How Did This Great White Shark Get Inside a Sharkproof Cage?

Is shark tourism actually safe for sharks?
October 14, 2016, 5:54pm

A video of a great white shark smashing into a diver cage off the coast of Mexico has been making the rounds on Friday. In the video, a shark enters the cage, thrashes around wildly, and eventually flops through the opened top, bleeding from the gills. A few moments later, a diver calmly rises to the surface unharmed.

Many news sites have published the video without any context, making it seem particularly gnarly. The original video was posted by Brian Forester, who wrote that it was shot during a shark diving tourist expedition near Guadalupe Island, off the Pacific coast of Mexico.

"What might appear to be an aggressive great white shark trying to attack the cage, this is not the case," Forester wrote in the video description. "These awesome sharks are biting at large chunks of tuna tied to a rope [...] This shark lunged at the bait, accidentally hit the side of the cage, was most likely confused and not able to swim backwards, it thrust forward and broke the metal rail of the cage."

This kind of tourism—luring sharks with bait to swim near divers in protective cages—is a contentious practice. Some conservationists believe it's beneficial, because it provides a better understanding of the species and helps people recognize that sharks aren't man-eating monsters. It can also protect sharks by offering an economic value greater than poaching, making the sharks worth more alive than dead. But other conservationists argue it mostly just puts the sharks at risk.

"Cage diving has been vital in changing the public perception of sharks and bringing in enough money to do very important conservation research on the species," said Georgia French, a PhD candidate at the University of Sussex who studies sharks, and the founder of a shark conservation charity: Shark Stuff.

"Sadly, I've seen a lot of people sharing this out of context saying 'oh, this shark's trying to get into the cage to get to the person,' which is completely not what happened. It's unfortunate it's being shared without that context."

French told me it appears that the shark was going for the hunk of bait, but when the bait was quickly moved, the shark crashed into the cage unexpectedly.

"Obviously the shark panicked, tried to escape, and it looks like some damage to the gills," she said. "Personally I think the risks are minimal and this is pretty much a freak incident."

She told me better bait management and better designed cages, without gaps big enough to squeeze in a shark, would help prevent similar situations in the future. However, this isn't the first time this kind of incident has occurred, raising questions over the risks and value of this kind of tourism.

It also highlights the importance of context when a dramatic video makes its way to the web. In this case, context transforms what looks like a terrifying, near-attack from a man-eating shark into an unfortunate accident that was most likely scarier for the shark than the diver.