Shark cage diving
Shark cage diving is underwater diving or snorkeling where the observer remains inside a protective cage designed to prevent sharks from making contact with the divers. Shark cage diving is used for scientific observation, underwater cinematography, and as a tourist activity. Sharks may be attracted to the vicinity of the cage by the use of bait, in a procedure known as chumming, which has attracted some controversy as it is claimed to potentially alter the natural behaviour of sharks in the vicinity of swimmers.
Similar cages are also used purely as a protective measure for divers working in waters where potentially dangerous shark species are known to be present. In this application the shark-proof cage may be used as a refuge, or as a diving stage during descent and ascent, particularly during staged decompression where the divers may be vulnerable while constrained to a specific depth in mid-water for several minutes. In other applications a mobile cage may be carried by the diver while harvesting organisms such as abalone.
A shark-proof cage is a metal cage used by an underwater diver to observe dangerous types of sharks up close in relative safety. This can include various species of shark, but the most commonly observed within the confines of a cage are the great white shark and the bull shark, which are both known to be aggressive at times. Shark-proof cages are built to withstand being rammed and bitten by sharks, and are intended to protect the user from potential injury. Cages can provide a visual and tactile deterrent to sharks. Cage-diving allows people to closely monitor sharks for scientific, commercial or recreational purposes, and sometimes interact with them.
The shark-proof cage is also used in the controversial exercise of shark baiting, where tourists are lowered in a cage while the tour guides bait the water to attract sharks or stimulate certain behavior.
Shark cages were first developed by Jacques Cousteau. Cousteau used a shark cage during the production of The Silent World which was released in 1956. Rodney Fox developed his own shark cage in the 1960s. Fox's first design was inspired by a visit to a zoo he made after surviving a near-fatal shark attack in 1963. Later designs were refined further and put to use by documentary filmmakers and abalone fishers who sought personal protection from great white sharks. James Gimbel was one filmmaker involved in the design of a shark-proof cage which was used during the production of Blue water, white death (1971).
Self propelled version
On September 4, 1979, US patent number 4166462 was issued for a self-propelled shark-proof cage; being designed to allow abalone divers to collect abalone without becoming vulnerable to attack. Thanks to the propulsion system, abalone divers would exert themselves less and, therefore, be able to collect their prey for longer periods of time. The patent abstract details a self-propelled cage with at least one access opening and a mounting frame that carries both an air motor and a propeller. Buoyant material is attached to the frame so that the cage may be made neutrally buoyant. This patent expired on September 4, 1996.
Shark cage diving tourism
During the 2000s, shark cage diving become increasingly popular as a tourist activity. In South Australia, tourists are taken by boat from Port Lincoln to the Neptune Islands in southern Spencer Gulf where they view great white sharks either from a cage tethered to the back of a boat near the surface, or from a cage lowered to the seabed. The government considers the activity to be one of South Australia's “iconic nature-based tourism experiences” which supports 70 jobs and contributes over $11 million to the state's economy.
Shark baiting is a procedure where the water is baited by chumming with fish or other materials attractive to sharks. Tourists remain inside a shark-proof cage while tour guides bait the waters to attract sharks for the tourists to observe. There have been claims that this could lead to potentially aggressive behavior by the shark population. Some conservation groups, scuba divers, and underwater photographers consider the practice undesirable and potentially dangerous.
In South Australia, abalone divers have been attacked by great white sharks, and divers believe that great white shark cage diving tourism has altered shark behavior including making them more inclined to approach boats. At least one abalone diver, Peter Stephenson has called for a ban on shark-cage diving and described it as a "major workplace safety issue”. The government of South Australia claims that there is "no scientific evidence" to suggest that the general public is at elevated risk of shark attack as a result of shark cage tourism.
Opponents of the cage-diving industry, such as shark-attack survivor Craig Bovim, who was reportedly bitten by a Great White shark (a species not targeted by cage diving operators in the region, and not generally considered a hazard to divers) while snorkeling for lobster at Scarborough, on the other side of the Cape Peninsula from Seal Island, where the shark cage boats operate, believe that the repeated chumming used to lure sharks to tourist cages may alter sharks' behaviour. Bovim's opponents, such as marine environmentalist Wilfred Chivell, contend that there is no demonstrated correlation between shark-baiting and shark attacks against humans. However, there is evidence that the baiting of sharks for tourism does alter the patterns of movement of Great White Sharks.
