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When “Jaws” came out on the silver screen in 1975, Americans were nervous even to be on a beach. But with the rise of ecotourism during the past decade, as well television programming such as Discovery’s “Shark Week,” it appears people can’t get enough of these ferocious, majestic creatures. And many even are taking the plunge to be in the water alongside them.
“They’re mad about sharks,” says Patric Douglas, CEO, or “chief excitement officer,” of Shark Diver, a conservation and tourism group that arranges caged-shark diving adventures in California, Guadalupe Island and in the Bahamas. Douglas said he fell in love himself in the late 1990s when he spotted an 18-foot female white shark. “It radically altered my views toward white sharks. I had to go start a whole company.”
There are two types of shark diving: caged and non-caged. Non-caged is designed for both advanced and novice divers. An 80-year-old can do it, Douglas says. More experience is suggested to dive in the open water with sharks.
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Companies that arrange for caged shark diving expeditions usually brief you a bit on what to expect. The cages might seem like protection for you, but that’s not the case.
“The cages are for humans,” Douglas says. “Human curiosity is to want to explore past boundaries.”
The three most important rules, according to Douglas: “No. 1 breathe, No. 2 keep breathing, No. 3 Have fun.”
It’s just about as simple as that. You get a bit of prep on how to breathe underwater (never, ever hold your breath, no matter how grand the spectacle) and are told not to put arms and legs outside the cage. Sometimes waiting for a shark can get boring, so divers entertain themselves any way they can.
“I do get people doing handstands once in a while,” he said. The sharks sometimes swim right up or poke their nose up the cage because of their curiosity, but you’re safe inside your cage once they identify you as a non-food source.
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Outside of the cage is a whole different world — there’s nothing to protect you. (So you may want to brush on up on our helpful videos about making friends with sharks and how to punch a shark, and, for the very daring, how to help a shark give birth and how to save a shark from drowning.) As such, there are quite a few more rules in this arena.
PADI, a diving organization that certifies novice and advanced divers, suggests going with experts, such as local dive operators who know shark behavior in the area. It is suggested you go as a group in the daytime, since solo divers in low visibility are more at risk in sharks’ waters.
Since sharks like to eat food on the surface and in mid-water, it is suggested you enter the water quietly and descend quickly. Be aware: If you notice fish swimming erratically, sharks might be near.
Always, always look behind you, Douglas adds. “You want to be spacially aware at all times. Never ever give a shark your back, especially with big tiger sharks. They’re curious. They’ll want to sneak in behind you and come right on you.”
As people’s affection for sharks has increased, they’ve forgotten how fierce these animals are. Never lose sight of the fact these animals are predators, he says.
But most important of all, when it comes to non-caged diving, one rule is king: Respect the shark.
“Always respect,” Douglas says. “The mistakes, if there are any, will happen on the human side, not the shark side. That’s one thing we really drill. Respect the power, respect the size. A 16-foot white shark deserves our respect.”