In an earlier post I wrote about how more and more countries are waking up to the benefits of preserving natural capital, in recognition of the economic value that can be derived through ecotourism. I noted, in particular, the value that can be generated through ecotourism ventures focused on iconic species such as sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles. I cited a number of studies and calculations that demonstrate that the ecotourism value of these animals far outweighs their one-time economic value if harvested for food or body parts.
Earlier this week, I had an opportunity to experience one such venture first hand, via the famous Fiji Shark Dive. Over the course of two dives I was treated to the spectacle of 40+ Bull Sharks and dozens of Blacktip and White Tip Reef Sharks, up close and personal! What an amazing experience to see these magnificent animals – some upwards of 8 feet long –swimming only inches away. Click here for a video (check out the background music!) courtesy of Martin Graf, one of the pioneers of the Shark Diving industry, who just happened to be in Fiji this week and was along on my dives.
Since writing my earlier post, I’d done some additional reading about Shark Diving and learned that there is quite a bit of controversy about the industry and its relationship to shark conservation. Talking with Martin helped to fill out the picture even more. Unfortunately, it seems that there are quite a number of Shark Diving operations that masquerade under the label of ecotourism, but are really more geared towards making a quick buck from daredevils and thrill seekers. These operators engage in risky practices and they tend to have limited, if any, links to local communities. The good news is that there are others in the industry (including Beqa Adventure Divers who I dove with this week) that have a strong conservation focus, using their tourism operations to generate income to support research and awareness raising about the benefits of marine ecosystem protection.
I was particularly impressed by Beqa Adventure Divers’ approach. In my earlier post, I had mentioned the importance of ensuring that the economic benefits derived from protecting marine animals reach local communities, noting that it means little to a local fisher, who is barely able to sustain his/her family, that protecting a shark will generate more in tourism dollars than what he/she will get from the shark’s fins, unless there is some assurance that he/she will benefit directly, either through employment opportunities or through improved public services. Beqa Adventure Divers’ model does precisely that. Not only are their dive masters and guides recruited primarily from the two villages that are the traditional “custodians” of the reef where the Fiji Shark Dive takes place (now officially designated as a Marine Protection Area), but the company is also collecting a fee of $16 per diver that goes directly to the villages’ community development funds. Moreover, the company regularly collects data on shark populations and behavior. With more than 10 years of data (covering more than 150 individual Bull Sharks), they have been able to document and contribute quite a bit of knowledge about the feeding and migration patterns of this species. I understand from Martin that his operation (in Guadalupe, Mexico) and a number of others also engage heavily in research and public awareness raising.
And lest anyone question the accuracy and value of research on shark populations undertaken by citizen scientist divers, a study published recently in a scientific journal found that data collected by divers was as reliable as that collected by tagging and other traditional research methods.
So I’m definitely sold on the economic and conservation benefits of responsible Shark Diving operations, and I see companies like Beqa Adventure Divers as excellent models to follow. While I’m still not sure whether I’d want to experience cage diving with Great Whites, the experience offered by the Fiji Shark Dive is something I would definitely recommend!