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I was 40 or 50 feet below the surface of the Caribbean on Grand Cayman’s East End last November when the first shark showed up. Then another. And another. Altogether, five joined us on our dive. The photographers in the group were clicking away madly; the rest of us just watched, awestruck. The sharks ignored us — puny, soft beings who couldn’t survive in their world without steel tanks and air hoses.
Sharks are the iconic lords of the deep; even veteran divers are awed by their presence. Their torpedo-shaped bodies and jagged teeth send a clear message:
I can take you.
Fortunately for divers, shark attacks are rare. Between 2006 and 2010, an average of 4.2 fatal shark attacks took place annually worldwide, according to
Oceana, an ocean
conservation organization. In fact, sharks are at more risk from humans than we are from them: A study published in the journal
Marine Policy estimates that between 63 million and 273 million sharks are killed annually — for their fins, as bycatch (the unwanted fish and other marine creatures caught during commercial fishing for a different species) and simply because of the global growth in fishing.
In fact, many species of shark are now threatened. That’s bad news, because sharks are an ecologically important keystone predator; the oceans need them to maintain balance.
Sharks are vital to the maintenance of the ocean’s habitat and species. They manage populations of fish and other marine life by taking out those that are old, sick or slow. They also protect habitat — the mere presence of tiger sharks is enough to keep turtles from overgrazing beds of sea grass and destroying specific areas. When shark populations become too low, it affects not only commercially important fish such as tuna, but also shellfish and coral reefs.
One of the ways we can increase awareness about sharks is to go diving with them. The opportunity to see sharks in their world is educational and inspirational. It can also be an economic boon to the place you’re diving, which also benefits the sharks: When sharks draw divers (and don’t eat them), they become more appreciated for their economic value as a tourist attraction.
There are lots of places to dive with sharks, but these four areas are considered among the best.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico:
Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are found in most temperate seas throughout the world, but they are known to gather off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula at Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox between May and September, sometimes in groups of more than 100. Also known as the basking shark, this species is both the largest fish and the largest shark in the world. As long as you are careful not to get smacked by the tail fin, whale sharks are typically harmless toward people. They feed primarily on plankton, opening their mouths wide and filtering the microscopic marine life through their gills as they swim. Snorkeling or swimming with them — diving isn’t permitted in protected areas — is a life-changing experience, says Scuba Schools International advanced open-water and specialty dive instructor Glenda Gabriel, who lives in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico. “We usually go every year to Isla Mujeres, a 20-minute ferry ride from Cancun, and then take a smaller boat out into the protected area, which is about an hour away in the open water,” she says. “They are not too shy and come close enough for a photo op.”
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