A great white, Carcharadon carcharias, off the coast of South Africa
A great white, Carcharadon carcharias, off the coast of South Africa (Gozooma/Gallery Stock)

Shark Bait

With shark attacks up 25 percent, 2010 was a terrifying year to be in the water. Scientists say the spike was an anomaly. But there are questions afloat about the practice of chumming, in which cage-diving skippers use a stew of blood and guts to lure the predators in close. JOSHUA HAMMER plunges in at South Africa’s False Bay, epicenter of an industry some cri

A great white, Carcharadon carcharias, off the coast of South Africa
Gozooma/Gallery Stock
Joshua Hammer

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THE GENTLY CURVING COAST of False Bay, just south of Cape Town, is one of South Africa’s most

South Africa's False Bay

South Africa's False Bay South Africa’s False Bay

Craig Bovim's mangled hand after the attack

Craig Bovim's mangled hand after the attack Craig Bovim’s mangled hand after the attack

Bovim today on his sailboat, Synove

Bovim today on his sailboat, Synove Bovim today on his sailboat, Synove

Map of False Bay

Map of False Bay Map of False Bay

endangered sharks

endangered sharks The creatures in peril are not us the sharks themselves; biologists think populations have declined between 60 and 90 percent in the past 50 years.

popular tourist destinations, a 24-mile sweep of sandy beaches framed by the aquamarine Indian Ocean and high, ­verdant cliffs that extend all the way south to the Cape of Good Hope. Long, rolling ­breakers and temperate water attract an abundance of surfers, snorkelers, and swimmers, especially on summer weekends. False Bay also draws a population of several hundred great white sharks, Carcharadon carcharias, which ­during the southern winter congregate around Seal Island, three and a half miles offshore, to feed on seal pups. In summer, when the water ­temp­erature rises to near 70 and the bay fills with migrating yellow­tail, cod, and ­smaller species of shark, the predators gravitate ­toward the beaches to eat.

For years, swimmers and sharks shared the water with few incidents. But over the past decade, a series of attacks around the bay has upset that equilibrium. In 2004, community leaders responded by setting up the Shark Spotters Program, an early-warning system intended to give swimmers time to escape from the giant predators. Despite their ­efforts, 2010 proved to be a deadly year.

On a cloudless afternoon last October, I joined spotter Agnes Murema at her perch in the lush hills several hundred feet above Muizenberg beach, a popular surfing spot in the northwestern corner of False Bay. A stocky black woman in her mid-thirties, she was wearing a pale blue T-shirt, a windbreaker, and jeans. “When I started four years ago, I used to see one shark in five months,” she told me as she peered through polarized sunglasses from a tin-roofed booth. “But last season, I’d see four in my morning shift.”

Down below, black flags were flying at a stretch of beach called Surfers Corner—an ­indication that the water was too murky for decent spotting. Green flags indicate clear water; white flags bearing an image of a shark are raised and a siren goes off after one has been sighted. Murema said black flags were also flying on January 12, 2010, when Lloyd Skinner, a Zimbabwean businessman on holiday, stood adjusting his goggles in the chest-high surf about 100 yards off Fish Hoek beach, a few miles southwest of Muizenberg. One eyewitness would later describe seeing “a ­giant shadow the size of a dinosaur” darken the water. Then the shadow turned corporeal and slammed into Skinner from behind.

“It had the man’s body in its mouth, and his arm was in the air,” beachgoer Phyllis Mc­Cartain told the Cape Times newspaper. “Then the sea was full of blood.” Four rescue boats and a helicopter searched for Skinner for two days but turned up only his goggles. The spotter at Fish Hoek had missed the shark in the murky waters. “He saw the blood in the water, then realized something had happened,” Murema told me. “Suddenly, there was nobody in the water, and he thought, What’s going on?” That spotter isn’t working anymore, she said. He couldn’t bear the possibility of something happening again.

