The shark cage diving community at Guadalupe took a hit this week after two separate incidents at the island off Mexico. Both accidents were cage breaches, and the latter accident has gone viral, with millions of hits showing a great white shark stuck in a cage. And, we later discovered, a diver cowering just below the frightened creature.
Not surprisingly, sceptics of diving with great white sharks have jumped on the videos. Some say the dive operators are at fault, while others claim folks have no business diving with great white sharks in the first place.
And heck, someone made a totally creepy film about a cage diving accident with white sharks called 47 Meters Down.
With all this in mind, you’re probably wondering: is shark cage diving a good idea? For reasons I’ll outline, I stand by shark cage diving in California, both as a bucket list experience and for the greater good of the sharks it celebrates. Let’s take a moment to look at both incidents, and why the happened, and what they mean to the industry in general.
Two Accidents in a Month
Generally speaking, the Guadalupe shark diving scene has an excellent safety record. To my knowledge, no one has been injured while cage diving with great white sharks in Mexico (or the other hotspots of Australia and South Africa) as of 2018. This despite the much riskier practice of cageless shark diving, which, I feel, is pushing the boundaries of what shark diving should do.
The first incident: The accident getting the most press is the latter of the two. On October 4th, a great white shark swam towards and bit the tuna bait floating beside a group of cage divers. Unfortunately, the shark had too much momentum to stop, and inadvertently swam into an opening in the cage, and got stuck.
The dive master promptly opened the top hatch on the cage and the shark managed to shake itself free after a good 10 seconds trapped inside.
The shark is clearly bleeding as it escapes from the cage, and emerges worse for wear than the diver trapped below the frightened animal.
Why it Happened: I’m not going to use the word ‘Irresponsible’ but Guadalupe shark diving regulations require that chum be removed from the water when a shark comes within 6 feet of it. That doesn’t always happen, but had the crew pulled the chum parallel to and away from the cage (rather than in front of it), this would not have occurred.
The second incident: Last month, a great white shark bit an air hose leading supplying divers in a free-floating, open-topped shark cage. Unfortunately, the large female great white got stuck in the cage in the process. While the three divers and dive master in the cage made out and back to the boat, the shark remained stuck in the cage for some time, and the crew had to free the shark with a rope tied to its tail. This took a while.
Why it Happened: The shark was curious. It was attracted to the air hose leading into the cage. This set up led to the shark getting stuck vertically in the cage in what was, unfortunately, a very frightening ordeal for the animal.
Don’t Blame The Sharks
It’s important to clarify a few misconceptions about sharks and what may have led to these accidents. First, the sharks were not trying to attack the divers. In the first accident, the shark had too much momentum to stop before it crashed into the cage. In the second, the shark bit through an air hose – not the diver – because it was curious. That, and the cage’s vertical set up, led to the traumatic encounter.
Second, in the few incidents where a shark breaches a cage, it’s not in predatory mode. It’s in an understandable ‘Get-Me-The-F**-Outta-This-Thing-NOW’ situation, in which it has to shake itself free (or be freed by humans). After that, it’s gone, and you won’t see it again.
Remember too that sharks cannot swim backwards. Its only option when stuck in a cage is to go up or forward. We clearly see this in the October 4th, incident, when it escapes after much thrashing.
Ultimately, these are human-caused situations. They are accidents, yes. But don’t put these incidents on the evils of ‘man-eating great white sharks’.
Is Shark Cage Diving Safe?
This blog would not exist without the shark cage diving community at Isla De Guadalupe. I started this blog after shark diving in 2007 at the site where these accidents took place.
My take on this: while there are more shark cage diving operators at Guadalupe than 10 years ago, the practice remains a safe one. At least thus far.
I’m not aware of any deaths or injuries other than a little sun burn while shark diving at Guadalupe. That’s impressive, considering how many hundreds of divers head there each year. These accidents are a first for both operators, from what I can see – and neither does cageless shark diving, which is getting provocative.
I do not support cageless shark diving – and I wouldn’t call that ‘safe’ for obvious reasons.
That said, these were freak accidents. I’d give the bait handler a stern ‘talking-to’ in the first incident (he should have pulled the chum along side of the cage rather than in front of it). And if I’m going to be totally honest, I’m not a fan of the free-floating open-topped cages that led to the second situation, as opposed to stern-mounted cages attached to the boat.
It’s possible that we’ll eventually have similar situations while shark cage diving at Isla De Guadalupe. But there’s a certain risk with any extreme sport – be it surfing or snowboarding (to say nothing about BASE jumping).
Shark cage diving has risks that come with it. But don’t let that stop you from shark diving at Guadalupe, or anywhere for that matter, provided you’ve researched the company and found no red flags, and done your own due diligence related to any health conditions that would prevent you from 5 days of shark diving out in the Pacific.
Relax – sharks have more reason to fear us than we do of them.