Sharks are cool. Even three year olds know that. They’re charismatic, beautiful, and images of these creatures in their natural element generate a certain frisson of excitement in even the most jaded shark watcher. Sharks are also in mortal danger, worldwide. Populations of all kinds of sharks are in decline, and – being slow growing, late-reproducing creatures – they are in no position to recover without some assistance.
Enter the “shark activist”, “shark conservationist”, “shark advocate” or “shark [dramatic, Chuck Norris type noun]”. They may work alone, or be part of a “worldwide network”. The ones you’ve heard of probably have a website full of photos and videos of themselves with sharks, often accompanied by embarrassingly self-congratulatory text proclaiming how “highly successful” they are, how they have achieved “major success”, and, of course, their “efforts are recognised worldwide”. They are strident, and constantly inserting themselves into situations that might bring them (not necessarily sharks) publicity.
The “shark activist” probably has a naff nickname – like (I made this one up, for Julius Malema) “Shark Comrade” – which may be branded onto the side of their expensive and trendy recent-model motor vehicle. (Their website will of course also mention how hard it is to be a “shark activist” and how many sacrifices have to be made… Such as choosing the manual model over the automatic? Foregoing metallic paint?) The “shark activist” also has enemies, and there may be a strange subtext to much of their self-promotional material alleging political manoeuvrings and other mysterious unseen forces working against their selfless efforts to improve the lives of sharks.
This is all good and well – I have no objection to anyone else’s rich fantasy life, or to anyone’s efforts to deal with self-esteem issues by frantically blowing their own trumpet to all who will listen. I can always choose not to pay attention.
What I do object to is the exploitation of sharks in all of this. Yes, there is “exploitation” in a general and harmless sense – these “activists” adopt sharks as an icon, design cute logos featuring sharks in profile, and brand themselves and their gear until there’s no free space left… This is innocuous and offends no one. No one owns the shark as a trademark, and no one is harmed here.
But there is also exploitation in one very specific and, to my mind, harmful sense. Sharks are wild animals, and we are guests in their realm. Holding onto them, hitching a ride on their dorsal fins, or any other physical contact not initiated by the shark (i.e. not a bite!) is exploiting the creature in order to feed one’s own ego. I don’t care if it’s “safe” or “safe only to very experienced shark activists”. I don’t care if you feel such passion for the creatures that you simply cannot keep your hands off them, and every time you go in for a grope a photographer “happens” to be there pointing his Ikelite housing in your direction. I don’t care if you need a new image for the front page of your website or a new facebook profile picture. It is exploitation and abuse. It draws attention away from sharks. At worst, it chases sharks away from places that they would otherwise frequent, and robs respectful ocean users of the opportunity to enjoy them too. It modifies sharks’ behaviour towards humans. At best it encourages other foolish, less experienced and less cautious divers to attempt the same kind of exploits. When one of those sheep gets bitten, the party is over for everyone.
There are even disingenuous claims that being photographed (of course!) holding onto a shark’s fin (possibly scantily clad – this apparently emphasises the message even more) is necessary to change perceptions of the creature. I have bad news. It doesn’t change any perceptions of the shark – it changes perceptions of the passenger. What I suspect these “shark activists” (and “shark hugging bimbettes and intrepid freedivers abusing the sharks as underwater scooters” – a description I wish I’d come up with myself, but it’s from a curious and ironic source!) hope is that people will think one of the following about them:
And, most of the time, that is probably what people do think. Having a large number of male fans (if you’re a lady shark hugger) or female fans (if you’re a male shark hugger) doesn’t mean – at all – that you’re doing a good job for sharks. It means you’re doing a good job of self-promotion, and probably nothing at all for sharks.
This kind of exploitative behaviour is by no means limited to “shark activists”, or even to sharks. It also seems obligatory for free divers and free divers slash models and those who are old and wise enough to know better to be pictured getting to grips – literally – with the ocean’s top predator. Whales and dolphins are also sometimes subject to this abuse. Sometimes the person involved is clearly ignorant or thoughtless. But some of the pictures of divers holding onto sharks are taken by well-respected and incredibly talented photographers, which makes me very sad. Others are taken of people I honestly thought – from their other work – would have strong convictions about this sort of thing.
Cape Town divers – those who respect the ocean and love its creatures – know not to try to touch the sevengill cowsharks when they dive with them, because it will modify their behaviour towards humans (as, indeed, it already has – those who have been diving with the cowsharks for many years can attest that they are far more confident, curious, and even aggressive towards divers at times than they were ten or fifteen years ago). Why should standards be different because the shark is at Aliwal Shoal, in the Bahamas, or anywhere else?
Photographers such as Tony Wu and (I think) Thomas Peschak are able to photograph marine animals in their natural habitat without touching them or allowing their human photographic subjects – if any – to mount the creatures like quad bikes. I enjoyed this photo gallery of free divers with sharks – not touching them. But I’m almost scared to dig into the body of work of some of the underwater photographers whose skill I admire, in case I find images like the ones I am describing here. (Researching this article got me so riled up and then so disappointed that Tony had to talk me down from a parlous mental state.) Has anyone taken a stand against riding sharks for publicity (or any other purpose)? Please, please let me know if they have!
I suspect that the real “shark activists” are the ones I’ve never heard of, never seen a photo of, and (thank goodness) never had the misfortune to see in a swimsuit. They are the ones who actually DO things, make a difference, speak to government and industry bodies, help draft proposals and bills, write letters, and get their hands dirty behind the scenes. They are far too busy helping sharks to be photographed. Prove me wrong.