How can you Dive Safely with Sharks?
There are a few creatures on this earth that send a shiver up your spine – spiders and snakes do the trick for most people, but there is one animal we don’t really encounter often and for most people, ever, but they still make the hairs on our neck stand up and that is the shark.
Images of sharks have been used to instil fear in us for decades, primarily by Hollywood because we have an innate fear of certain creatures.
Many people won’t even go for a swim up to their knee’s off a surf beach with shark nets and beach patrols because they saw some seaweed floating offshore and convinced them it’s a shark – the fear runs that deep.
What to do if you encounter a shark while scuba diving?
But what if you are SCUBA diving and all of a sudden you are confronted with a shark, what should you do?
It’s important to understand you are neither a danger nor a meal to them and any interaction on their part is most likely curiosity. You should remain calm, move slowly, breathe steadily and ensure you make contact with your dive buddy to ensure they are also remaining calm.
There is no need to approach the shark, but if it comes to you, try and stay relaxed. Having a coral or rock wall nearby can offer some physiological shelter for you if you slowly move towards it.
Soon the shark will likely get bored with you and swim away, given that most encounters are with shark species with no reputation for attacking people, you have actually been totally safe all the time.
While it’s generally accepted that there are only four shark species that will attack humans: the great white shark, the bull shark (also known by various names), the tiger shark and the oceanic whitetip shark. Even these almost never attack a diver as we have explained in this previous article.
Sharks are one of the most ancient species of fish we have in our oceans, they pre-date most fishes that like us have bones and a skeleton. In fact, sharks use cartilage instead and also have many other evolutionary adaptions that other species don’t, like lateral lines that can detect electrical signals underwater to locate prey.
Sharks themselves have not evolved a great deal in millions of years as they perfected being alpha predators in the ocean long ago, without any real threats apart from other sharks making them some of the most ancient creatures on our planet.
That is until a new predator started coming from them, one they have little or no defence to – humans and fishing.
There are quite a few different types of sharks that you can routinely dive within different parts of the world with zero problems such as reef shark dives in St Maarten, Thresher shark dives in Malapascua in the Philippines, or sometimes Whale shark dives in Thailand.
These and other shark dives around the world generally offer supervised dives with local experts and with sharks used to divers, making them exciting experiences that are as safe as diving can be.
The word is abounded by reef sharks, wobbegongs, rays, skates and all sorts of smaller species that are, or closely related to sharks across all the world’s oceans, so even in cold or temperate climates, you might encounter one.
The biggest shark and indeed the biggest fish in the sea is the Whaleshark. These majestic creatures cruise the oceans waters filter-feeding on plankton. The adults are large, over 10m in length and can be very difficult to dive with as they are quite elusive, swim quite fast and have no curiosity when it comes to divers.
The juveniles however are smaller (3-7m) and are known to frequent dive sites and often display curiosity towards divers, meaning they slow down and circle through your bubbles.
If you get a chance to swim or dive with a whale shark, you can swim right next to it easily and get very close. The size of even a juvenile is impressive close-up and even though you may be tempted, don’t reach out and touch the shark. The Galapagos, Mexico, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand all have places you can potentially swim, snorkel or dive with one of these beasts.
The coast of central New South Wales in Australia is home to the nurse shark, these are very large sharks, up to 4m in length and they swim around in rocky channels off the coast. They are some of the easiest big sharks to dive with as they have small mouths, eat small fish so pose no threat and are inquisitive with divers.
You can simply sit in one spot and have them swim over the top and around you in what is an exciting shark encounter.
But what about Great Whites?
Another type of shark dive that people travel far and wide for is a cage dive around great white sharks.
Now we said these sharks are not really a danger to humans, so why the cage? Well the way the sharks are attracted is using chum or fishy waste and blood poured into the sea to attract them, which tends to make the shark quite aggressive – hence the cage.
Off the coasts of South Africa and South Australia, there are commercial diving companies that can take you out for what is certainly the scariest shark dive you can safely undertake.
Even in the UK, there is a chance to swim or snorkel with sharks in Cornwall where you can head out onto the water and swim with blue sharks that grow up to 2m in length. These sharks swim close to the surface making it easy for you to have an animal encounter that is safe and not too far from the shore.
There are other species you may encounter diving in UK waters too, with over 40 species of which 21 can be found all year round for those who like to dive in winter.
Dogfish, Bull Huss, Spurdog, Tope, Shortfin Mako and Smooth Hound sharks are all possible to see diving off the coast of the UK. None of these sharks is dangerous, but they are there and you can dive with them and can provide exciting animal encounters.
Can a shark smell fear?
This is a common misperception, but no, they can’t smell you being afraid of them underwater. They have a very strong sense of smell, especially blood in the water along with their lateral lines can also detect fish in distress from a long way off.
When it comes to humans diving, they may be able to detect a rise in your heart rate as they come closer, but it’s not considered them sensing our fear.
How far away can a shark smell blood?
Hollywood strikes again! Many people believe a shark can smell a drop of blood in the water from miles away, and while they do have a strong sense of smell – it’s not quite that far. Scientists have discovered that the distance or more likely 300m or so and the smell does not reach them immediately either, but rather takes some time to move through the water to their nostrils.
The direction and strength of ocean currents will also affect the shark’s ability to smell blood in the water and a bigger and faster shark will be able to react quicker.
So if you cut yourself badly and are bleeding in the water, there is no need to panic, but it’s still a good idea to get yourself out of the water to treat the wounds quickly, especially in an area with loads of reef sharks.
Why am I still afraid of sharks?
There are some evolutionary mechanisms as to why some animals are afraid of others, think of a baby rabbit being scared of a hawk’s shadow, or the jump you get when you see a spider. Sharks are big, majestic, have razor-sharp teeth and appear to have emotionless eyes.
It’s not believed we have an evolutionary reaction, but we certainly have had a Hollywood one as mass media have portrayed sharks as mindless killers for generations. Combine all this together and it’s easy to see why people are still afraid.
Undertaking a guided dive, swim or snorkel with small reef sharks in the Caribbean or Fiji is a good first step to being around them. You could also go for broke and head straight into a cage dive with great white sharks, but we don’t recommend that as a first step!
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A Plea for Sharks
Please understand that sharks are under enormous pressure from humans, we have reduced their numbers by 90% in the last century. They were often bycatch or caught for food until in the last 20 years when an upper-class shark dish from China exploded across the middle-class Chinese diaspora.
Fishermen worldwide started catching sharks, any kind will do and cut off all their fins before dropping them back overboard for them to sink and drown.
Please try to always avoid eating sharks unless is sustainable like the Wobbegong in Australia and please never eat or even support an establishment that serves shark fin soup.
Don’t Forget Your Dive Insurance!
Before you go out on any dive trip or holiday, it is essential to make sure you have insurance that covers you if something goes wrong. Check out our dive insurance article for more information.
Or go straight to these dive insurance company websites:
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