By swimming with sharks or diving with them, you can actually help save sharks and the entire marine ecosystem.
How? Read on to find out how.
How Shark Tourism Can Help Save Sharks
Swimming with sharks and encouraging shark tourism may sound like a contradiction. Most tourists want to avoid sharks. No surfer ever entered the water saying I hope I see a shark today!
But there is a select group of adventure travelers that will seek out swimming with sharks. I had no idea about this until I watched the documentary Sharkwater. The photo book is one of my all-time favorite books.
I quickly became obsessed with sharks and learned that a select group of scuba divers seek out sharks and they’ll go to the ends of the earth to do find them. I became one of them.
If sharks are worth more alive – from the money that shark tourism brings in, governments will do more to protect them from shark finning.
This is the cruel practice of cutting off the shark fins, then throwing the rest of the shark in the water. The shark then drowns. Or is eaten alive by other fish. All for a bowl of shark fin soup which is popular in some parts of Asia.
Watch this short video by National Geographic to see what a cruel practice it is:
Shark finning is one of the major threats to sharks. An estimated 73 million sharks are killed each year. It’s unsustainable and incredibly cruel to the individual shark.
It’s illegal in most countries. However, enforcement is sparse in many countries due to the lack of funds to patrol the waters.
Therefore that’s why I believe that encouraging more adventurers to swim or dive with sharks, promoting shark tourism, is one of the keys to saving sharks.
The funds generated by swimming or diving with sharks can then be used to help protect sharks. To patrol the waters. To keep the shark finners out.
The downside to Shark Tourism and Swimming with Sharks
It has to be done responsibly and not interfere with the shark’s natural behavior. Sadly that isn’t always the case, especially when it comes to swimming with whale sharks.
It’s not uncommon in places where whale sharks congregate like Isla Mujeres or in Playa del Carmen to have multiple boats filled with snorkellers all mobbing the poor shark. That’s NOT OK. It’s not good for the shark. And it will drive the sharks away. Similar to what some guides predict to happen to the leopards in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.
However, shark tourism can be done responsibly. The number of swimmers or divers can be limited. Well-trained guides can be employed who are incentivized to enforce the regulations. Each swimmer and diver should also take personal responsibility and keep a respectable distance from the shark.
Then, shark tourism can help save sharks.
Shark diving near Cocos Island in Costa Rica
Cocos Island is the world’s largest uninhabited island located over 500km (~330 miles) from mainland Costa Rica. Cocos is one of the few places in the world where hammerhead sharks school in large numbers.
The only way to reach Cocos is by a 30-hour boat ride. Overnight visits are not permitted, so divers wanting to dive at Coco’s must stay on a liveaboard.
Cocos is a national park. Shark finning is illegal. But unfortunately, it’s an all too common occurrence. One of the key constraints is a lack of government funds to patrol the waters on a more frequent basis. Fortunately, satellite technology is making it easier to track illegal fishing boats which could dramatically decrease shark finning. But countries need to start implementing it.
I am hopeful that one day Cocos waters and its sharks will be protected. If not by the government, then by the dive companies who operate there to create a sustainable shark tourism industry. This is the case for Wolf and Darwin Island in the Galapagos. And it’s incredibly effective.
Shark Diving on Wolf and Darwin Islands in the Galapagos
Wolf and Darwin Islands are home to hundreds of schooling hammerheads. Not to mention a variety of other shark species including Silkies, Galapagos sharks, and in summer, whale sharks.
On one dive alone I counted over 500 sharks! The dive companies have come together and now have a patrol boat at Wolf and Darwin Islands to enforce the ban on shark finning.
They know that without the sharks there is no shark tourism, It’s more economical to pay for law enforcement. That keeps shark tourism and diving with sharks sustainable for the long term.
It’s a great example of how shark diving can help save sharks.
Palau’s Shark Sanctuary
Perhaps the best example of shark tourism in action is in the Pacific island nation of Palau. In 2009 they created the world’s first shark sanctuary.
Studies conducted there show that a single reef shark brings in $1.9 million USD over its lifetime. And that’s just one shark. Shark tourism alone brings in over $18 million USD to Palau, accounting for 8% of the nation’s GDP.
See Priced Off the Menu? Palau’s Sharks Are Worth $1.9 Million Each for more info.
When you show that sharks are worth more alive than dead, we can save them.
Swimming with Sharks Aids in Marine Conservation
When you swim or dive with sharks, you’re not just saving sharks. Sharks are an APEX predator, so if you save them, you’re saving the entire marine ecosystem where they live.
My Shark Diving Experiences
Besides the fact that I love diving with sharks, I went to Palau last year to show my support for the Shark Sanctuary. I wanted – to put my money where my mouth was so to speak.
I also visited Cocos and the Galapagos because of shark tourism. And shark diving in South Africa – without a cage, was at the top of my list. I loved diving with raggies. You can also dive with Tiger sharks near Durban. Of course, there is also cage diving and diving with other sharks near Cape Town. Unfortunately, I was there out of season.
If I’m going to go way out of my way, endure long flights and an expensive trip, it has to be something really special.
Shark diving also introduces you to new places. I had no idea that there were sharks in Okinawa, Japan, or such great diving. I was very impressed and saw a reef shark on my first dive!
And for me, that’s the privilege of diving with sharks in their natural habitat – no cages and no bait. It changes you as a person. You gain a new perspective. It erases the images you have of JAWS. Instead, they’re replaced with a beautiful graceful creature that deserves to be honored, not feared.
And that is why swimming or diving with sharks is absolutely priceless.
This article was originally published in 2011 but updated and republished in Feb 2019.