Science has found that getting close to a great white shark, even when done from the safety of a steel cage, can quickly change views on shark conservation. The latest study finds that wildlife tourism and close encounters with sharks turns people into enthusiastic wildlife ambassadors.
Many expect to be scared when diving with sharks but leave the water with an emotional connection and a sense of wonder.
Researchers investigated the attitudes and behaviour of 136 tourists following their great white shark cage-dive experience at the Neptune Islands Group Marine Park in South Australia.
Dolphins and whales are generally loved and are an easy focus for marine wildlife tourism and activism. Sharks have a negative image, meaning that conservation efforts get little public support.
However, public attitudes to sharks have begun to change, with an increased level of interest and awareness of the scale of threats to global populations.
“Sharks play important ecological roles in marine ecosystems, and improving human perception is key to increasing conservation awareness and behaviour,” says shark ecologist Associate Professor Charlie Huveneers, from the College of Science and Engineering at Flinders University.
Once considered a disadvantage to coastal tourism, sharks are now considered an important attraction at dive sites around the world.
Responses to an online survey revealed a positive shift in understanding, awareness, attitudes and concern for sharks following the cage diving experience.
PhD candidate Kirin Apps, at Southern Cross University, who led the research project, says many are surprised by their experience.
"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," she says.
“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.”
The study — Turning wildlife experiences into conservation action: Can white shark cage-dive tourism influence conservation behaviour? — was published in the journal Marine Policy.