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The Effect of Chumming and Bait Diving on Shark Behavior

Almost 10 years ago in Sham el-Sheikh, Egypt, shark incidents occurred that threw the tourist population into mass panic. Four, poor-outcome, human shark encounters occurred within a span of two days. This is unusual, to say the least. The sharks caught up in this unfortunate mix up were revealed to be Oceanic White Tips, abundant in the Red Sea (where the attacks took place). Of the species found in the Red Sea, these sharks are shyer, so the mass panic that followed the incidents was also followed by the question: why did these happen in the first place? Oceanic White Tips have been attributed to mass panic in history. The USS Indianapolis sinking being the star of this mass panic. They are usually involved when ships or planes go down. However, the cause of their appearance was linked to a common practice in recreational diving off the cost, chumming and bait diving. Tourists pay to see sharks, and the dive masters don’t want to disappoint. Experienced divers bring chum with them to attract the sharks to their location, so that no tourists ask for their money back. The real kick in the teeth is that bait diving is illegal in the Red Sea, but tourists bring the money, so who are the dive masters to complain? The Red Sea’s fish levels are dropping due to overfishing, so these recreational behaviors are becoming food sources for these sharks. Hungry sharks are entering the scene of blood and dead fish, and associating all lifeforms in that area with their next hunt. This is common shark behavior, in a flurry of chum there’s no telling what’s fish and what isn’t. So, with chum in the water at such close proximity to humans, these White Tips were associating the bait and the humans with their next meal. It’s no wonder that these sharks made the connection, with barely any fish to begin with there were simply slipping into survival mode. If bait diving continues these behaviors will simply increase, we will classically condition these sharks into associating humans with chum, an unwanted Pavlovian disaster. Although these incidents may have occurred in 2010 there are still lessons to be learned. Shark behavior is sensitive, and with the affect that we have on the ocean there’s no telling what we can make a shark do next. Let this be a word to the wise- if bait diving is illegal, it’s probably illegal for a reason.

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