Something did happen again eight months later, 80 miles to the southeast in Shark ­Alley, an area of dense shark populations just off Dyer Island. A barren, guano-covered rock five miles off the mainland, Dyer is home to a population of 60,000 Cape fur seals that draw hundreds of great white sharks every winter. On September 21, Khanyisile ­Momoza, a 29-year-old fisherman, was harvesting abalone illegally with a dozen friends. He’d been poaching near Dyer for years, but on this morning a great white seized him. “There was screaming and crying,” one poacher later said. “We just swam. We didn’t look back.”

Three other people were victims of sharks in the area last year, including a 21-year-old woman snorkeling in Sodwana Bay, south of Mozambique; a 35-year-old surfer whose feet and legs were bitten near Durban; and a young bodyboarder in Strand, in the northeast corner of False Bay, who was nipped on the leg in waist-deep water. This past January, at Second Beach, on South Africa’s Wild Coast, a tiger shark took a chunk out of 16-year-old competitive surfer Zama Ndamase’s leg. He tried to ride a wave back to shore but bled to death before he could be rescued.

Several of these attacks, spotters such as Murema point out, have one thing in common: their proximity to sites where shark-cage diving occurs. Operators of diving boats around both Seal Island and Dyer Island use chum—mashed sardines and fish oil, minced tuna, and shark liver—and bait, including fish chunks or shark heads, to lure great whites into eyeball-to-eyeball encounters with tourists, who are lowered in protective steel cages into the bloody melee.

There’s no proven link between shark diving, chumming, and attacks, and the available statistics can be as murky as the ­waters of False Bay. But even as the number of attacks has declined in South Africa over the past two decades—51 people bitten between 1990 and 1999 (seven fatally), and only 34 the following decade (six fatally), attacks in some of the regions where cage diving takes place have gone up. On the Cape Peninsula, especially in False Bay, and near Dyer Island, attacks have doubled, from six in the 1990s, when the business was getting started, to 12 in the 2000s. Murema isn’t the only one to posit a connection between blood and guts being tossed overboard and the behavior of the sharks off Western Cape’s shores.

“If you’re jumping into the water next to meat that’s being dumped,” says George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, a research group at the Florida Museum of Natural History, “you’d be hard-pressed not to fear for your life.”

IN GENERAL, 2010 was a scary year to be in the water. According to the ISAF, 79 attacks occurred worldwide last year—the highest number in a decade, up 25 percent from 2009’s 63 attacks, which is also the yearly average over the past decade. As with previous years, the greatest number—32—took place right here in North America, with Florida leading the way. The state’s Volusia County—whose year-round concentrations of surfers and swimmers and its proximity to the baitfish-laden Ponce de Leon Inlet have made it the world’s shark-bite capital—held on to its title, with six people bitten, mostly by smaller sharks.

Burgess, a leading shark biologist, is quick to point out that this highly publicized jump may have no significance. “The rate of ­attacks is not necessarily going up,” he says. Rather, the human population is growing, as is the number of people who engage in aquatic sports. You’ve still got a much higher chance of getting stung by a jellyfish or injured by your own surfboard than you do of being bitten by a shark.

What did spike the numbers in 2010 were attacks in two places: From January to May, six people were bitten by an unknown ­species of shark off Vietnam’s Quy Nhon beach, a ­series of incidents whose causes remain a mystery. And last December, a terrifying cluster of strikes rocked the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, on the Red Sea. Cluster attacks are phenomena in which sharks seem to go berserk, striking repeatedly over a period of days. Such attacks aren’t new: the first reported incident, which inspired Peter Benchley’s 1974 book, Jaws, occurred in July 1916 on the Jersey Shore, where great whites killed four people and wounded another over a 12-day period.

The Sharm el-Sheikh attacks began on December 1, when ocean whitetip sharks mauled four Russian and Ukrainian tourists in a single afternoon. Four days later, sharks tore the arm and leg off a 70-year-old German woman, who quickly bled to death. Egyptian authorities closed a 30-mile stretch of Red Sea coast to swimmers, and shark researchers, including Burgess, converged on the scene. “It was probably the most unusual shark incident of my career,” he said. “Five attacks occurring in four, five days in almost the same location is really rare. It means that something is up.”