Shark Tourism and Cage Diving
There is no other method to safely view Great Whites underwater. Great Whites cannot be kept in captivity successfully. Without Great White tourism and shark tour operators, Great Whites would continue to be surrounded in myth and irrational fear, with movies like “Jaws” being our main point of reference.
I personally believe that cage diving is helping to save Great White Sharks by debunking many of the misunderstandings that surroun this shark. Without Shark Cage Diving, few people would be able to witness this magnificent apex predator in its natural environment. I have been on many shark cage diving excursions, and the majority of participants express absolute awe of the creature. Those fortunate enough to witness a breach are overwhelmed by their experience.
Personal interactions and experience, together with a high level of understanding and knowledge imparted by the ship’s crew, allow individuals to better understand the role and importance of apex predators in our oceans, and many go away with a changed mindset.
Cage diving is currently practised off the coasts of South Africa, Australia and Mexico’s Guadalupe Island. Shark operators commonly chum the water with shredded fish and oils to draw in sharks for tourists and scientists to view and study. A fish head attached to a rope is also used as bait; the head is pulled away to keep the shark interested in the boat.
In South Africa, this practice is limited to the Gansbaai and Mossel Bay Areas. Operators in False Bay are more strictly controlled and are not allowed to use chum, so they use tuna heads and seal decoys as bait to attract sharks to the boat.
The practice of cage diving has raised fears that sharks may become more accustomed to the presence of people in their aquatic environment, and that they may begin to associate human activity with food, perhaps leading to an increase in the number of attacks on humans. Cage-diving detractors also maintain that the reason for attacks is that the sharks become conditioned to associate humans with food. Their reasoning, however flawed, is based on the idea that when a shark finds a human in the water, it will be expecting food, and this will cause it to attack the swimmer or surfer.
South Africa is at the forefront of this debate because of the tremendous growth of cage diving in the Western Cape over the last 15 years. The Worldwide Fund of Nature (WWF), formerly known as the World Wildlife Federation, has conducted extensive research on this issue and reports that there is no scientific link between cage diving and shark attacks. The Shark Trust, based in the United Kingdom, concludes the same from their research, stating that not enough evidence is available, especially because most attacks take place away from cage-diving locations. The City of Cape Town, which has also conducted its own research since 1998, concurs that linking shark attacks to cage-diving practices is purely hypothetical.
An exhaustive study conducted by doctoral student, Alison Kok, as part of the Save Our Seas Foundation’s White Shark Project, shed valuable light on the subject. Kok investigated the impact of chumming on White Sharks, to see whether the sharks were being conditioned by the cage-diving boats. Her research suggested that the ecotourism activity like cage diving has a limited impact on the behaviour of White sharks. Tagged animals in the experiment displayed a near ubiquitous trend in decreasing response to the chumming boat with time, contrary to what was expected. Even sharks that frequently acquired food rewards stopped responding to the boat after several interactions. No positive conditioning to the boat was observed in the study. It also demonstrated that White sharks are not simple-minded eating machines and frequently ignored chumming and baiting activities.
Shark cage incidents
In 2005, a British tourist, Mark Currie, was exposed to a high risk of injury or death when a 5-metre (18 ft) great white shark bit through the bars of a shark cage being used during a recreational shark dive off the coast of South Africa. The shark circled the boat several times, and began to attack the side of the cage, then started to crush and bite through. The captain attempted to free the cage by trying to distract the shark. He did this by hitting it on the head with an iron pole. The shark bit into one of the buoys at the top of the cage, which caused the cage to begin sinking. Currie realized that he could either get eaten or drown because he had only a mask, not any breathing apparatus. Currie quickly swam out of the top of the cage and was pulled to safety by the boat's captain, who fended off the shark with blows to its head.
In 2007, a commercial shark cage was destroyed off the coast of Guadalupe Island after a 4.6-metre (15 ft) great white shark became entangled and tore the cage apart in a frantic effort to free itself. Tourists captured video of the incident, which quickly spread throughout the Internet.
Another incident reported in 2016 was quite a similar story, Brian, an experienced diver, talks about his cage diving accident off the coast of Mexico. He says it started by the “shark lunging for the tuna used to lure it near the cage”. Somehow, among all the chaos, the shark broke into the cage, once inside “The shark was not attacking the guy”. But sharks “can't go backwards” so once the shark had gotten himself tangled up in the cage “he just tried to blast forward and then busted up the railing on the side”. Thankfully "Between the actions of the crew and the experience of the diver, and I'm sure a little bit from God and luck, it turned out well”. After all of this, the crew decided that they should continue on with the rest of the days dives, as Brian wittingly adds “Lightning doesn't strike twice”
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