New research shows swimming with sharks could help save them

Published 8 February 2018
A shark cage diving experience. Photo courtesy Andrew Fox A shark cage diving experience

Cage diving with an apex predator such as a white shark is a high adrenaline experience, but it can also change participants’ views on shark conservation once they’re back on dry land.

A new study led by Southern Cross University PhD candidate Kirin Apps, has found that wildlife tourism has the potential to make participants enthusiastic wildlife ambassadors. The paper, Turning wildlife experiences into conservation action: Can white shark cage-dive tourism influence conservation behaviour?, has been published in Marine Policy.

Dr Kay Dimmock from the School of Business and Tourism at Southern Cross University, and Associate Professor Charlie Huveneers from the Southern Shark Ecology Group at Flinders University co-authored the paper, which investigated the attitudes and environmental behaviour of 136 tourists following their white shark cage-dive experience at the Neptune Islands Group Marine Park in South Australia.

While dolphins and whales are often the focus of marine wildlife tourism and activism, a more commonly held negative perception of sharks has meant that conservation for sharks received little public support.

However, public attitudes towards sharks have begun to change, with an increased level of interest and awareness of the scale of threats to global shark populations. In particular, continued change in public perception can be accelerated through the marine tourism industry.

Lead researcher Kirin Apps, from the School of Environmental Science and Engineering at Southern Cross University said many tourists’ perceptions of sharks is positively enhanced as a result of them participating in the cage dive.

“Many are surprised by their experience,” Ms Apps said.

“They come with the idea that it’s going to be a scary experience, but they get out of the water and use words such as beautiful, peaceful and majestic; words they wouldn’t usually associate with sharks.

“There was a lot of respect for these animals once they saw them in the wild. Their emotional connection through engagement was one of the big things that changed their ideas about sharks. Having people speak positively about sharks is beneficial to conservation.”

Once considered a disadvantage to coastal tourism, sharks are now considered an important attraction at dive sites around the world. Exposing tourists to sharks in their natural environment has considerable potential to enhance a participant’s knowledge, attitude and behaviour towards sharks, and support their conservation.

Responses to an online survey revealed a significant increase in participation for seven of the eight conservation-related behaviours explored, and a positive shift in participants’ understanding, awareness, attitudes and concern for sharks following their cage diving experience. These results suggest that emotional engagement during the tour is associated with enhancing participants’ knowledge and attitude towards sharks.

Article written in conjunction with Flinders University

Photo: Andrew Fox

Media contact: Jessica Nelson 0417288794