As the investigators interviewed witnesses, they pinpointed some obvious factors. Area fishermen had noted an absence of tuna last year, which may have left the sharks hungry. And the close proximity of the Red Sea’s deep water and its beaches means that sharks and tourists swim near each other. But biologists also found that a cargo vessel from New Zealand had been illegally dumping sheep carcasses throughout November, livestock that had died in transport to Egypt for the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha. The flesh would have drawn more sharks from the open ocean.

Incidents like this—as well as a spate of attacks in the early 2000s in Recife, Brazil, in which bull sharks bit surfers near the outflow of a chicken-processing plant—raise the issue of whether food in the water makes swimmers more likely to become a meal. When sharks attack with more frequency in a certain area, it most often has to do with changes in oceanographic conditions—increased salinity, warmer water, or loss of food sources—that push them into closer contact with people. Humans are not natural prey for sharks, and neither are sheep or cattle. But if there’s meat in the water, and you’re there too, it’s a bad combination. “There is no question,” says Burgess, “that continual feeding at a site will condition sharks, and then what you have is a nonnatural situation, not only in levels of abundance but in behavior.”

At the center of this question is the shark-cage-diving industry. It originated in South Africa in the early 1990s when commercial fishermen in Gansbaai, a mostly Afrikaans-speaking town 80 miles east of Cape Town, decided there was more money to be made from observing great whites than from killing them. (They borrowed the technique from the 1971 documentary Blue Water, White Death, whose makers, including author Peter Matthiessen, pioneered the use of shark-viewing cages.) Two decades later, ticket sales bring an annual 300 million rand—about $43 million—to Gansbaai and nearby Kleinbaai.

Now it’s a popular activity around the world. You can go cage diving in the Bahamas; off Isla Guadalupe, Mexico, 160 miles from the west coast of Baja California; and off the North Shore of Oahu. You can go in Australia, where 25 percent of tourist dollars spent around Cairns flow to the $16 million industry. But cage diving’s spread has also caused a backlash against the use of chum and bait. Florida banned chumming in 2001. Northern California’s Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, 27 miles west of San Francisco, outlawed it seven years later. Off Isla Guadalupe, a 2008 ban on chumming led some operators to sink their cages deeper to place them closer to the sharks; air is supplied through hoses, and neither scuba gear nor dive certification is required.

In May 2010, the backlash spread to Maunalua Bay in Oahu, where 300 angry people showed up at a town-hall meeting to protest plans to start a cage-diving business there. Chumming has been illegal in state waters—which extend three miles offshore—since 2009, but activists say that enforcement has been lax, and they want the laws tightened. They’ve collected YouTube videos showing outfitters putting “big hunks of meat into the sharks’ mouths,” says Gene Ward, the district representative to Hawaii’s state legislature.

Still, nobody can answer the key question: Does chum turn sharks into man-eaters?

NOWHERE IS THE CONFLATION of sharks, food, and people under greater scrutiny than in cage diving’s birthplace. Sharks are an obsession in watersports-crazed South Africa, and attack tales are ingrained in people’s minds.

“Every beachgoer in Cape Town knows somebody who’s been attacked,” says Lewis Gordon Pugh, a long-distance swimmer who was the first person to swim around the Cape of Good Hope, in 2004. Pugh has observed a “dramatic increase in shark sightings” off the Cape Peninsula since he worked as a lifeguard there in the 1990s. During his Good Hope swim, he says, “this enormous beast swam beneath me. I’ve never seen anything move as quickly.” Days later, a teenager lost his leg at the hip to a great white off Muizenberg beach. Two years after that, one of Pugh’s closest friends, Achmat Hassiem, also lost his leg to a great white, off Sunrise Beach, also in Muizenberg. After that, says Pugh, “I stopped swimming around Cape Town.”

Pugh says he’s not qualified to judge whether chumming has led to more attacks, but the practice makes him queasy. “We must respect an animal that has been here since the dinosaurs, an animal vital to the health of the ecosystem,” he says. “You would not go to the Serengeti and throw meat out of a Land Rover to get leopards and lions to come closer.”

