It's easy to be mesmerised by daring photographs of wildlife, but all too often, these eye-catching images are the result of “humans behaving badly". The most recent example comes to us from Mexico's Guadalupe Island, and shows a diver reaching out to touch a great white shark during a cage dive.
Every year, some of the largest great whites on earth make their way to Guadalupe's blue waters. In fact, this is the same location where the famed “Deep Blue” was last spotted. The spectacle draws quite a crowd, with everyone from researchers, to divers and photographers jumping in for a closer look. It can be an incredible experience – but there are also rules that must be followed.
We understand the desire to show sharks as something other than bloodthirsty killers, but the diver in these snapshots is doing something that's both dangerous and illegal – a fact that many media outlets have neglected to mention.
The biggest red flag here is the position of the bait. While some dive operations are permitted to bait the water during a dive, baiting over or on the cage is strictly prohibited.
“Like in many places, people don’t follow the rules – which aren’t even necessarily for their own protection, but that of the animals,” says shark biologist Dr Christopher Lowe.
It’s pretty easy to understand how reaching for a 2,500lb (1,133 kg) animal could pose a threat to a diver, but as shark biologist Dr Austin Gallagher explains, even sharks this large can be injured during such interactions when they lunge for the bait.
“The animal can get wedged inside or be damaged by ramming the cage,” Gallagher says. “Nobody should ever encourage this type of behaviour. This is one of the dumbest and most dangerous shark interactions I have ever seen. Actions like this by daredevils put the entire industry at risk and I hope those involved are prosecuted by Mexican officials.”
Alarmingly, the same dive operator was seen encouraging similar behaviour several years ago.
While shark behaviour doesn’t follow the Jaws trope we know so well, it's important to remember that these are still wild, unpredictable animals.
“White sharks do not seek the touch of humans,” says predator prey ecologist Michelle Jewell. “That feeling of awe when you see a white shark is not mutual. They have a very limited set of behaviours they can employ to tell you that you are too close – and most involve teeth.”
In this case, though, the shark wasn't necessarily going for the diver. Touching the snout of a shark can elicit an instinctual mouth-gaping response. It’s reactionary, but not always aggressive, and often happens much more slowly than photographs suggest. Apex predators aren’t used to being touched by anything, let alone humans, and they rely on their mouths to investigate their surroundings or unfamiliar objects.
While some might argue that images like these can help dispel long-standing myths about sharks, this is certainly not the right way to go about achieving that noble goal.
“When footage like this gets out, it gets attention and encourages more people to do it. As the old saying goes: 'It’s all fun and games until someone gets their arm bitten off!' The next handsy fellow might not be so lucky, and an incident like that would likely close down those operations," warns Lowe.
Renowned shark photographer George T. Probst agrees. “It's easy to get caught up in the moment when photographing wildlife," he explains. "However, I can definitely say that it's possible to capture photos of white sharks at Guadalupe while staying within the boundaries of the regulations, and I believe conservation-based wildlife photographers have a responsibility to the animals they are documenting."
The unfortunate reality is that any negative interactions can greatly impact public perception of these threatened animals. "At the end of the day if someone is injured by a shark, everyone loses," says Probst.
Top header image: George T. Probst/used with permission