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Nature News
by Marlene Harris

June 2000   —   Shark Watching on the Increase

Whale watching is a well known activity, but shark watching? Yes, it appears that sharks are indeed becoming popular as tourist attractions, a complete role reversal for these much maligned creatures.

In the Bahamas, for example, guided groups swim with 7–foot long Caribbean reef sharks. But the tourists don’t only swim with the sharks, they have the opportunity to touch the animals if they wish. The guides are trained in the art (or science?) of "hypnotizing" the sharks, by stroking the animals’ snouts. It is not known why this stroking action affects sharks the way it does and the promoters don’t really care. What does matter is simply that during these "stroking" sessions, sharks allow themselves to be patted, and the tourists avidly take advantage of the opportunity.

The idea behind these encounters is to help eliminate the myths about sharks as mindless eating machines. Shark watching is now occurring in many places around the world. And in a ironic twist, some experts are now concerned over the effects this increasing activity is having on sharks. In the Bahamas, for example, most sharks are normally fearful of humans and avoid confrontation. But in order to encourage their interaction with people, they are lured and fed. This is having the obvious effect of diminishing the sharks’ fear of humans. One shark biologist has spoken about the change in population dynamics; sharks in anticipation of handouts are now gathering in large number in the dive areas, a situation completely out of character, as previously, sharks in the region never gathered in groups.

The potential for disaster is obvious. As with bears who, having been fed by humans, have lost their fear and forage freely near people, so may sharks with the passage of time. And as we all know who loses in encounters between "tame" wild bears and humans, what will be the penalty imposed on "tame" wild sharks who eventually do the same?

The Bahamian government is actively encouraging shark watching, and although they acknowledge the potential dangers, they feel the benefits of allowing people to get up close and personal with sharks, outweigh the risks. Of course, there are the economics as well. The government does not address this aspect, but shark watching is bringing big tourist dollars to the region.

Are sharks being adversely affected by all this attention? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? There is no easy answer. But one thing is certain: this situation bears a striking resemblance to that which we are now experiencing with whale watching in the St. Lawrence. The best of intentions, but at what cost? This situation plays itself out wherever and whenever humans interact with wildlife, whether it be bears in a national park, or in this case, sharks in an underwater petting zoo.

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