That’s exactly what they do with sharks in South Africa, as I saw for myself in late October. For 1,100 rand, or about $170, I booked a dive tour with White Shark Projects, one of half a dozen operators based in Kleinbaai, a booming mainland community within sight of Dyer Island and Shark Alley.

My choice wasn’t random. I had heard stories that a lack of regulation pervades the business, and White Shark was at the center of the controversy. In April 2008, Shark Team, the company’s 35-foot catamaran—a boat I’d been out on once before, for a short news­paper travel piece—had been involved in a fatal accident in which three tourists, including a 33-year-old American newlywed named Chris Tallman, drowned in frigid ­waters off Dyer when a giant wave hit the boat. Prosecutors are expected to decide this summer whether to charge Shark Team’s captain, Grant Tuckett, with culpable homi­cide, the equivalent of manslaughter. But Shark Team was still in operation, taking hundreds of tourists a week to the spot where the three men had died.

The morning started with a short briefing about great whites, the dominant species off Dyer. Ranging in three distinct populations—one in the northern Pacific, another around Australia and New Zealand, and a third off the coast of South Africa—Carcharadon carcharias is uniquely designed for stalking and killing prey, with an acute sense of smell, sharp eyesight, and electromagnetic sensory cells that allow it to detect the faint electrical charges produced by all animals. Its 3,000 teeth—lower ones for grasping, upper for cutting—and detachable upper mandible give it unequaled biting power. And its high metabolism makes it an insatiable feeder: one researcher in False Bay watched a great white devour three Cape fur seals in a single night, though studies have also shown that it can survive for a month without eating.
The sky was overcast and the air a brisk 55 degrees as a hydraulic lift lowered Shark Team into the harbor. Three other boats were preparing to go out, and two dozen tourists were shivering as they disembarked from vessels that had just returned from a dawn trip.

As we motored past Danger Point peninsula and into the open Atlantic, three crew members tossed bucketfuls of shark livers and blood into the boat’s wake, producing an odoriferous slick that would, they hoped, lure predators to Shark Team. The crew insisted that this wasn’t food but merely a stimulant for the sharks’ sense of smell.

The waves were rough, the boat was tossed violently, and most of the passengers—about a dozen Britons, Swiss Germans, Indians, and Spaniards—got seasick. Still, we were all ­excited as the crew lay anchor off Dyer Island in a stiff, salty breeze and began securing the shark cage—a rectangular contraption with compartments for five divers—to the starboard aft of the boat.

As I changed into my wetsuit, I thought back to my conversation with Sarah Tallman, the widow of Chris Tallman, who had phoned her in San Francisco the night before his death. “Chris was so excited about diving that he didn’t know if he could fall asleep,” she’d said. On the morning of April 13, Tallman and Casey LaJeunesse, his best man, had just finished cage diving and were changing out of their wetsuits when a 30-foot wave crashed off Shark Team’s bow. The boat flipped, trapping both men underneath the vessel. Nobody noticed until rescue boats got the passengers back to shore that Tallman and LaJeunesse were missing. A young Norwegian man also drowned.

White Shark Projects’ owner and director, Charmaine Beukes, insisted that “all safety measures” had been in place when the ship went over. But the South African Maritime Safety Authority released an accident report that charged Tuckett—whose certificate of competence had expired five months earlier—with “poor judgment” for ignoring inclement weather and picking an anchorage spot notorious for heavy swells. Nobody in the crew had undergone rescue training, none of the passengers were wearing life vests, and the company never compiled a manifest. Sarah Tallman filed a multimillion-dollar negligence lawsuit, which has been dragged out in legal procedures. No court date has been set.

The deaths of Tallman and LaJeunesse were on my mind as I prepared for the dive, but they vanished soon enough as I got ready to go face-to-face with a great white. I climbed into the submerged cage, wincing in the frigid water. Then I pulled the mask over my face and waited, head above water and knees thrust up awkwardly onto a platform three feet below the surface.

