Swimming with sharks may make people less fearful of them study shows
Australian researchers have found that people who cage-dive with sharks are more likely to support their conservation. The finding was a little unexpected, given that 36 people were killed in shark encounters in Australian waters between 1997 and 2017. The fear of a shark attack keeps many people out of the ocean and has thwarted attempts at their conservation.
However travellers who jump into a cage for the chance to look a shark straight in the eye were found to have experienced an emotional engagement with the apex predators which increased their understanding, awareness and concern for sharks.
The study, Turning wildlife experiences into conservation action: Can white shark cage-dive tourism influence conservation behaviour? investigated the attitudes and environmental behaviour of 136 tourists after a cage-dive experience. They were surveyed after cage-diving with white sharks (formerly known as great white sharks) at the Neptune Islands Group Marine Park in South Australia.
The researchers, from Flinders University and Southern Cross University, found that shark eco-tourism experiences have the potential to enhance participants' knowledge, attitude and behaviour towards sharks, and support their conservation.
According to project leader, Kirin Apps, “many are surprised by their experience. They come with the idea that it’s going to be a scary experience, but they get out of the water and use words such as beautiful, peaceful and majestic; words they wouldn’t usually associate with sharks. There was a lot of respect for these animals once they saw them in the wild. Their emotional connection through engagement was one of the big things that changed their ideas about sharks. Having people speak positively about sharks is beneficial to conservation."
Shark tourism is worth more than AUS$25 million (US$17.8 million) to the Australian economy and advocates say tourism ventures can increase public awareness of the threats to global shark populations and garner support for their conservation.
According to Associate Professor Charlie Huveneers, head of the Southern Shark Ecology Group at Flinders University and one of the report’s authors, “sharks play important ecological roles in marine ecosystems, and improving human perception is key to increasing conservation awareness and behaviour.”