Shark Feeding Advice

Disclaimer: Feeding sharks is an inherently dangerous activity which should not be undertaken without sufficient professional training. Even after such training it is possible to be seriously injured or die as a result of shark feeding activities. The information contained within Elasmodiver is not intended as a replacement for training by a qualified agency and is presented merely as an introduction to the styles of shark feeds that take place and the ethics and politics surrounding the sport.

The Shark Feeding Controversy

Opinions, ethics, and repercussions of feeding sharks

Shark feeding has always been a highly controversial subject. When livelihoods and lives are at stake emotions tend to run high. In one corner of the shark cage are the dive operators who rely heavily on shark encounters to earn their livings and the thrill seekers clutching their cameras with adrenalin coursing through their veins. In the other corner of the cage, clutching onto the bars and hyperventilating are the concerned citizens, shark attack victims, spear fishermen, politicians looking for publicity, and news hacks looking for a headline. It’s difficult to say which corner of the cage is right but let’s start by examining what the pro and anti shark feeders believe.

The case for banning shark feeding

The theory goes that by feeding sharks in the presence of divers or snorkelers, over a period of time the sharks begin to associate the presence of humans with food; effectively a Pavlovian response in which the sound of splashing humans or a boat arriving acts as a dinner bell to passing sharks and sends them into feeding mode. Then, unable to find the fish scraps usually on offer or perhaps confused by the low visibility where beachgoers regularly splash around, the sharks home in on the bathers and attack.

We are not allowed to feed bears, crocodiles, or lions because it encourages them to seek out humans which can lead to similar problems so why should we allow people to feed sharks?

Even if this hypothesis is unfounded, ‘better safe than sorry’ right?

This is such a clear and simple argument that it is very easy to buy into and difficult to disprove.

The case for allowing shark feeding

There is absolutely no proof that the small number of sharks participating in shark feeds around the world are responsible for any of the attacks that have been inflicted on bathers.

Often attacks come from shark species that are not even in regular attendance at the feeds.

Air patrols along Florida’s busy beaches (a state in which shark feeding is now banned) have photographed hundreds of sharks milling around in the shallows among completely oblivious beachgoers. It would seem likely that any of these sharks could attack given the right stimulus such as the thrashing movements of a swimmer or the flash of a bare leg in murky water. At some of the most notorious of Florida’s beaches, fishing piers are located next to prime bathing spots where recreational fishermen bait the water constantly. This introduces blood and fish scraps into the mix of splashing beachgoers, which in murky water creates a confusing signal to passing sharks.

Shark feeding proponents also point out that during the majority of feeds, individual sharks receive very little food. Therefore, they do not learn to rely on humans for providing their meals.

It is also practically unheard of for a spectator at a shark feed to get bitten. Divers at these events are largely ignored by the sharks which demonstrates that the sharks are able to differentiate between humans with food and those without. This learned behavior may actually decrease the chances of one of these sharks attacking an innocent bather.

Occasionally through the clumsiness of the feeder or the shark, he or she may receive a bite but even in this instance the offending shark is not trying to eat the feeder but rather it is attempting to get at the fish.

The same is usually true when spear fishermen are harassed by sharks. The added vibrations of a struggling harpooned fish can make the sharks very aggressive.

Comparing the behavior of bears, lions, and crocodiles to sharks is misleading at best. Large terrestrial carnivores share their environment with humans and naturally include us in their diet. Most sharks eat fish and do not consider mammals as food. If the debate were over the feeding of Saltwater Crocodiles which are responsible for many deaths in Australia there would be little ground on which to argue. Even approaching a Salty without food is asking for trouble as humans are firmly on its menu but as any diver will tell you; getting close to a reef shark in the wild is almost impossible (unless you corner it which is reasonable provocation for it to defend itself).

Larger Great white sharks and a few other species do regularly eat mammals but in areas where Great white sharks and humans meet (such as the beaches of California) no operator would dream of trying to attract sharks (except perhaps unscrupulous fishermen). In December 2003 an operator in False Bay, South Africa was recorded chumming white sharks close to a popular beach. His excuse was that he was trying to draw the sharks away from the beach. His license was immediately suspended and the practice stopped.

