I wrote a blog recently, twenty minutes ago to be specific, about the various threats to sharks and how these threats are having a very serious impact on their global population. At this point, with threats like shark finning, shark fishing derbies, illegal fishing, and by-catch, not to mention a number of television series continuing to perpetuate an unjustified fear of sharks, sharks need all the help they can get. I listed a number of ways in which everyone, no matter where you live, can help in the protection of sharks. One of those things was to go snorkeling with sharks so as to provide a financial incentive to keep them alive. Now, if you’ve ever seen sharks while snorkeling you’ve most likely noticed that they are very shy and will often swim away from you leaving you with only a fleeting glance of their backside. Something that has become popular—and slightly controversial at the same time—in diving and snorkeling destinations worldwide is the introduction of bait into the water as a means to bring these lovely and highly intelligent animals in closer for longer. I know what you’re thinking, why would you ever put dead fish in the water with sharks!? Well, it’s not exactly what it seems.
Sharks have an excellent sense of smell, and one of their favorite smells is blood, and not just any blood, fish blood specifically. Shark’s sensory thingies (clearly I’m not a scientist) are so advanced that they can tell the difference between fish blood and other types of blood, such as human or mammal blood. There have been a number of tests on this exact topic where scientists have built a device that would dribble mammal blood into a sharkie area, while at the same time just a few meters away an identical device dribbles fish blood into the water, and guess which one the sharks unanimously went after? Fish blood was the clear winner with the sharks, while only a couple passed by but showed no real interest in the mammal blood slurry. So, in knowing this, it’s essentially safe to be in the water as a human even though there are a number of sharks drawn in by the smell of dead fish. I say “essentially” as sharks are wild animals, not to mention apex predators. Activities such as this need to be approached with caution and carried out under the direction and supervision of professionals. That being said, statistically, you are more at risk of being bitten or even killed by a doggie than you do a shark, by a pretty massive margin.
- 30-50 People are killed by dogs each year in the USA
- 1 person is killed by a shark every two years on average in the USA
So, how do baited shark encounters typically work? Well, it sort of depends on the species of shark, but one method used for more pelagic species like mako sharks, blue sharks, and silky sharks is to pack a bunch of dead fish into a PVC tube with a bunch of holes drilled into the sides, close it off at both ends and drop it into the water with the device attached to the boat via a rope. Two milk crates fastened together will also do the trick, as will a purpose-built metal box.
Then you wait for the fish blood to disperse from the porous receptacle, and with a bit of luck, some sharks will pick up on the scent and follow it back to the boat. In most of these instances, the sharks are not being fed at all, they are just drawn in by the smell and as a result, it keeps the sharks more docile and predictable. Should you start to actually feed the sharks, it can create a bit of a frenzy and things can get a bit more unpredictable. We have run several trips like this in Mexico in 2019 and 2022, where the crew drew the sharks in with the smell of dead fish, and it was a blast. Guests were face to face with big beautiful blue sharks and mako sharks, sharks not otherwise seen by people as they spend their entire lives roaming the open blue ocean.
Another way to attract sharks in for a closer view is to use the same Swiss cheese PVC tube method, but this time put it on the sand close to a reef. Guests can then just float around this highly sophisticated shark attraction device and watch as the reef sharks come in for a closer look. Now, this isn’t something we do on any old snorkeling session. We have only ever done this when one of the marine biologists from the resort or liveaboard has set it up as a way to count the sharks in the area via the drone we send up. As you can imagine, it’s difficult to count sharks on a reef as they come and go quickly and it can be hard to tell which one was which after a while. So, by using this method—the Swiss Cheese Tube Drone Method—the shark expert can attract all the sharks into one area and then snap photos as they congregate. This method will provide a much more accurate count of how many sharks there are in the area. Boom! Science!
Where does the controversy over baited shark encounters come from? Anytime you manipulate wildlife, even if it is has been proven to not have any impact on the animals, it’s bound to draw a bit of controversy. It’s very easy to say that by feeding sharks you are associating food with people and provoking attacks. Or, you could say that by feeding sharks you are interrupting their migratory patterns. Both of these are very valid points and ones I used to harbor and still do at times. Over the years though, I’ve also spent a lot of time around sharks in baited and unabated situations and I’ve also spent a lot of time around shark experts and asked these very same questions to them. Here’s what I’ve come to understand.
- As long as people can fish recreationally, people will be engaging in shark-feeding habits, and therefore “creating that link” between people and food. The physical act of pulling up a struggling and bloodied fish from the bottom of the ocean is oh-so enticing to sharks, as is the act of gutting the fish and tossing the remains overboard. Snorkeling and diving with sharks in baited situations is a very similar situation, only one is intentional and controlled, and one is not so much. The fishing one is the “not so much” one, just so we’re all clear about that. The end result is the same though, even with all the people interacting with sharks surrounded by the smell of dead fish, in 2022, board sports like surfing accounted for 32% of all shark bites in the US, while snorkeling and spearfishing only accounted for 9% of all shark bites. This once again proves the point that sharks are super good smellers and know exactly what they want to eat, fish, not people.
- Sharks are highly intelligent animals, and so far as I know, those that do have migratory patterns will not deviate from their heavily engrained ancestral programming. If you are really into sharks and start investigating the best time of the year to have predictable encounters with them, there’s a very specific season that is species and location-specific. For example, mako sharks and blue sharks will only turn up in the Sea of Cortez during the winter months, after that they are essentially gone no matter how much fish blood you put in the water. The same goes for a number of other migratory shark species like hammerheads, great whites, tiger sharks, whalesharks, and silky sharks in different shark destinations around the world.
I was very much against any type of shark feeding for a long time, but once I realized all the different things that threatened shark’s actual existence on our planet and learned of all the good that could come from shark tourism activities such as baited shark encounters, with little to no impact on the sharks, I began to change my mind. Not only that, but by using bait to bring sharks closer to us scientists are able to understand and study more about the sharks as many species of sharks would never otherwise be seen at all as they will avoid human interactions entirely. Yes, it’s not a completely 100% natural encounter when you use bait, but it’s also not far off. The sharks are doing what they would do naturally, investigating an enticing smell, only now we’re able to observe them up close.