Shark Diving Handbook: What to do and what not to do in the presence of sharks
by Jorge Mezcua on May 27, 2023
Large predators have fascinated mankind since the dawn of time. When we dive, we are immersed in an environment that is not our own. It is the territory of the marine fauna and its predators. The sudden encounter with a shark is, from every point of view, something that surpasses any encounter with a terrestrial predator with which we share the environment.
It is therefore advisable to be extremely attentive, humble and careful, aware that the intention to get close to the animal should never make us forget the risks involved and the rules of good conduct and safety to be adopted.
The ocean and sharks are part of the territory of wild, unpredictable animals. Although these recommendations may be useful and applicable in most cases when you find yourself in a shark diving destination, they cannot constitute absolute guarantees.
Here are Sharks Mission France's 12 tips for safe shark diving:
1. Check the knowledge of your dive guide
Make sure the dive guide knows the dive sites and the wildlife you may encounter, even depending on the season.
2. Plan the dive
Poor visibility, the presence of strong or weak currents, depth, equipment (cameras, photo equipment...) can reduce your safety while diving. Study and learn the species of sharks and the frequency with which they are commonly encountered in the area. Prepare and discuss with the other divers the possible situations that may occur during the dive and the attitudes to adopt.
For example: avoid sudden, disorganized movements and even fear, as the shark will sense this. Keep the shark in sight, face to face, to show it that you have identified it. Stay close to your buddy so you have 4 eyes to check and watch. If possible, stay upright with your arms and legs in line with your body.
3. Adopt the right attitude: you are the guest
When entering the water in the presence of sharks, do so gently, without making large movements or splashing. Entering the water in a too "spectacular" way can excite the sharks and make them dangerous. Think of yourself as a guest in the sharks' territory and behave as such. They are the masters of the house. You can approach at the right distance so that the shark identifies you and "accepts" you.
4. Maintain eye contact at all times
Sharks are aware of your presence long before you enter their field of vision. By the time you see the shark, it has decided to investigate the "intruder". Sharks are both curious and fearful. Since they are top predators, at the top of the food chain, it is always necessary to be vigilant in their presence. Sharks are very intuitive, if you look into their eyes, they will know that you have identified them. Never let them out of your sight and keep an eye on them immediately after they leave.
5. Control your movements
If possible, lie against the back or a wall in an upright position with your arms and hands close to your body. Stay calm and breathe regularly. Try to blend into the topography of the area. Do not make any sudden, fast or disorganized gestures that could frighten the sharks, make them nervous and cause them to react defensively.
Be attentive to their movements, keep them in your field of vision at all times, constantly monitor and analyze the environment above and below you, especially during your ascent to the surface.
6. Do not touch, grab or hold a shark
A simple touch can be perceived as an attack on your part and can provoke a defensive and potentially dangerous reaction from the shark. Grabbing a shark is even more dangerous than touching it. You are interfering with its ability to move to escape and forcing it to defend itself.
Never grab a shark with a rope or any other object, as a shark that is prevented from moving may attack its aggressors or any other diver in the vicinity. When it struggles to move, it shows its stress and can quickly appear as prey to other sharks in the area.
7. Never block the path of a shark
Blue shark in Princess Alice, Azores. Image courtesy of ©James R.D. Scott
If you position yourself in front of it, it may perceive this as a confrontation. Sharks are not able to swim backwards and you may increase his stress level by forcing him to change his trajectory.
8. Don't feed the sharks
The use of bait in the form of blood or fish flesh may be prohibited, as in the case of Egypt. The behavior of sharks changes instantly in the presence of food, exponentially increasing their level of excitement and risking putting them in a context of competition with each other. The use of bait in a regular dive site can endanger divers who may be hundreds of meters away.
Where baiting is allowed, it is necessary to obtain a special permit, subject to government approval, with the possibility of fines for non-compliance. Spearfishing divers should never wear caught fish tied around their waist.
9. Never stay alone
Sharks seem to perceive groups of divers as another large, threatening organism. Organize yourself to stay in a group, close to your buddy, without making jerky, irregular gestures, and keep an eye out for sharks around you. Some sharks may attempt to isolate a diver from a group, such as the longimanus shark. Never act like a fleeing prey, always look at the shark, but don't act like an aggressor. Control your fear (it is understandable to be afraid), think about the recommendations, the shark will sense your fear and may instinctively take advantage of it (easier said than done...).
Quiet, in the background and together, the best way to avoid an unpleasant encounter with a shark. Picture taken in Nassau, Bahamas, by Adam Coster
In case of danger you can use your octopus (the bubbles disturb the lateral line of the sharks), stand next to your buddy and watch your legs, slowly move away from the sharks and towards the boat. Use your snorkel or camera equipment to push the shark away if it gets too close.
10. What if a shark is interested in you?
Always look at the shark and follow its movements (turn around so you can see it). If the shark swims directly towards you and gets close enough to touch, move it away by touching its nose or the top of its head. If the shark insists, tap its snout with an upright hand, but be careful not to get your hand between the shark's teeth. You can also use your camera if you have one. If it insists, put your hand in the gill slits, which are more sensitive, or apply strong pressure with your fingers on its eyes, the shark hates this and will run away.
In general, the shark circles its prey and makes contact by latching onto it with its mouth. It makes precise movements to determine the quality of the potential prey (which it may misidentify at first...), but it is extremely rare for a shark to attack directly. In this aspect, your diving behavior is crucial. These recommendations will help you...
11. Be aware of shark behavior
If the sharks are nervous, with erratic movements, jerking, dorsal fins down, sudden changes of direction, nervous tail movements, muscle tension... get out of the water immediately or as soon as possible. If you can't, slowly and gradually increase the distance between you and the sharks, which may calm them down and allow you to leave the water calmly. But always keep in mind that it is better to go to 8/10 meters depth than to stay away from the surface where you are more vulnerable.
12. What to do if you have to stay on the surface in the presence of sharks
Always move smoothly and keep calm. Keep an eye out for sharks. Use a "deterrent", an object you can react to if necessary. Swim directly to your boat or exit point. Avoid swimming too far on the surface, you will get tired and also be vulnerable to a shark attack from behind or below. Stay close to your buddy in all movements and maneuvers. Once you are alongside the boat, dock or beach, get out of the water quickly, but without rushing and not all at once, as the shark's curiosity and predatory instinct may be rekindled.
Other recommendations on diving with sharks:
- Wear a long wetsuit, it will protect you in case of contact.
- Avoid bright colors, especially yellow, as some species are attracted to these colors.
- Never wear shiny objects that attract them.
- Never dive at sunset or dawn, when sharks are approaching the shore and hunting.
- Never dive alone, in dark water or with bleeding injuries. Avoid night diving.
- Avoid using flash in the presence of sharks, as it attracts them (magnetic field).
- Do not swim near seals as they are the favorite food of great white sharks.
- Do not carry your catch around your waist when spearfishing.
These recommendations are not exhaustive, and although they have been tested, they are not absolute rules, as sharks are wild and potentially unpredictable animals in an environment that is not ours.
Maintain humility and respect for these lords of the sea and enjoy the moments with the sharks. Most of the time the encounters are magical and develop in a peaceful coexistence, as long as a good attitude and good behavior are respected. Have fun diving with sharks!
Note: SMF assumes no responsibility in the event of an accident with a shark, diving or otherwise, even if these recommendations are followed.
More information: Sharks mission