Shark tourism is a form of eco-tourism rooted in having communities appreciate that local shark species are more valuable alive than dead. Instead of opting for a one time economic benefit of harvesting sharks for their body parts, communities are made to assist interested tourists who may want to see live sharks. Many divers and people are involved in interest groups such as the late iDive Sharks Network that aim to celebrate and promote safe and responsible shark diving activities.
Shark tourism is divided into 4 main branches. Viz:
- Great White sharks - surface viewing in cages mainly.
- Tigers, Bulls Oceanic White Tips, and other less harmful [but potentially dangerous]sharks - in open - offshore water and referred to as Pelagic diving.
- Ragged Tooth / Sand Tiger / Grey Nurse sharks who tend to congregate on certain reefs and wrecks at specific times of the year.
- Basking and Whale sharks - Harmless plankton feeders.
Great White Shark viewing is available at the Neptune Islands in South Australia, South Africa, Isla Guadalupe in Mexico, and New Zealand - where Great White sharks are viewed using shark cages to keep the diver safe. Except for I Guadalupe where because of the exceptional visibility underwater more outside the cage diving is done than anywhere else.
The Great White industry was founded in the 1970s by pioneer Australian diver and Great White victim Rodney Fox in South Australia. He was the sole world-wide operator until the South African industry was founded in early 1989 by Pieter van der Walt. He was joined shortly thereafter by pioneer diver and underwater photographer George Askew who handled promotions and put South African cage diving "on the map" with the publicity he got - until they split in Jan 1992, after they, together with famous Australian divers, Ron and Valerie Taylor, did the world's first dive amongst Great White sharks without a cage and completely un-protected.
This 'Frontier Pushing' dive was directly responsible for the upsurge in Shark Tourism – esp free-diving (i.e. Out of cage) swimming with big sharks. When would be operators around the world became aware of these 4 mad people who proved that the Great White was quite approachable and not likely to attack – thought that then maybe all the other 'Bad Boy' sharks like Tigers, Bulls and Oceanics were safe to swim with too. This proved to be the case and shark tourism has become a multimillion-dollar a year industry.
The Bahamas is a favourite region for Category 2 sharks. Whilst divers in the Bahamas experience Reef Sharks and Tiger Sharks while they are hand-fed. Isla Guadalupe located in Mexico has been named a Bio-Sphere Reserve in an effort to control the shark diving activities there. Although the practice of shark diving proves to be controversial, it has been proven very effective in attracting tourists. Whale Sharks, while not traditionally harvested for their fins but are sometimes harvested for their meat, have also benefited from Shark Tourism because of snorkelers getting into the water with the gentle giants. In the Philippines snorkelers must maintain a distance of four feet from the sharks and there is a fine and possible jail time for anyone who touches the animals.
All manner of Reef Shark species are prevalent at the many shark feeding dives within the Pacific Region. Grey Reef sharks are the main diners in places such as the Great Barrier Reef, Micronesia and Tahiti. Silvertips and Black Tips Reef Sharks tend to be more seen around the PNG coastlines. Bull Sharks are around Mexico, Playa del Carmen in particular.
Passive and active forms of shark tourism are believed to conserve the species by generating commercial value to their lives in the natural world. In North Carolina wreck divers regularly visit the WWII shipwrecks to dive with the Sand Tiger sharks that make the wrecks their home.
Tourism providers often provide food to attract sharks to areas where they can be more easily viewed, although this is controversial. In Australia's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, shark feeding is prohibited.
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