We spend a lot of time here debunking sensationalised great white shark encounters, but this one, filmed in 2015 off the South African coast, was very genuinely terrifying. It was also completely avoidable.
The footage, filmed in the shark hotspot of Gansbaai, was scooped up by Newsflare recently, and subsequently shared by major media outlets. While the reports certainly mention the screaming divers and chomping teeth, one important fact slips under the radar: this dive outfit broke the local code of conduct by baiting over the cage.
There's a reason hanging bait on (or directly over) the cage is illegal in shark-tourism hubs like Mexico's Guadalupe Island: the tactic prompts sharks to charge towards the cage bars. We've seen this happen time and time again.
The recipe for a risky shark encounter is simple: dangle food in front of a top predator, wait for a triggered hunting response and pull the food directly towards a human jack-in-the-box. This is unnecessary at best, and dangerous at worst – and not just for divers. Great whites are hardy animals, but ramming into or wedging between cage bars can injure or drown them.
Even during this intense interaction, the shark isn't after a piece of human flesh. Once it tears off a piece of the hang bait (likely tuna steak), it clearly moves along. Still, this kind of encounter can get ugly very quickly.
"I think it's safe to say we got more than we bargained for," one of the divers wrote online.
Over-cage hang baiting has yet to be prohibited under law in South Africa, but it is specifically outlined and forbidden in cage-diving permit regulations. Multiple transgressions can lead to an outfit losing its license. So why do it?
While it's easy to shift all the blame to dive operators, divers also have control over the type of underwater experience they seek out. It's entirely possible to have a phenomenal shark dive without risking harm to wildlife – or yourself. When booking, ask the operators about their policies.
As a general rule:
Avoid outfits that bait on or over the cage, allow touching, feeding or riding, or advertise adrenaline-packed close encounters. Instead, look for outfits that bait responsibly (more on that here), participate in shark research and advertise safe encounters.
Earlier this month, the WWF released a comprehensive guide to responsible shark diving. While the guide is designed for dive operators, it's also a great resource for anyone looking to select a company. (Learn more about the guide in this Southern Fried Science post from shark biologist Dr David Shiffman.)
Top header image: Shutterstock