Diving into uncertain waters
The truth behind shark ecotourism
By Sophia Compton
Feb 25, 2021
Cageless shark dives on O‘ahu may not be as safe as advertised. Shark diving on O‘ahu attracts countless tourists each year who have mustered the courage to swim with one of the ocean’s largest predators.
While these shark dives can be enjoyable for tourists and O‘ahu residents, many of these companies have unregulated practices.
Several marine biologists and shark specialists question how beneficial and safe these practices are on popular cageless dives.
Carl Meyer, a researcher at the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology, said that many of these diving companies require no formal training certification. While operations are potentially promising in shark biology, the quality of information being fed to the general public on these dives could be inaccurate.
“Their business model relies on the infrequent nature of unprovoked bites, and the reality is that in shark ecotourism industries where you have no cage, serious injuries occur about once per decade,” Meyer said. “They are misrepresenting sharks in that respect. These are large predators that can hurt you but don’t most of the time.”
Meyer said there was a bill that is trying to legitimize shark operations.
Senate Bill 578, introduced by State Sen. Gil Riviere, would’ve prohibited commercial shark tours from operating without a permit.
“The Legislature finds that commercial shark boat tours are presently unregulated and as a result, safety measures vary greatly between operators,” according to the bill. “Sharks have the potential to cause great harm and death to humans.”
The bill is dead for the Legislative session.
But One Ocean Diving Marine Biologist Tracy Izor said her team is well trained and had to go through months of unpaid training to conduct shark dives.
“We go through pretty intensive training,” Izor said. “We need to make sure we know all the behavior of the animals, the behavior of the sea, the behavior of the other animals besides the sharks, so it’s been months long.”
One Ocean Diving offers cageless shark dives in Haleʻiwa, which also serve to educate divers on shark conservation. According to a study, shark conservation efforts are crucial now, with the global shark population declining at an alarming rate and having decreased 70% in just the last 50 years.
In the final month of her training, she said she had to dive every single day. They do not chum up the water or use any kind of bait to lure the sharks, and they said many of the sharks are already familiar with humans.
Izor said that she has never experienced an attack, but scary moments can occur when people get overconfident in the water and forget that they are dealing with wild animals.
“I’ve had it quite literally happen where a guy reached out and tried to grab the sharks tail, and just like you wouldn’t do that to a stray dog you definitely shouldn’t do that to a wild animal that you don’t know personally,” Izor said. “With us, we spend years and months and weeks and days and hours you know with these animals, so we can kind of read them a bit more.”
Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology Shark Lab researcher Kim Holland argued that regardless of the information given, cageless shark dives are not beneficial in educating the public either, because the people who choose to go on these dives are already likely less scared of sharks than the general public.
However, Holland said caged shark dives cater toward a less specialized clientele and could have more educational benefits for the average person.