Minutes later, I heard a cry from the deck: “Down!” Thrilled, I ducked beneath the water. Through the murk I could see the bullet head of a great white, about eight feet long, swimming directly toward me. I instinctively hurled myself against the back of the cage, even though I’d been assured that the steel bars would protect me. The shark clamped its jaws around a large tuna head dangling from a rope, only to have it yanked away. It lunged; again the bait was snatched away. Then it disappeared and all went quiet. Soon came another shout from the deck: “Down!” The shark reappeared, lunging again for the bait.

This game continued for a half-hour before the shark gave up and vanished. I stayed in the water another 15 minutes, freezing but thoroughly exhilarated. As we bobbed in the turbulent swells, I counted five other shark-diving boats in the vicinity. The water was slick with chum.

THE CAVE-DIVING EXCURSION gave me more than my share of excitement, but questions nagged. Was it worth it? Or was I setting someone up for a munching next week?

In South Africa, the leading campaigner against cage diving is Craig Bovim, a sailor and surfer from the Cape Peninsula who owns a maintenance company. He met me for lunch at the False Bay Yacht Club in Simon’s Town, where his 31-foot sloop, Synove, was dry-docked for seasonal repairs. A rugged man in his early forties, rakishly decked out in a Crocodile Dundee–style bush hat, Bovim seems to bear no signs of the attack that almost killed him—that is, until you notice the reddish scars curving up both of his arms. The shark took out the main artery in his right wrist, destroyed the tendons, and left him with a virtually useless right arm. We sat in an outdoor café in front of the clubhouse, and as we began to talk, an obviously inebriated eavesdropper looked up from his beer.

“Tell me,” he said. “Were you taken by a shark?”

“Yeah,” Bovim responded. He knew what was coming.

“What’s it like?”

“It’s recommendable.”

“Is it a thrilling experience?”

“Not in the moment, but you’d be surprised how much better you feel afterward.”

On Christmas Eve, 2002, Bovim had been diving for lobsters off Scarborough Beach, on the Atlantic side of the Cape Peninsula. He noticed a dark form hovering above him. “A massive moving slab,” he said. The shark, a great white that looked to be about 13 feet long, followed him, then disappeared.

Bovim was relieved—but only for a few moments. “I stuck my head out of the water and saw this fin bearing down on me from 30 yards away,” he said. “I saw this pink mouth coming at me at speed over the top of the water.” Bovim screamed as the shark slammed into him, taking his arms in its jaws. He could hear the crunching of his bones as ribbons of blood flowed from its mouth. “He was dragging me, I was underneath,” Bovim recalled. “It was incredibly intimate. I gave in to the sensation, feeling my life draining from me.”

Then Bovim thought of his four-year-old son and was filled with an intense ­desire to live. He butted the shark’s nose with his mask, wrenched his shredded right arm from its mouth, and freed his left one. The shark swam off, leaving Bovim—weighed down by a diving belt—to sink to the ocean floor. Managing to undo the belt’s buckle with the exposed bone of his right hand, he clawed his way to the surface, where a breaker washed him up on the beach. Surfers summoned a doctor, who shot him up with morphine and had him airlifted to a trauma center. He’d lost five pints of blood, and he ­ultimately underwent 14 operations to reattach nerves, muscles, and tendons. Nine months later, he was back on his board.

Over the next two years, Bovim noticed an upswing in attacks in False Bay. In September 2003, a huge great white killed a 19-year-old surfer at the Dunes, a popular surf area. The next April, in the same Muizenberg beach attack that Pugh mentioned, a shark bit off the leg of a young surfing buddy of Bovim’s; the 16-year-old went into cardiac arrest but was revived after 20 minutes. (His severed leg was found a day later, still attached to the surfboard leash.) Seven months later, a 78-year-old woman was doing her morning backstroke 20 yards off Fish Hoek beach when a 20-foot great white devoured her. Only her red swim cap was recovered.

