You may have seen the recent pictures of the group off Oahu doing research when suddenly they were greeted with a great white shark near some whale carcass.
The 50-year-old great white shark, Deep Blue, is 20 feet long and thought to be the shark that they encountered. An amazing sight to see! Great white sharks are notoriously dangerous. I know many divers that say they would be happy to see a great white shark from the boat after a dive or from a cage, but not while diving! Other divers wish they can witness a great white shark out in its element.
I have not personally seen a great white shark. I have, however, dove with bull sharks and tiger sharks (usually categorized as #2 and #3 most dangerous sharks, respectively).
My Personal Experience with Sharks
For me, the possibility of seeing sharks in the wild was scary when I was a beginner diver. Now, 17 years later, I am eager to see sharks in their natural environment! I was in Kona, Hawaii when I saw my first tiger shark.
Our boat operator informed us that there had been many recent sightings of tigers in the area so we should keep an eye out. We were lucky to see one! I first felt so much excitement to see this incredible animal in the wild. Then, a sense of danger came over me for a few seconds. This was, as a reminder, a tiger shark! Considered the garbage disposal of the ocean, the tiger shark has been found with trash of all sorts in its stomach, even old tires! The tiger shark will bite anything, and that is what makes it towards the top of the list as dangerous.
But wait, the tiger shark didn’t turn and come at you for a quick snack? No! They are not seeking out humans to kill. Sharks are curious animals and like to check out what these things blowing bubbles in their home are. As the tiger shark swam away from us, there was a sense of relief that it really didn’t care about us. While this was an incredible experience, I never once felt the urge to touch it.
I was in Key Largo, Florida when I saw my first bull shark. We were told before going in on the wreck, the Duane, that there were a few bull sharks that seem to be in a sleeping pattern hanging out near the bow of the ship. This did not deter one diver from going in. We were all excited for the potential to see such an animal in the wild! Two bull sharks were gracefully swimming just off the bow as expected. They were swimming around, ignoring us. Again, they did not suddenly turn and charge at us, nor did I feel the urge to touch them.
The Controversy About Sharks
So why the controversy? I was back on forth whether to even write about this topic, but many people I talked to did not seem to understand what the problem was. Let’s look at all sides and let you decide: should these divers have touched the great white shark?
1) NO WAY!
This side seems obvious. It is a great white after all! The great white shark is considered the most dangerous shark in the world. Most people fear the ocean because of these creatures. When photos of people touching one in the wild go viral, many people cringe. All it takes is one quick turn of the head and those divers are going to be bitten.
Sharks should be respected mostly because they are so powerful. When you see sharks in the wild, usually you give them their space and see what they do. Many times, they will approach you and check you out, but are not going to just suddenly attack unless maybe they are provoked. It is a privilege to see sharks in the wild, and I am eager to see one every time I dive in the ocean!
Will this behavior encourage others to go out and touch great white sharks? Will people interrupt their natural environment?
One of the main reasons this is such a controversy is that divers have been taught the “no touch rule”. This rule loosely states that we preserve the underwater environment by only taking pictures and memories, leaving nothing but bubbles, and not touching anything! With these viral photos showing humans touching sharks, it only encourages people that it is ok to touch animals or plants in the ocean. This could lead to further destruction of our coral reefs and possibly to the harm of people thinking it is ok to touch sharks. The general consensus is that touching sharks should only be ok if for a specific research purpose to understand them better so we can better protect them.
I’ve witnessed many dumb things while diving, including someone skin diving down to grab a nurse shark’s tail, pulling on it, and then wonder why this gentle shark was swimming after them. You can bet that there are people now making it their goal to have their own viral photo touching a great white shark, and the outcome might not be as good as this one from Oahu.
Are you one of the crazy people that want to see a great white shark while diving? There are plenty of cage dive offerings around the world where one can get face-to-face with a great white shark while being protected by a cage. Be cautious though. There are some companies that do not adhere to the strict guidelines of cage diving. Do your research before you go!
2) SURE! Why not?
One can argue that these viral photos of divers touching a great white shark may deter the public’s image of sharks as fierce, human eating machines. It is easy to agree with this thinking because sharks are not on a hunt to specifically attack every human they find in the ocean. Shark attacks are often mistaken identity or because of provoking, but sometimes we don’t know why. Most sharks like to eat fatty animals such as seals and sea lions. Humans don’t exactly fit into the same quality of fat as these marine mammals. Showing divers gracefully swimming with and touching the great white shark has no doubt stirred feelings from the public that maybe sharks are not as vicious as we thought?
This no touch rule seems to not apply to every situation. Were the divers from Oahu helping with shark conservation by showing the public that these fascinating creatures need to be better protected? The group seen in the viral images claim to be hoping to change some of the local Hawaiian laws on shark fishing to protect these species. This makes one argue that touching the great white shark was beneficial to protecting the species.
What about all of those videos where divers are helping animals from entanglement? One may argue that if an animal approaches that is visibly entangled in fishing net or some other pollution that it is ok to untangle them with caution. Be careful with local laws though. Some places strictly prohibit any touching of animals.
If you saw an injured dolphin, whale, or shark approach you with tangled net all around it would you help it?
3) I’m just here to stir the pot.
One could be stuck in the middle of both sides. I honestly can see points made for both sides. Some people just like to stir up fights within a community. Let’s not forget the overall goal for everyone involved: to better understand sharks and promote their conservation to help increase public awareness of the horrible sport fishing of sharks and decrease the public image of sharks as killing machines so that sharks can be protected from their worldwide decline.
Feel free to comment with your thoughts.