Give JAWS a break

by Dr. Erich Ritter
(comments: 1)
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It has now been more than 40 years since JAWS was first shown on the big screen and people still connect their fear about sharks with the movie creation. I don’t know how many times I have heard this to be the main reason why someone is afraid of sharks. If such an animal truly existed, wouldn’t we have heard it by now? Granted, Spielberg did a terrific job of creating the super monster–and I like watching JAWS once in a while–but believing that there are white sharks out there that reflect that creation, is ridiculous. 

But, living close to Pensacola Beach, nothing surprises me anymore when it comes to the “gentlemen in grey suits.” This conundrum can’t continue any longer if we want to protect sharks in general, white sharks in particular, and that there is nothing we have to fear of them. We have to understand that sharks can be interacted with like any other large animal. But, when it comes to white sharks, it is easier said than done. In an ideal world I would go and show it but, no matter where these animals are, some eco-tourism of shark watchers exists, it is a “cage only” affair and that pisses me off. We are allowed to walk around animal parks etc. but not being in the water without protection when it comes to white sharks is mind-boggling. Where is the logic here? If we would have hundreds of incidents with white sharks per year, I would agree on some rules when bringing in white sharks. However, there are not hundreds of incidents annually with these sharks but maybe 20 or 30, and only a small fraction ends fatal. That alone should be reason enough to lift the “cage only” law. 

How do we want to tackle JAWS and its outreach when we are not allowed to freely interact with them and thus show that they are much more timid than large, land predators? I suppose the only way around this is to break the law, attract them and do so as long as one is not caught. Fast forward now, and assume you get caught, what would be the penalty for interacting with a “cage only” animal? I don’t know, but I do know that any defense attorney would have a field day with it. Just imagine: the prosecutor’s case would be to make me guilty of being in the water with a shark that I am not allowed to be with without steel protection. This would be funny, “… Mr Ritter, do you deny of having interacted with a white shark without the protection of a steel cage…? Hilarious, right! So my attorney would then highlight that I just happened to be there where a white shark showed up. Of course, the prosecutor would try to throw this argument out of court by mentioning that I used bait. “… Yes, I used bait, but I just wanted to attract some small reef sharks, witch is not against the law…” You see where I am going with this? If I change my approach on how to attract white sharks, I would be allowed to do so by law. So my way of freely interacting with white sharks is by not applying for a license, telling my customers (which would be referred to as research supporters) that their charges are not for services rendered but to help with research, tips and gas money, then highlight that all we do is interact with smaller sharks. Differently put, the only way to interact with white sharks, and change the JAWS image down the road, is by letting people know that we do not attract white sharks but look for smaller ones. Have you ever heard of any animal to be protected where you consciously pretend to observe other species than the one in question? I have not!

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Comment by Brad Hazledine |

I have to agree that interacting with Great White sharks outside of a cage would be tremendous. It would stand to reason that most people willing to participate in the activity would have an understanding of shark behaviour as well as a comfort level in their presence. It may also help to dispel the myths surrounding these incredible creatures. Anyone that has spent any time interacting with sharks knows that they do not behave the way that they are portrayed.

Having said that, I have found that there is little consistency across dive operations on shark dives. I have been with operators that give you good solid common sense instructions prior to the dive and then let you enjoy the experience, I have been with others that require hoods, gloves, black wetsuits and fins, and shark sticks just to go on a non feeding dive with Caribbean reef sharks. There are also those that have advocated that cages be used at Tiger Beach.

I would love to dive with Great Whites without a cage. But I also see the other side. If there were to be an incident at one of the traditional sites for white shark tourism, the sharks would be branded as ruthless killing machines. That could affect tourism as well as the well being of the shark itself i.e. the shark attacked someone therefore it must be culled because it has developed a taste for humans. The usual nonsense. You also have to protect them from the irresponsible thrill seekers that have no understanding or appreciation of what an honour and privilege it is to share the water with the shark.

So, it is a dichotomy for sure. And I don't know what the answer is.

Reply by Dr. Erich Ritter

Hi Brad,

You nailed it. There are the "good" operators and then there are the "bad" ones, and unfortunately it is the latter who prevent a finally establish the tool to 1) bring people closer to sharks and change their attitude about these animals, and 2) educate about needed topics. The sad part is that many operators are just in for the money. Granted, some of them claim that they are conservationist etc. but when you ask what they consciously due to help the animals you likely won't get anything. We should always keep in mind that nothing (!) qualifies a dive operation to offer a shark dive, so until we start requiring a licensing system, connected with the procedure of having have to lecture (prior to a dive) etc. there will always be the bad seeds.