Bovim was alarmed. Though attacks in South Africa were down, the most recent were concentrated around Seal Island, where cage-diving operations were in full swing. “I thought there might be some connection,” Bovim says. He consulted biologists and studied the research of the late University of Stellenbosch professor Deon Sadie, who suspected that shark diving was conditioning sharks to associate humans with food. Sadie had examined footage taken by film crews around Dyer and Seal islands, which included close-ups of great whites with their jaws wide open. Frequently, he’d learned, boat operators helped film crews obtain these shots—used for ads, movies, and documentaries—by feeding the predators raw meat.

“The bait gets taken, and there’s nobody from the government policing it,” Bovim says. “You’ve got a dangerous animal, yet you disobey common sense. All this is overlooked because there are big bucks attached.”

In June 2005, Bovim sent a letter to the minister of environmental affairs and tourism—signed by Olympic yachtsmen, surfing champions, marine biologists, and other prominent South Africans—calling for a ban on chumming. “These practices are unnecessary and have ecological implications that are largely unknown,” the letter stated. When no action was taken, he formed an anti-cage-diving organization, Shark Concern Group. Zolile Nqayi, director of communications for the Department of Environmental Affairs’ oceans and coasts division, told me via e-mail that the government doesn’t consider chumming to be feeding and insists that “it is very important for us to ensure as far as possible that sharks are not fed.”

Meanwhile the attacks continued. Earlier in 2005, in March, a British surfer had been mauled by a great white near Noordhoek, on the Atlantic coast. That May, a spearfisherman had been eaten by a great white at Miller’s Point, at the southern end of False Bay. Two months later, off Dyer Island, a great white lunged from the water and nearly grabbed a British tourist as he was climbing into a shark cage. There were also two near misses in False Bay; a surfer was rammed by a great white, and a diver drove off another one with a spear.

Two years ago, Bovim applied for a permit from South Africa’s Department of Marine and Coastal Management to run eco-friendly shark tours around Seal Island from his sailboat—without the use of chum or engines. The department rejected his request on the grounds that no such permits exist, suggesting he reapply as a cage-diving operator. (As Zqavi explained, the government wants to “avoid a situation where shark-diving operations could be crowded around with onlookers.”) Still, Bovim continues to sail friends out to the island at dawn to observe shark attacks on seals. The visits occasionally lead to tense encounters with cage-diving operators. “They seem to regard it as their turf,” Bovim says. “But I’m not going to give up.”
WHEN YOU TALK TO industry critics like Bovim, it’s easy to equate blood in the ­water with shark attacks. But so far very few studies have investigated chumming. Partly, that’s because scientists are busy addressing the more important point: the real creatures in peril are not us but the sharks themselves. Global populations have dropped anywhere from 60 to 90 percent over the past 50 years, biologists believe, thanks in part to the unregulated business known as finning—netting sharks, stripping them of their fins, and then dumping the animals back in the ocean to die. The practice goes to feed the insatiable Asian demand for shark-fin soup, and it kills roughly 73 million sharks a year. Scientists now estimate there may be fewer than 3,500 great whites left—“less than the number of tigers,” according to Ronald O’Dor, a senior scientist at the Washington, D.C.–based Census of Marine Life.

One of the few people who has studied chumming is Alison Kock, a marine biologist who directs great white research for the conservation group Save Our Seas and is a leading defender of cage diving. Her office is in a modest bungalow in Kalk Bay, a gentrifying fishing village midway between Muizen­berg and Fish Hoek. I headed there one after­noon, driving from Cape Town over Ou Kaapse Weg, a heartstopping mountain road that twists through fields of fynbos, the pale green shrubbery indigenous to the Cape Peninsula. Kock, a Ph.D. candidate in her thirties, admitted right away that she has close ties to the industry: her husband’s family owns one of the eight concessions in Gansbaai. But she insisted that the connection hasn’t prevented her from looking at the industry objectively.

“Sharks don’t see people as natural prey,” she told me. It’s only been in the past century, as more humans enter the water for recreation, that sharks have begun biting them. Some of these attacks are mere “investigations of something new,” she said. In rare ­occurrences, like the killing of Lloyd Skinner in 2010, the fish turn predatory. “I’m amazed that there aren’t more attacks,” said Kock. “For the most part, they are ignoring us.”

