Angry Surfers Say Cage-Diving Changes Great White's Way

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Posted by on September 24, 2005 at 16:16:59:

South African Firms Lure Sharks for Tourists; Equating Man With Food

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Every morning, tourist boats leave the southern Cape coast for a patch of sea called Shark Alley. Off a rocky outcrop populated by seals and washed by crashing waves, the boat crews throw mesh bags of ground-up fish into the water.

Great White sharks soon pick up the scent of blood and start circling. Occasionally shrieking with fear, paying customers climb into a steel cage. They are then lowered into the frigid ocean. Baited by the crew, 10-foot-long sharks arrive, snapping their jaws at the cage railing and raising gnashing teeth above the water.

This shark-diving industry, established in the late 1990s, has become big business on the Cape coast. Drawing in some 35,000 mostly American and European adrenaline junkies a year, shark divers pay some $6.3 million in fees to 12 licensed operators, or as much as $200 a dive, and more for hotel, food and airfare.

But there isn't just fish blood in the water. As the cage-diving industry flourishes, Cape Town beaches -- a Mecca for surfers -- have been hit by a spate of gruesome shark attacks on people. Critics blame the deaths on shark-diving practices such as baiting and chumming, or the throwing of ground fish into the ocean. Cage-dive operators, these critics say, may have taught sharks to associate humans with food, turning the ocean's apex predators into man-eaters.

Amid the outcry, a shark-diving boat was burned here last year, though the motivation for the incident remains unclear. In June, after a lethal shark attack, a coalition of surfers, fishermen, ecologists and sailors demanded the South African government ban chumming and baiting by shark-diving boats. "These people are attracting the sharks to right where we swim," says the group's leader, Craig Bovim. "The reality is that the sharks are rewarded constantly, and so the chances of something going wrong are considerably high."

Mr. Bovim, a 38-year-old owner of an engineering company, knows this firsthand. On Christmas Eve 2002, he was snorkeling off the Cape peninsula, hoping to catch lobsters for dinner. A 5-yard-long Great White shark swam up alongside. As Mr. Bovim blew the air out of his snorkel, producing a sound like a seal's, the shark opened its jaws and lunged for his head. Mr. Bovim instinctively raised his hands. The shark took a generous bite out of both of limbs, leaving Mr. Bovim's right hand snapped in two and flaying back.

Mr. Bovim somehow managed to undo his weight belt and swim to shore, some 50 yards away. After much surgery, he is still only in partial command of his hands. Before entering the water on that Christmas Eve, Mr. Bovim recalls, he laughed off a foreign tourist's question about shark risks. The last confirmed lethal shark attack in Cape Town dated back to 1976. "We were completely unscared," he says.

In 2003, a Great White killed a 19-year-old surfer. A year later, an abalone poacher was bitten to death near Shark Alley, and 77-year-old Tyna Webb was torn apart by a shark in full view of sunbathers at a popular Cape Town beach. In June, medical student Henri Murray was killed by a shark while spear-fishing in nearby waters.

The last two incidents were highly unusual, sparking anger against shark-dive businesses and spurring calls to kill sharks in waters around the city. Most lethal shark encounters occur when the victims are bitten -- often in a case of mistaken identity -- and then die of blood loss and shock; Great Whites usually don't like human flesh. But Ms. Webb and Mr. Murray appear to have been swallowed and digested, with little apart from blood, a red bathing cap and a tattered wetsuit left behind.

"Emotionally, it's a lot harder when people get consumed," says Gregg Oelofse, the Cape Town city government's environmental policy coordinator. "It changes perceptions."

An avid surfer, Mr. Oelofse is part of a working group of officials and academics set up last year to evaluate the effects of cage-diving on shark behavior. Scientists consider sharks to be smart and fast learners. With summer approaching in the southern hemisphere, researchers have already deployed electronic monitors and human shark-spotters to track shark movements around Cape Town to see if these predators are moving closer to the shore and showing an increased interest in bathers. A report that may lead to new regulations is expected next year. So far, Mr. Oelofse says he sees no link between recent shark attacks and practices such as chumming.

The U.S. has taken no such chances. Surfer protests against an operator offering cage-diving with Great Whites off California's Ano Nuevo Island led to a ban on commercial chumming there in 1996. In 2001, Florida also prohibited chumming on dives with relatively docile and smaller nurse sharks. This means South Africa is the only place where encounters with Great Whites can be virtually guaranteed on a daytrip from a major city.

South African shark businesses are eager to preserve this goldmine, painting the controversy as uninformed paranoia. "Every time they try to bite the cage, they taste metal," says Craig Ferreira, owner of White Sharks Projects, one of the 12 South African operators. "If you were conditioning the shark to anything, it's that humans taste like metal."

On a recent trip to Shark Alley aboard the White Pointer catamaran, sharks seemed to enjoy the metal taste. After an hour's sailing, the boat lowered anchor, chum bags fell in the water and tour guide Andre Slabber launched the bait -- a seal likeness made from black tire tube wrapped around a plastic bottle.

"This is Sammy 91," he told the two dozen tourists watching agape. "The 90 other Sammys have died horrible deaths." Sammy had to be used because South Africa earlier this year banned the common practice of using live bait such as tuna heads, seeking to discourage aggressive shark behavior. Operators are also forbidden from actually feeding the sharks, though they can tease them by dangling chum in front of them.

Once the first Great White appeared, customers packed the tiny cage -- which measures about 8 feet by 4 feet -- four people at a time. Most had already filled their vacation with other thrills: bungee jumping, sky diving, jungle safaris. Rough waters murky with fish entrails tossed the divers inside the cage like laundry in a washing machine. With enough space between bars for a head or a limb to poke through, and visibility reduced to less than six feet, the divers bounced against each other for a quarter-hour in the icy waters, trying to keep their extremities inside.

Then the action began. Its fin perking up, the shark made a beeline for the chum bag, seizing a chunk of frozen fish as the crew scrambled to pull the chum out of the water.

Returning moments later, the shark tried to get Sammy the seal, but Mr. Slabber pulled the bait out of danger and close to the cage. Standing above the cage, boat captain Andre Kotze shouted at the squealing tourists: "Keep your hands inside the cage! Keep your hands inside the cage! Shark right in front!"

Nearly smashing into the bars, the shark bit the railing, locking in eye contact with divers inside. Annoyed, it then made a rapid U-turn and lunged toward a white underwater camera that a crew member held from the boat at the end of a long pole. As the man yanked the camera from the water, the shark surged into the air and clenched its jaws, scraping off part of the lens hub before disappearing into the depths.

Regardless of whether chumming changes shark behavior, such close encounters with humans will have consequences, environmentalists and officials warn. "You can't interact with nature without affecting nature," says Mr. Oelofse. "We are affecting things -- we just don't know how."

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