I was on a snorkeling expedition in Bora Bora, preparing to jump into its impossibly blue ocean waters — the very waters which I knew to be filled with sharks.
Now, I was with a seasoned crew, the InterContinental Thalasso had arranged it as one of their “Insider Experiences” — and an insider is certainly what you want for such an occasion.
I’m not really known for my sangfroid, but I wasn’t particularly nervous. I’d never seen a shark outside an aquarium, so I was excited. Plus I’ve always find that ocean snorkeling offers a comforting sense of detachment – when your mouth is stretched around your breathing tube, there’s only the faint anodyne taste of salt, and the sound of your breath like Darth Vader, all other sounds transformed into a tactile rather than a heard sensation. Whatever passes before your mask seems to be behind glass, in the palpable density of water. Unless someone or something is brushing right up against you, it seems quite safely distant.
Once we’d all clambered down the ladder, one of the crew threw a yellow rope into the water, another attached it to the anchor line. We were asked us to grip on and keep our bodies behind it.
From the boat, fish, hacked into pieces, hit the water. In moments, the blue water delivered a group of black-tipped reef sharks. These sharks are not that big – perhaps three feet. Their fins look dipped in black ink and these had yellow spots on their dorsal fin as well, which meant that they were on the younger side. I watched them feed. After a while, I looked down and that there were much larger sharks beneath me, well below the surface. They were swimming slowly. These are lemon sharks, later learned were lemon sharks, typically eight to ten feet long. Since it was day time, they were sleeping — they swim in their sleep to keep water flowing over their gills. But if you go into these same waters on a night dive, these sharks move fast, prowling.
The practice of throwing fish into the water so that tourists can have a shark encounter is called “chumming”. It’s controversial, as the feeding of any wild creature would be – it affects their normal feeding behaviors. There’s also a problem that’s almost always theoretical in the case of sharks, which is that the animals then associate people with food, which can lead to mishap. Hollywood to the contrary, any instance of a shark attack is a misunderstanding on the part of the shark – a shark doesn’t really want to eat a person, a shark doesn’t crave a new taste sensation. Shark attacks are shark mistakes – it takes a bite to see what sort of fish or seal you are and when it turns out you’re not a nice tasting seal at all, the shark leaves.
Unfortunately, that single bite may also leave you permanently dead.
But again, this is unbelievably rare. I have read that there is a better chance of getting electrocuted by your Christmas lights. (The reason the rope was in the water, in fact, was to keep us snorkelers clear of the fish – lest a fish chunk hit a shoulder or an arm, leading a shark to take more than its share for a snack.)
In any event, these sharks were completely uninterested in their rapt audience.
A couple of days later, while I was on a Paul Gauguin cruise, docked off the island of Moorea, I lept at the opportunity to go on another shark snorkel. This time, the water was only up to my waist, and as clear as a crystal pitcher. The rope was thrown again, and the chumming , but this time the number of black-tipped reef sharks was impressive – more than a dozen, perhaps as many as 20. I grabbed onto the rope, and the sharks came quite near. I could see right into their expressionless silvery eyes, and got a good look at the dark pilot fish swimming with its fin on the shark’s belly, ready to snatch up any shark leftovers.
It had been stormy the night before, and the current was pushing me into the sharks. As I tried to maneuver my body backwards, but when I twisted around, I saw sharks there too — very close to my kicking feet. I looked forward again: a shark whipped around to get the fish thrown at him, and I could see its teeth. That snapped my illusion of distance, of detachment. My stomach knotted and I felt that primal “get me the hell out of here.” I returned to the boat.
Of course, sharks are predators and they can be dangerous.
But the reality is human are not their natural prey, and we are much more dangerous to them than they are to us. The number of shark attacks each year is very small, at the same time, the number of sharks fished or worse, finned – pulled from the water, their fin hacked off for food, and the body returned to die – is huge.
- Up to 73 million sharks are killed for their fins, valued for the Asian delicacy “shark fin soup.”
- Some shark populations along the eastern U.S. coast, such as scalloped hammerheads and dusky sharks, have plummeted by as much as 80 percent since the 1970s.
- Several species of sharks, such as the porbeagle and spiny dogfish, are also fished for their meat – a staple of the fish-and-chips dish served in Europe.
Today, the Maldives banned shark fishing, the second nation to have done this – after Palau. Both are diving destinations, both realize that sharks are worth more alive and in the water where tourists can come see them, than in a fishing net. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is meeting now in Doha, Qatar, and shark conservation is an important part of the conversation. In the US, a shark conservation bill, which would severaly limit finning, has passed the house and is awaiting its turn in the Senate. (One hopes that shark health will be an easier sell than human health.)
Honestly, even if I’d never gotten into the water with sharks, I would be philosophically inclined to want this bill to pass.
But the fact that I saw sharks and swam with them and yes, even got a little panicked by them, was an important part of making me care about it even more. Travel is supposed to be a social good because, as a certain Mark Twain once said, it’s fatal to prejudice. I’m not sure that’s always true, but I do think that travel always stimulates curiosity, by making some part of the unknown world immediate. Before I left French Polynesia, I made sure to catch a documentary about sharks, which I probably wouldn’t have made a special effort to see before. It’s made me closely follow the shark conservation story.
I say all this because it’s hard for an amateur to see sharks without chumming. I understand that the disruption of eating patterns is no small thing, that it’s not what you’d want, ideally speaking, for a shark population. But at the same time, I’ve got to believe that the costs of chumming are probably more than worth the gain in shark awareness.