Australia, which found that chumming did change shark behaviour. A decision heavily lambasted by the local WSCDI with the usual denial that chumming has nothing to do with attacks despite no conclusive evidence either way.

A perceived risk does affect other businesses that rely on utilization of the ocean. Surf schools and surfboard renters in Muizenberg and Kalk Bay have reported a drop in custom which they ascribe to an increased incidence of shark attacks in the False Bay area. Pearly Beach near Gansbaai has the potential to be an ocean lovers’ paradise, but the proximity of chumming shark boats, puts many off from venturing into the water, a case of one industry profiting at the expense of another.

Aggressive behaviour has been displayed by shark boat operators towards other boat users who dare to venture into Shark Alley. They obviously see the area as their personal domain. It could also be an indication that the area’s capacity for operators is dangerously overloaded.

True nature lovers act in harmony with nature. They do not make their number one priority the commercial exploitation of natural assets which should be to the benefit of everyone. The lack of grace and obfuscation by the WSCDI makes it hard to believe in their bona fides. Admittedly there are emotional knee jerk reactions from certain sections of the public who fall prey to sensationalist media reporting. However, if you look at the multitude of questions raised about the industry you cannot but feel cynical about their true intentions. Even if the appeal to stop chumming was a purely emotional one, a transparent and truly concerned industry would cease the offending action and take a slight dent in profits on the chin. An arrogant and dismissive attitude makes it hard to support their arguments.

From a practical point of view the Depart of Environmental Affairs and Tourism should also be held accountable for their clumsy and incompetent managing of the industry. Allowing a glut of operators in a small area, not implementing the compulsory attendance of independent officials on every boat, issuing permits based on suspect political connections and failure to ensure proper compliance by existing operators has exacerbated an already complicated issue.

Finally, the industry would not exist if it was not for the artificially created and over-hyped demand out there. Ignorant thrill-seekers happily queue with their money to experience a superficial interaction with one of the ocean’s wonders. Meanwhile a 16 million year old creature has become a mere dollar sign and Hollywoodian adrenaline rush.

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10 thoughts on “The Shark Cage Diving Industry: above board or submerged in controversy?

  1. I truly enjoyed this article. I hope you don’t mind I posted this to the FB page Stop Shark Cage Diving Near Stewart Island, as it really articulates many of the issues opponents to shark cage diving in southern NZ are currently facing. Thank you for this well-written and thought provoking writing.

    • Hi Jess. You are most welcome. Thanks for reading and glad you got some value out of the article.

  2. Well written article and I am in agreement. The mere arrogance of society is to blame for many things, and shark cage diving is one of them! Sadly at this time in our history, I doubt any intervention will come from government, just another tourist attraction and dollar signs.

    • Thanks for the comment Wouter. I think we underestimate our power as consumers tremendously in this country. If the UDF could do it in the eighties we can do it now. We must just get out of our comfort zone. Every article, every word of support translates into pressure, and I am referring to all the socio-economic issues we write about in Reprobate, not just shark cage diving.

  3. Such an interesting view point. I am very disappointed that we are changing the behaviour of these creators. I live in Port Lincoln, South Australia, SCDO is booming, to the detriment of our water users, we can’t so much as kyak, paddle board, surf, swim or dive in our waters anymore. An explosion in population and the behavioural changes have created a true sea monster. How many more lives have to be taken before people take their blinkers off?

    • Thanks for the comment Melissa. The main thrust of our article was to highlight concerns about the administration and regulation of the shark cage diving industry. We recognise that ocean based tourism plays a huge role in countries like South Africa and Australia. However, as you mentioned, one activity should not be allowed to the exclusive advantage of a small group of beneficiaries, whilst adversely affecting other ocean users. The ethics of the industry’s operational methods also generate a huge question mark. Proper unbiased research, a more inclusive profit sharing structure, transparency in licencing and a complete overhaul of chumming/baiting regulations are sorely needed.

  4. The best article on this subject I have read to date. THe WSCDI is a farce and goes against every tenet of conservation and protection of sea life and marine resources. Shut it down.

    • Agreed Anton. At the very least there should be a transparent and accountable audit delivered by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism on a yearly basis, reflecting transgressions and importantly, who makes what percentage of money out of the so-called ‘industry’.

  5. Isn’t it funny that these shark cage operators advertise their industry with nightmarish and frightening pictures of wide open shark jaws and razor-sharp teeth, and then claim that their main mission in life is to change the public’s perception of sharks as dangerous, man-eating monsters? Methinks their industry won’t survive if they managed to convince people that sharks were simply overgrown goldfish, and somehow I don’t think they intend to.

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