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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 four main branches:
- Great white sharks - surface viewing in cages mainly
- Tiger, bull, oceanic whitetip, and other less harmful (but potentially dangerous) sharks - in the pelagic zone
- Sand tiger 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
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 Isla 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 attack survivor 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 unprotected.
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 four 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 Oceanic's were safe to swim with too. This proved to be the case and shark tourism has become a multi-million-dollar a year industry.
Tiger, bull and oceanic white tip
The Bahamas is a favorite 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 World War II 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 and the states of Hawaii and Florida shark feeding is prohibited. Hawaii had several issues with the banning of shark feeding. The initial law that prohibited it was passed in 2002, but many locals realized the tour companies were not following this law and pushed for stricter enforcement.
Shark tourism in Hawaii
Sharks, or "mano" as they are called by the local Hawaiians, are viewed as sacred. Early Hawaiians worshiped and protected the sharks which they saw as family gods or "aumaka". In recent years, shark cage diving has become a very profitable tourist attraction in the state. Native Hawaiians were not pleased with this at first due to the fact that the companies were luring in the sharks using bait; they viewed these animals as sacred and feeding them for entertainment was said to be unjust. There was also speculations that by feeding them, the sharks would begin to associate the boats and humans with food. For this reason, a bill was passed in Hawaii in 2002 that banned the feeding of sharks in state waters, which is about 3 miles off shore.
Ningaloo Marine Park
Ningaloo Marine Park in Western Australia is the site of an annual whale shark aggregation. This site is a very popular tourist site, as whale sharks are incredibly gentle creatures that pose very little threat to humans. Introduced in 1997 and revised to its current version in 2013, the Department of Parks and Wildlife is responsible for a whale shark management program designed to protect the whale shark species and regulate human interaction with them.
The shark tourism industry is meant to educate and increase awareness of the natural environment as well as generate profits for the local people. The whale shark management program of Ningaloo Marine Park relies on the Conservation and Land Management Act of 1984 (CALM Act) and the Wildlife Conservation Act of 1950. The CALM Act requires tour operators to obtain a commercial tourist activity licence, and the Wildlife Conservation Act requires a wildlife interaction licence for each protected species a tour may come in contact with. This includes the whale sharks but is not limited to whales, other shark species, and dugongs. Under these laws, the Western Australian government is able to regulate how tourists interact with whale sharks and to what extent. A maximum of 15 operators are allowed to obtain licences at a given time. In addition, only one tour vessel is allowed to travel to the whale sharks while the rest must stay 250 metres away. Only ten swimmers are allowed in the water at a time, which controls the crowding of the area, and tourists are prohibited from feeding or touching the whale sharks.
Whale sharks are considered a vulnerable species and have been targeted by fishermen for many years. In Ningaloo Marine Park, they are entirely protected. The whale sharks in the area are considered highly valuable in the ecotourism industry, as the industry provides numerous jobs to local people and brings in $12 million USD annually. Tourist interest in wildlife tourism continues to grow, and the whale shark tourism industry is expected to increase through the year 2020.
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