By Michel Labrecque
Blue shark populations are in steep decline. They are falling victim to long lining and it is becoming rare to encounter sharks that are free of hooks or lines.
Sharks are often referred to as super predators. They have long been considered as ruthless killers. In modern times, Hollywood has contributed to vilifying these creatures that have roamed our oceans for over 450 million years.
Over the last few decades, sharks have been slaughtered by the millions and many species are today considered as endangered. Demand for shark fins has put a high price on these animals that are hunted down in many areas of the world.
Unlike loveable pandas and baby harp seals, sharks have been unable to gain massive public support. Fear still remains heavily rooted in the minds of most. In many coastal areas, we still hear the saying “The only good shark is a dead shark”.
With the emergence of scuba diving as a sport accessible to the masses, more and more people are encountering sharks in their natural habitat and realizing that they need not be feared but rather protected. Even the most feared of species such as Great Whites, Oceanic Whitetips, Great Hammerheads, Tiger Sharks and Bull Sharks are now being regularly encountered without the protection of a cage. For those who have lived the experience, their perception is forever changed.
Elusive until recently, the Great Hammerhead is now generating huge ecotourism revenue for the island of Bimini in the Bahamas.
Change through education
We are slowly managing to represent sharks for what they truly are. Anyone who has been in close contact with sharks knows that they are like any other wild animal.
Demand for shark encounters is on the rise and many countries now understand that protecting these beautiful animals is not only necessary to preserve the balance of our ocean ecosystems but it is also good business. In fact revenue generated by shark ecotourism largely surpasses those generated by fishing.
Many smaller insular countries around the world, such as the Maldives, have been eager to install this manner of thinking within their own boundaries. The Islands of the Bahamas have been protecting sharks since 2011 and they have become a shining example of how sharks can boost tourism. Fijians are also very involved in protecting sharks and tourists are flocking.
I have been bringing groups to scuba dive or free dive with sharks for many years. On each trip, most of the participants have never seen a shark up close, other than maybe in an aquarium exhibit. Of course, participants are generally anxious and slightly hesitant to jump in the water at first. They have been taught to fear sharks. Usually, after seeing divers in the water for a few minutes and witnessing for themselves how the sharks behave in our presence, they decide to take the plunge. They are never the same. Within a few minutes, fear is replaced by curiosity, admiration and in some cases, fascination.
My experience with groups was an eye-opener. I realised that people must see to believe. Not everyone however will, and can jump in the water with sharks so I decided to focus on showcasing sharks in the way I see them.
By reaching divers, of course, but also by getting mainstream media to publish or broadcast photos or footage of sharks, we could accelerate the process and change perceptions.
Considered as one of the most dangerous sharks in our oceans, these peaceful and graceful Oceanic Whitetips curiously approach divers.