So who's the shark?
Oct 3, 2010 12:00 AM | By Tiara Walters
A shark activist believes cage-diving is changing the way great whites view humans - and that the consequences could be dire
MISUNDERSTOOD: Tourists should be encouraged to watch sharks prey on seals rather than take part in cage-diving, argues a conservationist
They're going to associate you with food
Don't expect directions or an appointment time when you visit anyone in Scarborough, the southernmost settlement on the west coast of Africa. That's so GP.
"Look 4 a strange house full of strange-looking people with a weird dog. Any time's fine if not at home ona beach," is pretty much all Craig Bovim, a contracting engineer and anti-shark-cage-diving activist, sent me by way of directions before our interview.
On Christmas eve of 2002, however, the peace that normally permeates this Cape Peninsula surfers' village ruptured into a rumpus of chopper blades, flashing cameras and scribbling reporter pens when Bovim was savaged by a 4m great white shark while skin-diving for crayfish - just 50m off Scarborough beach. It took two years of reconstructive surgery and occupational therapy to rehabilitate Bovim's arms and hands.
"I've never entertained the thought that the attack was linked to cage-diving," he remembers as we sit around his kitchen table. "The shark had been severely injured and the attack was simply opportunistic."
The incident did, however, get him thinking about the way humans interact with sharks, and led him to found the lobby group Shark Concern in 2004, which has consistently called for a moratorium on chumming - the practice of lobbing fish oil on the water to lure sharks towards tourists in submerged cages. While South Africa's cage-diving fraternity insist their methods are 100% safe, the debate simply refuses to die. Bovim's views have turned him into something of an international cause célèbre, regularly sought out by major media houses like Outside magazine.
"If you're going to keep rewarding animals in the Pavlovian sense, they're going to associate you with food - which is why you never taunt, bait or feed a wild animal. It's one of the basic tenets of ecotourism and yet cage-diving flouts this all the time," he says.
Cage-diving operators say sharks do not recognise humans when they are shielded by a boat or cage; that they don't feed sharks; and that the ocean's apex predators have never evolved to incorporate people into their diet - if they had, there would be daily carnage in the Western Cape's bathing waters, where there are no shark nets.
Bovim counters: "Once a shark has picked up the chum scent and approaches the boat, the operator will use some bait to wrangle it closer to the cage ... then pull it away just before the shark bites. But this takes a huge amount of skill, and every now and then the shark will get it. So sharks are rewarded with food.
"Great whites also have very well-developed faculties such as electro-sensing, which means they don't have to see you to know you are there and to become used to your imprint - even when you are in a cage."
Bovim believes that all sharks, which take a long time to reach sexual maturity and only produce a few pups at a time, are vulnerable to overfishing. He also takes issue with the fact that some cage-diving operators exploit smaller sharks for their liver - "a powerful attractant for great white sharks. I've heard the liver of the sevengill shark, a threatened species, is a favourite target - and these people call themselves eco-tourism operators?"
The only way to proceed, he says, is to follow the precautionary principle - if in any doubt that your actions are going to harm the environment, you stop what you are doing.
"This is how, in 1991, for instance, South Africans became the first nation to protect the great white shark, simply because we invoked the precautionary principle," he said.
Without a viable shark eco-tourism industry, however, South Africa's sharks, of which 36 are threatened or data-deficient species, could lose their commercial value - and potentially bear the brunt of declining incentives to protect them.
"Sharks have had a very bad press and they do need friends - cage-diving, even as it stands, helps people love sharks and see how beautiful they are. It gives them a value and it's a money spinner for low-income communities," Bovim says.
"But there is another way, which is already exploited by some cage-diving operators - watching dawn and dusk shark predations on Cape fur seals at Seal Island in False Bay.
"It's an ideal location for this type of tourism as the island drops steeply into the ocean, which means the seals are particularly vulnerable when they enter the water. The sharks here will often come shooting from the depths of the sea like a rocket. It's a breathtaking thing to watch."
Bovim's proposals to phase out cage-diving and broaden it into predation tourism would be viable only in the winter months between May and October when seals are fatter, more desirable shark quarry. However, South Africa's whale-watching season extends only between June and November and yet it draws tourists from all over the world, who are only too delighted to view the leviathans of the seas from a distance.
"Let's steer the shark-tourism industry closer to that over the next 10 years," says Bovim, who claims he has "set up several appointments that were never honoured" and has written many letters over the past six years to "all the right people in government - and yet I keep walking into red tape".
"But that's environmental activism for you," Bovim says. "It requires a lot of hard work, tough skin and continually banging your head to try and get somewhere."http://www.timeslive.co.za/sundaytimes/ ... -the-shark