Is it ethical to swim with sharks?

Great white sharks may be the animal kingdom’s ultimate predator, yet for many people there’s no greater thrill than getting into the water right alongside them. While that might seem strange, in actual fact sharks pose very little risk to humans – in fact, the threat is the other way around, as we kill some 100 million sharks every year. Still, if you want to come face to face and teeth to teeth with a great white shark, Jaws him- or herself, then it would be best to have a set of thick steel bars separating you.

Cage diving with sharks takes place around the world, but the most popular place is South Africa, specifically the stretch of coast south of Cape Town, because here at the meeting point of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans is where you’ll find the world’s largest and most diverse shark population. The harbour village of Gansbaai has a reputation as the ‘world capital of great whites’. You can also cage dive with great whites in Australia, but this tends to be an optional extra on cultural and wildlife tours rather than the focus of a trip.

What do shark cage diving vacations entail?

Cage diving involves being locked inside a metal cage and lowered into the water. The top of the cage is above the surface so that participants, wearing a snorkel and mask, can see the sharks by ducking below the water. The diving cage is one of the best ways that conservationists can study sharks safely.

Our shark diving vacations are mainly focused on South Africa, and either take the form of conservation vacations or more general marine wildlife tours. The best time to go is between June and December, when you may also observe whales. Besides great whites, you may see whale, bull and tiger sharks here, as well as rarer species including puffadder shy sharks and spotted gullies.
On a conservation vacation you’ll be helping to monitor populations by sex, size and markings, and to record behaviours, as well as assisting with boatmanship and engaging with tourists. Wildlife watching vacations can involve up to 15 dives over two weeks, snorkelling, scuba diving and cage diving, as well as on-boat observation. Expert guides and occasionally specialist zoologists accompany these trips, able to interpret behaviours and explain shark biology. They may also visit Mozambique; the tropical waters off Tofo are incredibly rich in marine life.

“The whole project was focused on helping local wildlife and local communities. I helped with research, eco-tourism, beach cleans, put out fishing line bins, cleared alien vegetation and delivered the resulting wood to the local townships, traveled back to Cape Town with an oiled penguin to deliver it to a rescue and rehabilitation center... The list goes on. I planned to stay for 4 weeks, extended to 6 weeks and still didn't want to come home. Need I say more?” – Annabel Marriott in a review of her shark conservation vacation in South Africa

Our top Shark diving Vacation

Shark conservation in South Africa

Shark conservation in South Africa

Conserve sharks, whales and penguins in South Africa

From £829 7 days ex flights
Tailor made:
Trips run anytime throughout the year
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Shark diving or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Is shark cage diving responsible?

We view cage diving with sharks as not dissimilar to swimming near to dolphins and other marine animals. It must be carried out safely and responsibly, with no contact with the animals or deliberate attempts to affect their behaviour, in order to avoid causing harm. Diving with sharks is a large contributor to tourism in South Africa, where the animal has been designated a 'marine tourism species' – a status also enjoyed by whales and seals – meaning it may in no way be impaired or injured. This makes it possible to legally control tourism activities with these animals and disturbances must be reduced to a minimum.

While some shark diving trips are used for carrying out research on shark behaviour and sexing the animals, others are purely a tourist activity, although they often claim to play an educational role. There are things that shark diving companies can do to minimise detrimental effects, such as limiting the number of people diving in one location, preferably some distance from the coast and other areas frequented by people, and providing lessons in shark biology for diving representatives. You can do your part by booking with a responsible operator, and reporting any unethical practices you witness.

Chumming & baiting

There is an issue, however, with the practise of baiting the water to attract sharks, a practice known as ‘chumming’. The idea that a shark can detect a drop of blood in the water from a mile away is a myth, but tipping a bucket full of blood and fish scraps into the ocean is a very effective way to arouse a great white’s interest. There are concerns, however, that it can affect their natural behaviours. Links have also been made between feeding sharks and an increase in shark attacks on humans. Some campaigners are concerned that chumming conditions the sharks to swim closer to shore in search of this regular source of food, which could lead to an increase in attacks on humans.
Many diving operators disagree however. “Chumming has got nothing to do with it," says Michael Rutzen, owner of Shark Diving Unlimited. “We chum with animals that occur naturally. Chum where there are no sharks and you don't get any.” Rutzen adds that shark diving has a vital role to play in educating the public and protecting the great white. “We have to show people these animals to ensure their survival. It's no different from viewing leopards and lions.” This is a view shared with those who believe cage diving with sharks can help to improve the animal’s negative public profile. Ali Hood, director of Britain's Shark Trust, believes that cage diving can serve to educate the public, be educational at the same time as allowing tourists to see a great white up close. The Shark Trust says it has yet to receive compelling evidence to connect shark tourism with an increase in shark attacks and recognises that, in the vast majority of cases, attacks do not take place near shark dive locations.

Our view

Most, but not all of our shark diving trips involve chumming. Sharks would ideally be allowed to approach the cages without enticement but our take is that the benefits clearly outweigh any as yet unproven risks. If the diving is done sensitively, in small numbers and with minimal effect on the marine environment, diving with this misunderstood predator can be a breathtaking experience. In addition, some of the research carried out in cage dives with sharks is valuable for the conservation of these protected species. Diving with sharks can be awe-inspiring for anyone wanting to learn about sharks, contribute to shark conservation, or overcome their fear of ‘Jaws’.

You’ll find shark cage diving trips on our website that use baiting and chumming, as well as others that use different methods such as fake seals to attract the sharks’ attention.

Further reading:
Shark Research Institute
Shark Trust
IUCN Red list of threatened species
Born Free
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Isabel Sommerfeld] [Intro: Elias Levy] [What do shark cage diving vacations entail?: Marco Zanferrari] [Chumming & baiting: Elias Levy]
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