Beware, Shark

Not so much swimming as hovering, I slipped into the school of sharks. There were 18 of them, some as long as 8 feet. “These are big girls,” the dive master had warned us; many were pregnant and thicker than usual. They swam above, below, and around me, so close I could have reached out and touched them. The dive master had advised us not to, a warning that had struck me as bizarre. I mean, really. What idiot would do such a thing?

But now I saw the problem. These Caribbean reef sharks had skin like velvet, dark and rich in the shadows, shiny and pale when it caught the light. They shimmered hypnotically as they moved. I noticed scars, dark healed gashes on their sides and around their jaws, telling stories I couldn’t read—of feeding frenzies, mating rituals, and fishermen. I wanted to touch. The sharks, meanwhile, seemed to register me as an uninteresting object. They came disquietingly close but always turned away from me at the last second. As they swerved, I found myself wishing one would shimmy along my body as she did, gliding in tandem with me for a few moments.

The sharks gave me butterflies, but the truth was that I was probably more of a danger to them than they were to me. For one thing, I was with 14 other humans, some of them fatter and slower than me, giving the sharks considerable choice should they choose to nibble. For another, as sharks go, the Caribbean reef shark is not especially threatening. Just four species of the 410 or so known to science account for most shark attacks on humans, and this wasn’t one of them.

The sharks, on the other hand, would have had a lot to worry about had they been half as anxiety-prone as humans. Our group was shark baiting, one of the most controversial eco-tourism practices in the Caribbean. Sharks, being wild animals, are difficult to procure on command. So many of the hundreds of shark-dive operators around the world tempt the animals with food. At Waihuka Diving, Roatán’s sole shark operation, the dive master took a plastic bucket with holes punctured in the lid and filled it with a small amount of chopped-up fish. The dive master planted the bucket in the sand 20 feet from the coral wall where we kneeled, and the sweet smell of fish guts lured the sharks to school right in front of us. They kept schooling as, at the dive master’s signal, we moved into the fray. My excitement was pure, more real and visceral than I had expected. And, fortunately, immune to the presence of other humans and the artificiality of the setup.

Which brings me back to the bait. In 2001, Florida banned shark feeding in its waters, a move hailed by public-safety officials but also by conservationists. Feeding sharks lowers their natural fear of humans, which makes them easier prey for fishermen. And repeatedly luring them to the same spot makes them easy for fishermen to find.

This is a problem, because more than 100 million sharks are killed by humans every year. Several species are critically endangered, and some have gone extinct within specific regions. Sharks are frequently killed as collateral damage—for instance, by tuna boats in the Pacific. (Your dolphin-safe tuna is not necessarily shark-safe.) Sharks are also a direct target of fishermen, especially for their fins, with escalating demand for shark-fin soup in China and Taiwan. The fins are so valuable that fishermen often cut them off and throw the shark back into the ocean, where it bleeds and sinks to its death.

We humans returned to our places in front of the coral wall, and the dive master, wearing a chain-mail gauntlet, ripped the lid off the bucket of chopped fish. The effect was instantaneous. These lazily graceful creatures were suddenly bullets of muscle. In a matter of seconds they became a writhing, food-focused mass. A single thrash by a single shark looked powerful enough to knock me out.

As the melee ended, the sharks dispersed, trolling the area in wider and wider curves until a few disappeared into the blue. The divers reluctantly began to swim up the anchor line. At 15 feet below the surface, I paused and hung onto the line, floating like a windsock in the current while the nitrogen left my body. For a few minutes, I was able to watch the sharks from above, now just gray silhouettes but still recognizable by the S-curve of their swim.

A fisherman on Roatán can get about $40 for one of these sharks, or $720 for 18. Waihuka gets about $80 per diver, so $960 on this 12-customer dive. They can charge $960 for those same sharks again and again, and the sharks don’t have to die: The resource is renewable. Assuming similar overhead (a boat, an outboard engine, gasoline), shark-watching is more profitable for the locals than shark-fishing, and it conserves nature rather than decimating it.

Doesn’t that make shark diving a good thing? The rosy view of eco-tourism would say we should exploit shark viewing to stop shark fishing. Hire the fishermen as dive masters, and you’ve got a win-win-win for locals, tourists, and sharks. Shark-watch businesses further argue that the more people have happy encounters with the animal, the more public support there will be for researching and protecting it. (The whale-watching industry plausibly advances a similar argument.)

Unfortunately, ecology is a little more complicated. The day before my dive, I had asked James Foley of Roatán Marine Park what he thought about shark baiting. “If you feed sharks, you’re interfering with their natural feeding cycle,” he said. Since they’re the top predators, that messes with the entire food chain. If they eat less of their usual prey, the prey population balloons and eats more of the creatures below it, and so on and so forth. “It sends shock waves through the whole ecosystem,” Foley said. Masses of data and very sophisticated computing are required to get an idea of the ultimate impact, but the point is this: Feed wild beasts with utmost caution, not because of some selfish concern over getting your hand bitten off, but for their sake.

Even knowing what Foley had told me about the food chain, I wanted, post-dive, to side with proponents of shark diving, the ones who say that such cara-a-cara encounters will teach man to love the beast. After I surfaced, and for some time afterward, I would close my eyes and try to re-imagine myself back down to the reef, envisioning their skin and their scars and re-tasting the frisson. Not many experiences in adult life make me want to do that.