In 2007, Kock coauthored a study, “Effect of Provisioning Ecotourism Activity on the Behavior of White Sharks.” Between May and October 2004, researchers from the University of Cape Town and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver tagged 17 great whites around Seal Island with acoustic transmitters. They compared the sharks’ behavior when no chum was present to their actions when meat, blood, and oil was poured into the water. Although some sharks maintained close contact with the chumming boats, the study noted that “the vast majority of sharks only passed by briefly, and demonstrated very little response to the food incentive.”

Contrary to expectations, Kock maintains, even sharks that initially followed the boats lost interest after a few visits. “I had thought, if you chum, you get sharks,” she said. “But when cage diving is done at a moderate level, where sharks only sometimes get the bait, they demonstrate an ability to ignore chumming.” Nor did chumming disrupt the sharks’ feeding on seals around Seal Island, Kock found. The report concluded that “moderate levels of ecotourism probably only have a minor impact on the behavior of white sharks.”

Some researchers, including George Burgess, call Kock’s study inconclusive, pointing out that its narrow focus cannot be extrapolated to shark populations worldwide. One of the only other studies, conducted by the University of Hawaii in 2009 at the behest of the local cage-diving industry, also supported Kock’s findings—though it, too, was viewed skeptically by critics who doubted its objectivity. The study followed two operators who ran up to six cage-diving trips per day just outside state waters off Oahu’s North Shore. Though the boats used ample amounts of chum, researchers found “no evidence” that the rate of shark attacks—five during the 1990s and five between 2000 and 2008—had increased on the North Shore since cage ­diving began in 2001. “Current Hawaii shark diving operations,” their report stated, “pose little risk to public safety.”

In the absence of definitive findings, many biologists would like to stop the activity for environmental reasons. In the Farallon ­Islands, marine biologists Peter Pyle and Scot Anderson from PRBO Conservation Science (founded as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory) succeeded in doing so. In a 2007 paper, they expressed concern about “the dumping of chum and other chemicals to attract sharks … and the close approach of large tourist boats to feeding sharks.” In contrast to Kock’s findings, the conservationists ­determined that the activities were interrupting the sharks’ feeding cycle and resulting in “the permanent displacement of the sharks from their prey.” Two operators now run chumless dive trips in the Farallons, putting tourists in cages and submerging them in rough, cold seas filled with plankton blooms. The shark viewing is sporadic but adventurous.

So what’s the bottom line? I asked Burgess whether the absence of research vindicated those who say chumming isn’t harmful. “Managing wildlife is always built on using the best data available,” he said. “We don’t have definitive data, but we shouldn’t throw up our hands and say, ‘Until we can prove otherwise, we’ll go with feeding.’

“The record of how we deal with land predators is uniform,” he continued. “You don’t feed bears or raccoons or tigers. In fact, here in the U.S. you can’t get close to predators. All over the world, the scientific community says it’s best not to feed them. Why? Because of concern over safety, concern over ecology, and concern over the health of the animals. Why would we, when dealing with the fiercest predator in the ocean, want to act contrary to the standard set time and time again?”

I thought of his words as I headed down to Surfers Corner for a swim. It was a windy, clear afternoon, the sea was rough, and dozens of surfers were riding the waves. I waded into the chilly water, progressing up to my knees. Black flags flapped in the gusts, and a spotter watched the action from a yellow cabana a few yards from the water’s edge.

“Don’t worry,” she’d assured me. “A siren will go off if a great white comes close.”

I scanned the bay nervously, looking for a long shadow, but the water was too murky to see much. Then my mind was bombarded by images from Jaws—specifically, the scene in which the great white attacks a little boy in a red bathing suit as he paddles around on his yellow raft. Finally I couldn't stand it any longer. I got out and headed for my car.


From Outside Magazine, Aug 2011 Lead Photo: Gozooma/Gallery Stock