Photos and videos have gone viral of a group of divers swimming alongside and even touching, a huge great white shark off the south shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Ocean Ramsey, marine biologist and conservation advocate describes the encounter as “beyond magic!” via her Instagram account and many have been left speechless by the ‘awe-inspiring’ photos and Ramsey’s ‘braveness.’ Ramsey and her employers, One Ocean Diving, have claimed that physically interacting with and touching the enormous, 7 meters long, pregnant great white shark was important to raise awareness of conservation efforts. However, the drivers’ actions and motives have rightly received criticism from global marine and conservation scientists.
One of the first things you will be told if you learn to scuba dive is ‘look, don’t touch’ and this rule always applies with very few exceptions, such as for the purpose of conducting scientific research or to assist an animal who may be trapped, for example, in an old trawler net. Considering Ramsey and her colleagues were doing neither or these things, her photos have been widely critiqued as ‘an ego-boosting publicity stunt.’ But an important question should be raised: what is wrong with petting a shark such as this one?
Firstly, sharks are apex predators. Accurately described by Dr Michael Domeier, founding director of the Marine Conservation Science Institute and great white shark expert, “People don’t go to the Arctic and hug polar bears. You just don’t do it. They’ll get their face ripped off.” Ramsey took a huge gamble when she decided to approach and touch the shark. Although she advocates their protection and conservation, it has been suggested that it would not take much for the public’s ’ attitude towards these animals to dramatically shift to anger and fear should the shark react and injure someone. One wrong move and we could see an entire species’ persecuted even more than they already are. Given Ramsey and her colleagues claim to be conservation advocates, you would imagine this is the last thing they want. However, their photos, prevailing attitude towards the situation, as well as online comments such as “Hey, she touched me first!” may, in fact, encourage this kind of behaviour by recreational divers.
Secondly, this shark appeared to be pregnant. Given the great whites’ markings, Ramsey and colleagues have suggested they were swimming alongside a female, Deep Blue: one of the largest sharks on record. Marine biologists tracking the animal believe it’s highly likely that Deep Blue is pregnant this year. Dr Michael Domeier predicted that Deep Blue is “carrying around maybe 500 pounds of babies right now… she’s got to feed those pups!” The shark was attracted to the area to feed on a dead sperm whale carcass. Dr Domeier further explains that great whites will spend most of their 18-month gestation period in deep, offshore water where food is “very, very scarce”. On his Instagram account, Dr Domeier writes, “Harassing a pregnant white shark while she is trying to feed could cause her to leave the meal…impacting her ability to successfully carry her pups to term or reproduce the next cycle.” Following Ramsey’s encounter going viral on social media, around 60 divers crowded the dead whale carcass the following day in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the majestic animal. It was no surprise that perhaps intimidated by the sheer amount of commotion in the water, that Deep Blue did not make a second appearance to feed.
“I can’t believe that ‘please don’t grab the 18 foot long wild predator’ is something that needs to be explicitly said out loud, but here we are,” David Shiffman, marine biologist via The Washington Post.”
Only time will truly show the effects that these viral photos and videos will have. Of course, we hope that they bring awareness of the fact that sharks are not blood-thirsty killers and that the great white did not endure extreme stress from the encounter. Perhaps, most of all, we can hope that the backlash Ramsey and her colleagues have received will have them thinking twice before attempting to ‘ride’ and harass sharks again.