Why Sharks Are Getting Stuck in Diver Cages

Divers and conservationists say uptick in incidents could actually be beneficial to the species.

An underwater photographer got unexpectedly close to his subject when a great white shark broke into his cage.

The incident took place near Guadalupe Island, