Humans have always seen sharks as a threat, especially since Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie base on Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws” (1974), which depicts sharks as vicious human-killing monsters.
On average, only 8 people per year die from shark attacks, which is not much in comparison to the approximately 100 million sharks killed by humans every year. Many of these sharks die as undesirable by-catch of the commercial fishing industry. Others fall victim to shark-finning, where the fins are cut off the living animal, and the rest of its body is thrown back into the ocean, left to die a cruel death. Sadly, shark fins are one of the most desired and expensive seafood products.
The killing of sharks has been going on to such an extent, that many shark species are near extinction, and the marine ecosystem is threatened by the disappearance of this apex predator that is at the top of the food chain and helps balance the marine ecosystem. Sharks have inhabited this planet for over 400 million years and belong to the oldest species known to man.
Located on the Yucatan Peninsula along the Caribbean Sea, Playa del Carmen – once a small fishing village – has becomed one of the world’s top scuba-diving sites, and shark-diving is one of its main attractions. Every year, between mid-November and the end of February, bull sharks (females mostly and many of them pregnant) appear in the shallower waters in front of Playa del Carmen. These sharks come close to the shoreline to give birth in the fresh water systems and the young sharks can grow up free from predators before they return to the ocean.
The annual bull shark season of Playa del Carmen has become an astonishing scuba-diving experience, and bull shark diving has become for many dive operators in the region a crucial part of their business. Scuba-divers from all over the world travel a long way and pay good money to dive with the Playa bull sharks.
There are three types of bull shark-dives available in Playa del Carmen: the first and most common one is a normal dive, where divers rely on just a bit of luck to encounter these amazing animals. The other two kinds of dives rely on attraction. One of them uses the smell of fish blood that it sprayed into the water during the dive. During the other dive, the sharks are actually fed by a shark feeder. Against all expectation, the interaction with the bull sharks during those dives is rather peaceful and cages are not used to protect the divers from the animals.
Of course, bull shark diving is creating controversy. Arguments about the danger of this activity, the alteration of shark behavior due to human interaction, and other shark topics are popular among Playa del Carmen’s diving community and the local tourist industry. In Playa del Carmen, shark-based activities have become a multi-million dollar business, from which the entire local tourism industry is profiting.
As a main argument, the economic factor is helping the local diving community to actively protect these beautiful animals. Also with bull shark-diving, they are promoting a shift in consciousness, away from the aggressive killer machine towards an animal threatened by near extinction and a vital element for a healthy marine ecosystem.
A photo essay by Stéphanie Ilner
Photo essay featured in Issue #18 of Revolve Magazine (Winter 201572016) on pages 35-50
For more information about bull shark diving go to www.deepdeepdown.com