10 years ago, diving with sharks was something only the very brave did. Now it’s a multimillion dollar industry.
“It’s really taken off because it’s become really accessible,” explains TV adventurer Monty Halls. “Anyone can shark dive, anyone can go in the water with these animals. Whereas before it was more exclusive: the preserve of the adventurer who would jump in with the shark stick and all the kit. Then suddenly everyone realised all that stuff was unnecessary.”
Unnecessary? Didn’t he ever see Jaws?
“Jaws basically scarred an entire generation and set our understanding of sharks back a very long way. It’s a brilliant film, but it wasn’t terribly good for sharks.
“Peter Benchley, who wrote the book, actually became a huge shark conservationist because he realised the massive impact it had: sharks were being taken and ruthlessly killed everywhere because of his film. So he very much went the other way and became a great advocate for shark conservation.”
Monty Halls in his Discovery documentary The Great Shark Chase
Approximately 100 million sharks are killed every year. Commercial fishing fleets often target them because shark fins are considered a delicacy in China, where they’re made into soup.
That’s why Monty is all for diving with them instead. “The more we can show the positive side of them and how valuable they are for the tourist industry, the better it is long-term for the species.”
As a matter of fact, you’ve probably already swum with sharks without even realising it.
“I spoke to the expert at the National Marine Aquarium, who said that when you swim off a British beach you are within ten metres of sharks. But the sharks you’re within ten metres of are as big as your foot. We’ve got at least 24 species of shark off the coast of the UK and most of them are tiny little things like goldfish. All they want to do is get away from you.”
Filmmaker Doug Allen in action
In his latest documentary The Great Shark Chase, Monty tracks down more sizeable specimens during the annual Sardine Run off the coast of South Africa. Which is what exactly?
“The Sardine Run is the largest aggregation of marine biomass anywhere on earth. It happens for six weeks or two months every year, and of course where you get sardines, you get huge numbers of sharks as well.
“So the underwater filmmaker Doug Allen and I led a team of adventurers and scientists to try to understand a little bit more about what was actually happening. We headed up the coast and where the sardines were being pushed by sharks, we launched the boat, jumped in and tried to tag sharks and get images of the action.”
You’ll have to tune in to the Discovery Channel tonight to find out how he gets on. And if you fancy following in his wake, here are the best places to dive in…
“South Africa has got a tremendous reputation for diving with sharks. You can dive with great whites at a fishing town called Gansbaai. You’re put in a cage in False Bay and the Great Whites are drawn into the boat. Further up the coast is a reef called Aliwal Shoal where you can dive in open water with lots of blacktips and bronze whaler sharks. That’s where we did a little bit of filming for the documentary. In the 10 years or so they’ve been doing it, they’ve only had two incidents and both of those were due to people being idiots and waving fish at the sharks. That’s like going to Longleat Safari Park and waving a steak at a lion. No one can blame the shark in those circumstances.”
“Coming closer to home, you will see basking sharks – which are the second largest fish on earth – around the west coast of the UK during the summer. To get in the water with basking sharks is an amazing experience; it’s like getting in with a whale. There’s a guy called Charles Hood who runs the operation down in Penzance who will put you in with baskers and blue sharks as well. Go a little further off the coast, put a little bit of fish oil in the water and the blue sharks come in and you can jump in with them. As far as they’re concerned, you’re another large predator that’s turned up to investigate what the smell is. They’re really beautiful – probably the most beautiful sharks of all.”
A blue shark
“The Ningaloo Reef off Western Australia’s mid-north coast is a fantastic place for whale shark encounters and has been for many years now. It’s a really responsibly-run operation.”
“Fiji has some wonderful shark-diving where you’ll have numerous species coming in. They do one shark dive – a scuba dive – where you have seven species of shark around you simultaneously.”
A tiger shark
“In the Bahamas, you can sit on the bottom with 30ft of crystal clear water above you and have these big animals come and have a look at you: tiger sharks, bull sharks, grey reef sharks. 20 years ago that would have been considered madness. We’re only really learning now that sharks are not really interested in us as food so it’s a wonderful encounter.”
The Great Shark Chase is on Tuesday 28th June, 10pm on Discovery Channel. Shark Week runs until Saturday 2nd July
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