Tall tales about sharks have made people afraid of these creatures. Contrary to belief, not all sharks bite and those that can bite feed on fishes and not on divers. Reports of shark attacks are often a result of accidents rather than the deliberate pursuit of divers.
Each year an estimated 200,000 divers intentionally enter the water to swim with sharks. The majority of these people have neither a death wish nor any special training or talent for shark combat. Quite the contrary, they are average, normal people who represent the full spectrum of our society. Their ranks are comprised of doctors, accountants, housewives, dentists, secretaries, honeymoon couples, grandmothers and many other people you would not ordinarily envision as risk-takers.
To those unacquainted with diving or shark diving, the most often heard question is “Don’t you worry about getting bitten?” The answer is “No.” And, there are some very good reasons why.
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To understand why sharks don’t bite divers, you must first understand the big picture of the shark world. There are presently 331 documented species of sharks – far more diversity than upright, walking bipeds (that’s us humans).
This immense diversity of species would lead you to the logical conclusion that not all sharks are the same – and you would be right. There are big sharks, tiny sharks, sharks exclusive to certain regions, sharks with different diets and sharks with distinct behavior characteristics.
The basic reason divers are not bitten by sharks is that divers possess knowledge – the ability to recognize individual species, interpret their behavior and understand what to do.
It’s a little bit like learning to drive an automobile safely. The first rule you are taught is to stay on your side of the road (right hand lane in the U.S.) because driving head on into oncoming traffic could be detrimental to your health. Armed with this important bit of knowledge, driving an automobile can be almost as safe as shark diving.
To better understand shark diversity, let’s examine a few of the basic shark groups.
SHARKS THAT CANNOT BITE
There are actually sharks that cannot bite divers because they have no teeth. Ironically, these non-biting sharks turn out to be the largest members of the shark kingdom – the Whale Shark and the Basking Shark. Both species are mammoth (40 to 60 feet long) and plankton eaters. Their diet consists of tiny creatures suspended in the water in huge clouds. These giant sharks have mouths the size of a garage door and open them wide to gulp thousands of gallons of water, filtering out the tiny plankton while expelling the water through their gills. In other words, these giant sharks have no teeth and are incapable of biting anything. They are as docile as butterflies.
On the other hand, the Whale Shark is one of the superstars of shark diving. Despite its size, this great fish has a very mellow disposition. It often allows divers to swim alongside or hang on to its giant dorsal fin. The Whale Shark appears curious and will often approach a dive boat just to see what is going on.
SHARKS THAT WILL NOT BITE
There are certain times and certain species of sharks that appear totally disinterested in biting anything. A good example of this phenomenon is the schooling Hammerheads seen at Coco island, the Northern Galapagos, Malpelo Island and in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.
No one is quite sure why Hammerhead Sharks form giant schools and swim together for such long periods. It could be a mating ritual or social interaction or both. The point is that these large Hammerhead schools are totally disinterested in feeding. Divers can swim among them – and have, for decades – in total safety.
There are other species of sharks that seem to be controlled by time cycles. A number of shark species are night feeders. When encountered during the day, these sharks pose no threat because their feeding mode is switched off.
SHARKS THAT BITE
There are, of course, many species of sharks capable of biting and they will bite in very specific situations. The most important factor here is that sharks will generally give you warning before attempting to bite. Divers learn how to read this body language and know exactly how to deal with the situation.
Identification of the shark species and knowledge about their body language are the keys to staying out of trouble. Sharks generally attack for very specific reasons – defense of their territories, defense of chosen mates, harassment or abuse, spearfishing situations and so on. Recognizing the situation and taking appropriate measures is not as difficult as it might sound.
WHAT SHARKS REALLY WANT
If there are sharks that can bite (and we all know there are), how is it that divers can go into the water and actually feed these sharks without being bitten? Shark feeding dives are conducted every day of the year, with more than 100,000 divers observing this incredible activity at very close range. Quite often the sharks buzz in between and over the heads of the divers who are watching. How is that possible?
Quite simply, the sharks have no interest in the divers – they are after the food. Most sharks have a fairly specific normal diet. They love chunks of fish or whole fish that are fairly small. When confronted by a diver or a chunk of fish, the shark will always go for the fish.
Any contact between the shark and the. diver is purely accidental and the result of a clumsy pursuit for the food. On many occasions, I have seen sharks bump into divers as they race for the fish – desperately trying to capture the food before another shark gets it. Was the diver hurt in any way? No, but you can say it is quite a thrill!
What few people realize is that sharks possess a level of intelligence that could be compared to that of a dog or cat. Yes, they are trainable. Sharks often recognize the divemasters who feed them on a daily basis. When the feeding session begins, the sharks, like excited puppies, will focus their attention on the feeder and his/her body language.
In other words, the diver who controls the food also controls the action of the sharks. The feeders can raise the tempo and intensity of the shark feeding session by offering more food or they can reduce the tempo to absolute calm, casual shark cruising by withholding the food.
Even when you are in the middle of one of these shark feeding sessions, it is always amazing to realize that the sharks are intelligent enough to know the difference between humans and the shark food.
Based on the one million or more encounters between sharks and divers, we can say that, under normal circumstances, sharks don’t bite divers.
It has only been in the last ten years that we have begun to understand and appreciate these beautiful creatures. At this point there are still more questions, and surprises, than there are answers. One thing we have learned is that sharks and humans can coexist in the sea.