There is also controversy over the environmental ethics of shark feeding. To suggest that the primary goal of shark feed operators is to educate people and protect sharks through heightened awareness is unrealistic. Of course these feeds exist to line the pockets of dive companies but why should this be considered a negative thing? Many shark feeders are ex-fishermen who are progressive enough to understand that a live shark is worth much more than a dead one. If they happen to set up an operation where shark conservation and education are part of the program then that’s even better.

Does the feeding of sharks change their behavior? Most definitely but not drastically. Regularly fed sharks will appear on queue at the sound of the approaching feeder, but after devouring a few scraps to the delight of the spectators the sharks return to their normal activities of hunting and making baby sharks. The only time when their guaranteed appearance becomes a problem is when long-liners target the location of a feed. Then, the entire local population can be wiped out in one foul swoop.

If you still haven’t picked a side of the shark cage consider this: The oceans have been dangerously depleted. A recent IUCN survey confirmed that two out of five ocean organisms are now considered threatened. If a byproduct of shark feeding is a small level of protection for the remaining apex predators then shark feed operators are one of the few groups standing in the way of a complete ecosystem collapse. Its not compulsory to feed sharks to protect them but who else will champion these animals? Organizations like the Shark Trust are stretched too thinly already to concentrate on individual reef shark populations on the other side of the world and shark fishing bans are very hard to enforce. If shark feeders are out there monitoring the sharks and lobbying for greater localized protection (as they have in the Bahamas) then sharks have a better chance of avoiding extinction which will significantly help the crumbling ecosystem to maintain its fragile balance.

One more point: if shark feeding is banned the images contained on websites like Elasmodiver could not be captured and without pictures, sharks become faceless monsters. Shark feeds are often the only way photographers and film makers can capture images that the public use to process their fears which helps them relegate sharks to the rank of dangerous predators rather than creatures of nightmare to be dispatched at the first opportunity.

Food for thought

A Great Hammerhead chomps on the bait.

Shark Feeding Techniques

The pros and cons of the different ways to feed sharks, equipment requirements, and environmental implications

Shark feeding techniques vary from operation to operation. Often the style of the feed is dictated by the species of sharks in attendance. Other factors include the experience level of the feeder and whether it is an organized feed for the public or an impromptu feed to obtain specific footage or information.

Chumming for Sharks instead of Shark Feeding

There is no doubt that feeding sharks changes their behavior. Repeatedly feeding sharks can cause them to become expectant of a handout whenever humans are around. This sometimes leads to sharks harassing divers that have no food and no desire to interact with them. Perhaps some sharks lose their ability to hunt naturally but it is unlikely that such highly evolved predators would become this conditioned unless they were fed consistently and in sufficient quantities that they never needed to hunt on their own. Even well fed sharks held in captivity occasionally go on hunting sprees, picking off their smaller tank mates between feeds.

The fact remains that if we are able to attract sharks without feeding them then the sharks are far less likely to become conditioned. The best way to do this is to pour some kind of chum into the water that will attract the sharks without actually satisfying their appetites.

Chum (or burley) may consist of all manner of food stuffs but generally the main ingredient is fish blood and/or ground up fish scraps. It is slowly ladled (or allowed to drip) into the water spreading the flavor of dying of dead fish far and wide. This excites the sharks and causes them to follow the scent towards the boat but once there they find no reward and after a few exploratory passes they continue on their journey.


Lowering Bait Crates

Another way to attract sharks without filling their stomachs is to lower milk crates or other sturdy containers into the water that are filled with fish parts. The bobbing action of the boat tends to stir up the scraps allowing very small quantities to escape downstream. One advantage of using this method is that the sharks have a specific target on which to concentrate their attention (compared to the chum slick created by the ladling method). This means that photographers or divers can either avoid the crates and swim outside the sharks field of interest or alternatively hold onto the ropes suspending the crates (especially handy in a strong current) so that they are well positioned to get the shot. Of course the closer they choose to put themselves to the crates the more dangerous their predicament becomes.


