Images emerged last week of a diver reaching out to touch a great white shark on the nose, yet the seemingly daring act has since been condemned as foolhardy, likely illegal, and even potentially dangerous to the animal itself.
The photos in question were taken off Mexico’s Guadalupe Island, one of the world’s busiest hotspots for great white sharks. Moscow-based diver Dmitry Vasyanovich, 47, uploaded the pictures to Facebook according to National Geographic, identifying the dive site in the process. They depict an unidentified diver reaching out of the safety of his protective cage, his hand resting upon the nose of a large great white.
Diver touches great white shark on the nose as fellow diver holds out bait: https://t.co/GvlkRdSQnW pic.twitter.com/Emm7BNWMLM
— ABC News (@ABC) January 25, 2016
The shark in the image is well known to divers in the region, and like many of her species, has even been given a name by the humans that regularly interact with her. Dubbed “Lucy,” according to renowned shark photographer George Probst, this particular shark is a female, and is easily identified by the unique shape of her tail fin. While an observer’s first instinct may be to fear for the diver in Vasyanovich’s photo, shark advocates point out that Lucy may have been in just as much danger, if not more, from the interaction.
Lucy the great white shark is all over the news lately. Here she is without someone’s hand on her snout. pic.twitter.com/aAJVxepSw6
— George T. Probst (@GeorgeProbst) January 27, 2016
Regulations in Mexico strictly control how sharks may be baited by dive companies, prohibiting certain tactics. Divers are told to keep within their cage at all times, and aren’t allowed to feed the great whites. The reasons why are manifold, but in most cases, these regulations are designed not only to protect divers, but also the sharks themselves.
One of the biggest criticisms of cage diving stems from the possible long-term effects of baiting sharks. Critics of the practice have suggested that repeated baiting can teach white sharks to associate humans with easily available food, potentially putting boaters and anglers at risk of attack. Recently, residents of New Zealand’s Stewart Island have asserted that this very process has changed the behavior of their local white shark population, making them more aggressive in their interactions with humans.
— Daily Mirror (@DailyMirror) January 24, 2016
How sharks are lured in is also of paramount importance, as careless bait handling can put the animals at risk of impacting cages. Footage has emerged in the past of white sharks ramming dive cages while chasing bait, or breaking off teeth while inadvertently biting the enclosures. According to shark biologist Dr. Austin Gallagher, these types of interactions irresponsibly put the sharks (as well as divers) in danger.
“The animal can get wedged inside or be damaged by ramming the cage. Nobody should ever encourage this type of behavior. This is one of the dumbest and most dangerous shark interactions I have ever seen. Actions like this by daredevils put the entire industry at risk and I hope those involved are prosecuted by Mexican officials.”
A hungry great white shark! pic.twitter.com/VdR8UZZImn
— Animal Life (@MeetAnimals) January 25, 2016
In the recent photos from Guadalupe Island, the bait used to attract the shark can be seen in close proximity to the divers’ cage. As Earth Touch News Network points out, operators are strictly prohibited from placing bait on or over cages in an attempt to draw sharks in closer. As in many cases, however, people don’t always follow the rules, and according to George Burgess, director of the Florida program for shark research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, that fact could eventually lead to dire consequences.
“Sooner or later one of those guys will lose an arm, and then it will become a shark attack. File this under ‘s’ for stupidity.”
Probst took that assessment a step further, noting that negative interactions between sharks and humans end up altering public perception of these already poorly understood apex predators. As the photographer points out, anytime a diver or swimmer is injured by a great white shark, “everyone loses,” even the animals.
[Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images]