"Sharks are beautiful animals, and if you're lucky enough to see lots of them, that means that you're in a healthy ocean. You should be afraid if you are in the ocean and don't see sharks." Sylvia Earl
Jaws was released in 1975 and people have been afraid to go in the water ever since. During my time in the dive industry customers often asked me “are there sharks in the water?” my reply: “yes, if you’re lucky you’ll see one.” The poor things are very misunderstood.
I’ve been fortunate enough to swim, dive and snorkel with sharks over the years and each time I’m left in awe of the graceful way these incredible creatures move through the water. One flick of the tail and their colours blend into the background of the sea and they’re gone.
There are around 440 species of shark, from 8 inches to 40 feet and mostly docile. You can increase the probability of sharks being docile but not harassing them, getting too close or baiting the water (see conservation section below). A bit of respect goes a long way underwater as much as on land!
Snorkelling with sharks
You are most likely to see reef sharks when you’re snorkelling, these include black tips, white tips, lemon, bull and nurse sharks. Once I was chaperoning a group of snorkelers in Grace Bay, Providenciales and spotted one. I swam to the lady nearest me and pointed it out. I saw the fear in her eyes but told her to just watch. The shark gently meandered around a bit and then swam away. The fear in her eyes turned to delight, she could now go home and tell her friends she’d swum with a shark and guess what, she hadn’t been eaten!
Whale sharks are the largest at up to 40 feet and one of the most docile. They are a lovely dark blue with grooves and white spots down their backs. They are filter feeders with no teeth so they can’t bite people. In certain parts of the world you can snorkel with these sharks, but you’d better be fit to keep up – although their tales move slowly, their size means they are pretty fast through the water. I snorkelled with whale sharks on Ningaloo Reef off the coast of Coral Bay, Western Australia. Best practice and general consideration requests you stay at least 16 feet away so as not to disturb them or get in the way of their powerful tails.
Diving with sharks
Similar to snorkelling, you may be fortunate enough to see a shark while diving. It’s one of the wonders of diving that the closer you look, the more you see – the ocean is full of tiny little creatures, but remember to look up every now and then so you don’t miss the big stuff swimming past. Sharks rarely hang around for long when they see divers, and you don’t have a hope of keeping up, they’re fast! So keep your eyes peeled.
Sharks from land
In places where sharks are commonplace, find out where the fishermen bring their catch. If they gut the fish close to or on the shore, sharks will often congregate to feed when the boats come back in. If the waters are clear you’ll get a great view of the sharks from shore.
I’m not personally a fan of sharks in aquariums and certainly not in theme parks, please read the conservation section for more information.
We kill 100 million sharks a year, many caught by accident in fishing nets, some for fun, sometimes deliberately for shark fin soup. In this case the fins are often cut off and the sharks left to sink and die a slow painful death. I personally won’t eat in a restaurant that serves shark fin soup.