Shark Wrangling

This method of bringing sharks towards the boat involves tossing out fish with a line tied through the gills or eye sockets. This will result in attendant sharks chasing the fish directly towards the boat until the fish is pulled out of the water at the last minute. It may seem like a way of teasing the sharks but in their natural environment they would also not always manage to strike the prey that they go after.

Although wrangling limits the amount of food that the sharks receive, they invariably manage to take the bait sooner or later so this is definitely a form of shark feeding.

Photographers have two ways to take advantage of shark wrangling. They can get quite interesting surface shots from the deck of the boat or they can use a pole cam (a camera suspended just below the water) to get very close feeding shots. The benefit being that there is little danger for the photographer. A rather more precarious way to utilize shark wrangling is to hang from the swim step where the bait will pass by on its way out of the water. This is not the smartest place to be considering how fast the shark is likely to traveling in its pursuit of the bait.


The Chumsicle Feed

Pioneered by Walkers Key in the Bahamas, the chumsicle consists of a giant popsicle made of frozen fish scraps. This is lowered into the water once the divers have settled onto the seabed out of harms way. The sharks then attack the block of food as they would a bait ball or large floating carcass. The action around the chumsicle can be quite intense especially if many reef sharks are in attendance. They will compete fiercely for the food and rip away chunks as fast as possible before it is completely consumed by their fellow sharks.

Generally the divers are completely ignored and once the sharks have devoured the food they disperse or hang around on the periphery. Comically the divers often then rush in to perform their own ‘feeding frenzy’ competing for sharks teeth that usually get dislodged during the feed.

Although the chumsicle shark feed can present a good spectacle for divers and photographers, visibility often becomes poor once the frenzy heats up and lots of scraps are floating around. Also snappers and other local fish that are used to the feeds will congregate in such numbers that a clear shot of the sharks often becomes impossible.

Pole Feeding and Hand Feeding Sharks

There are endless ways to hand feed sharks. Most feeders wear some form of chain mail to avoid bites. This can range from simple gauntlets, to full sleeves, to complete chain mail or even Kevlar suits. I have seen divers hand feeding sharks without gloves and I have even been to official shark feeds where the gloveless feeder is only expecting nurse sharks to show up but wearing some kind of protection is generally accepted.

Some feeders prefer to attach the fish scraps onto the end of a pole to add some distance between themselves and the sharks. This is obviously a prudent thing to do but it means that the shark has to chomp down on a steal rod to get the food. This isn’t ideal for the shark or for the photographer looking for a more natural looking feeding shot. Experienced feeders will sometimes hold the bait between their gloved fingers and lead the shark forward (right over the photographers lens) letting go at the last minute and withdrawing their arm from the photographers field of view. This can result in some extremely dramatic images.

In organized hand feeding dives the spectators are prepped beforehand on correct etiquette. Generally they are asked to kneel in a line or large semi circle around the feeder. This can result in some thrilling close passes as the sharks converge on the feeder.


Freestyle Shark Feeds

Get a bunch of shark crazy photographers aboard a boat, give them a bucket of fish, and wait to see what happens. On some dive boats where experienced divers are looking for close encounters there may be lots of different shark encounters going on at once. Looking around on one recent dive in the Bahamas I could see two photographers patiently waiting on the sand next to some fallen bait while a third photographer was manically waving a fish around. Turning back to the boat I spotted a diver literally sitting on a suspended bait crate and to top it off their was a videographer hanging onto the swim step while a topside diver pulled a roped fish over his head. Six or seven Lemon Sharks were busy vacuuming up whatever was offered while a Tiger Shark nervously skirted the edges of the party mostly out of sight. Nobody died. In fact, looking at each diver individually no one was really even in that much danger other than the ‘human polecam’ up on the swim step.


Spear Fishing while Feeding Sharks

Probably the most dangerous addition to any feed is a spear gun. The struggling vibrations emanating from dying or wounded fish on the end of a spear will cause any sharks present to become a lot more agitated. And, agitated sharks are unpredictable. Also, think about the impact that spearing fish has on the environment. Commercial fishermen are going to kill fish regardless of whether the leftovers will be used to supply a shark feed so whenever possible try to use the bi products of normal fishing activities rather than adding to the carnage.