To Touch or Not to Touch

In November 2008, a photograph was taken in the Bahamas at Tiger Beach. With the snap of an underwater camera taking a photograph of a free-diver touching a shark, debates exploded among the shark diving community about whether humans should have the right to touch the species or if this behavior is inappropriate. Since there are so many photographs of humans touching sharks, people do not believe that this way of diving is appropriate because the act is becoming so prevalent. The controversy of whether or not certain forms of shark diving are respectful versus invasive runs rampant among shark advocates all over the world.

Many emotions have been stirred and several people have become defensive about the idea that touching sharks in their natural habitat is disrespectful and intruding. However, who is to say that touching these wild creatures is somehow inappropriate as long as no living being is harmed in the process? Wolfgang Leander, one of many shark enthusiasts around the world, takes the position that touching the sharks in his manner, in particular, is in no way disrespectful nor is it harmful to the animals. In fact, he argues that throughout his personal experiences, “prolonged exposure to humans sort of domesticates sharks” rather than endangers them. As with love for any living being, Wolfgang is compelled to contact and caress the sharks in the most reverential way possible to express his passion for their beauty and massive size. He looks at sharks like a puppy in the street – people tend to pet dogs just to show affection and love for the animal. For Wolfgang, the sharks are his puppies in the street. However, many believe that when divers impose on the sharks by touching them, they are simply attempting to encourage everyone to do the same while proving that they can stare danger in the face. Divers at Bega Adventure Divers (BAD) in Fiji would disagree, stating that their “aim is not to sell some death-defying ‘adventure’, but to showcase sharks to [their] clients and to have them come away with a new, personal appreciation for their beauty, grace and mellow disposition – whilst contributing to their protection in the process.” While the shark populations are being depleted, these divers believe they are assisting in the preservation of the species by personally interacting with them and showing the world how peaceful they have the ability to be – not all sharks are out to harm humans. The controversial photographs taken are opposites to the millions of photographs of sharks being finned and slaughtered – hopefully these images will change the perspective of those who think sharks need to be killed in order to be appreciated while being eaten in their shark fin soup.

Yet, these shark divers are not encouraging others to feel free to go out and play with the sharks at their own clearance. Without the proper experience and knowledge of the animals’ behavior, it would not be a wise or responsible decision to mimic these divers’ actions. These divers are very well educated about the sharks’ innate behaviors in the wild, so they know how to respect and appreciate them without causing harm to the species or themselves. Since the divers have the best of intentions while diving with the creatures, why shouldn’t they be allowed to interact with them on a more intimate level? However, some believe differently…

People in opposition believe that the underwater world and the world on top of the sea should not mix because it is not natural. These activists believe that when humans invade the sharks’ habitat, there could be some hostility between the two species. Some shark defenders believe that interacting with the wild animals in this manner causes confusion to the sharks and encourages them to think of humans as a food source. In a tragic incident in February of 2008, a shark diver was killed after a shark bite to the leg in the Bahamas by a Bull Shark. Ever since this terrible incident, several shark enthusiasts have been trying to prevent such events by discouraging interaction between people and sharks. Some have even gone as far as passing around a petition in attempt to preventing shark diving in the Bahamas all together. As previously stated, the divers who assume it is okay to touch the sharks believe that they are “domesticating” she sharks, while other divers argue that it is possible to make them more aggressive towards humans.

In the many photographs of Wolfgang Leander touching the sharks, some people have described them as stunning and beautiful expressions of two worlds interacting with one another. On Wolfgang’s website, on the other hand, a fellow defender of the sharks argued the point that the images appear like he is attempting to “grab” or “ride” the sharks. He also states that from a neutral reader’s point of view (someone who is not aware of the free-divers love of the animals), the image sends the message that it is okay to demean the species by disrespectfully handling them. It is possible that these neutral readers could possibly misunderstand the point of the photo – which was originally intended to change the image of the sharks from mean killers to peaceful creatures. While some view this photo as highly artistic and gorgeous, it is apparent that it has stirred some mixed opinions about what is appropriate under the water and what is down-right disrespectful. Some divers believe it is not right to touch anything while diving, and some do not think sharks apply. But, why are sharks an exception to this belief? Many consider that divers are supposed to fade into the background and simply observe the underwater world without touching. After all, coral, fish, sea turtles, sea horses and all of the other species are respectfully left alone under the sea. Should sharks be left alone as well?

So, the facts are the facts. We all know that sharks can be dangerous, but people can also know how to handle them. In the end, the big questions exist: How is it possible for certain photographs to cause so much controversy among the shark diving world? Are these photographs beautiful and artistic forms of expression, or are they an inappropriate way to encourage the world to appreciate the shark species? Is the sport of shark diving helping the species to survive? So far, all of the conservationists agree that this is a very important topic and it should be considered in order to save the shark species.  With the controversy of whether this sort of shark diving is promoting the well being of the species or harming it, it can be difficult to choose a side. Both debating parties have made valid arguments on the topic, so you decide!

Shark Diver Magazine

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2 responses to “To Touch or Not to Touch

  1. GREAT article! For ME i never touch. My thoughts? The only thing harmed by touching is the animal. Having a wild animal LIKE a human touch is sooo dangerous for that animal. We live in a world were there is NO RESPECT for wild life. I cannot imagine ever hurting a dolphin or shark or turtle BUT there are people who will and a wild animal such as a shark that trusts a human will be a dead animal!

  2. I just wanted to add the pictures in question of sharks is an amazing tibute to the sharks! They are beautiful awesome animals and the pictures bring that into FULL view! As far as im concerned the people taking these pics rock and im sure it is HARD NOT to touch these amazing animals!

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