Jaws Revisited

Divers are Pulling Together to Save Sharks

Most people are afraid to share the water with sharks. But not the scuba divers who make a point of seeking them out. Instead, they call the sharks they encounter "graceful," "compelling," even "beautiful."

Sharks swimming in Palau, a popular diving spot where waters are designated as "shark sanctuaries."
© ABWonderdive

Ty Sawyer, long-time diver and editorial director for Sport Diver Magazine, encountered his first shark at 15. In the 32 years since, his passion for diving with sharks has only grown.

"Given any opportunity, I will jump in the water with sharks," says Sawyer. "It is absolutely thrilling to see this well-honed ancient predator in the water doing its thing. When you see them in action the water becomes electrified and it is hard to take your eyes off of them."

As with many terrestrial apex predators like tigers and lions, sharks have a bad reputation. The truth is, it's humans who pose a major threat to sharks, not the other way around.

Breaking the Myth

There is no better way to gain a real understanding of sharks than by seeing them in their own habitat. It's only after diving with sharks that you discover these powerful animals are more curious than ferocious.

"Almost all the sharks that I have encountered have shown more interest than aggression," says veteran diver and underwater photographer Budd Riker. "They're very curious. They are really quite beautiful. One flick of their tail that you'd hardly notice, and they're moving quickly through the water."

Riker had his first encounter with about 20 blue sharks off the coast of San Diego in 1982. At that time, few people dived with sharks and popular consensus was that they were dangerous predators (the huge popularity of the movie Jaws in 1975 probably lent some weight to the vicious shark myth).

"They came up and nosed the camera, but they made no aggressive moves," says Riker. "I learned very quickly that everything I thought about the blue shark was wrong."

The Awe-Inspiring Experience

Christopher Robinson, Editorial Director of Outdoor Photographer Magazine, is fairly new to diving. He began in 2006, taking a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) open water diver course. On a PADI trip to Tahiti, he was soon diving with lemon and black tip sharks.

"I found the experience to be completely magical," says Robinson. "There is something very different about being in the water with a shark for the first time; you suddenly realize that you are not on top of the food chain. For me, they are simply the most graceful, elegant animals that I have ever seen, under water or above," he says. "The more diving I did, the more I wanted to go back and dive with sharks. What we learn when we get past the myth is that they are powerful and vibrant creatures, and are a vital part of the ecosystems in which they live."

Magical Creatures

So why do these divers, and so many others, love sharks? All three divers relate their experiences with sharks to the world through photography — depicting the beauty of the animal, not sensationalizing the perceived terror of them.

Scientists say that sharks are among the oldest inhabitants of the ocean, with the earliest known species dating from more than 420 million years ago. With seven senses (two more than humans), they have the ability to feel water pressure changes and to sense tiny electrical charges, such as muscle movements.

Because most species will sink if they stop swimming, sharks are also in constant motion. Floating in the ocean among them, part of their world, divers experience first hand their energy and power.

Species in Peril

Most divers also share a concern for the health of shark populations and marine ecosystems. Both Sawyer and Riker have witnessed a decline in certain shark species over time. According to the Project AWARE Foundation, which has been working around the world with divers and decision-makers to close loopholes in shark legislation and management and secure international protection, some species have declined as much as 90% in the last 20 years.

Sharks are vulnerable to extinction from overfishing because they have long life spans and low birth rates. It's estimated that 100 million sharks are killed each year, with 73 million of those destroyed through shark finning. Shark finning is the practice of cutting off the fins and dumping the animal back in the ocean to die—only the fins are kept to sell for shark fin soup and medicines across Asia.

Despite the threat to shark populations, in March 2010 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement between governments, failed to accept proposals for regulating trade of the four shark species facing threats.

"The reason the CITES decision is a real disappointment is because it is one of the few international conventions that has a means of enforcement because it works through the trade regulations of each country that is a party," says Jenny Miller Garmendia, executive director of Project AWARE. "So, short-term economic interests won out over the advice of science in a meeting devoted to regulating trade in endangered species."

What Divers Can Do

Why protect sharks? Besides the loss of a majestic animal, as an apex predator their declining numbers already threaten the balance and health of the marine ecosystem. And divers can play a critical role in their survival. "As a group, divers have greater awareness and sensitivity for the underwater world in general, and sharks in particular," says Dr. Drew Richardson, president of PADI Worldwide and chairman of the Project AWARE Foundation. "From refusing to buy shark products, and encouraging friends to boycott them, to reporting violations of shark fishing, divers can use their individual influence, as well as their group voice, to reverse the trend toward shark over-exploitation and extinction."

Recently, Palau and the Maldives, popular shark-diving destinations, have declared their waters as shark sanctuaries. Divers, such as Riker, Robinson and Sawyer, share their love of sharks and capture their grace and power through articles and photographs.

But, to appreciate and protect sharks, nothing is as powerful as the personal experience of diving with sharks in their own habitat. As Robinson, a PADI instructor, encourages dive students: "if you're lucky enough to be in the water with a shark, relax and enjoy the moment—it will be a dive experience you"ll never forget."

CONTACTS: PADI; Project AWARE Foundation.

MARGO MALCOLM is a freelance travel writer based in Victoria, British Columbia.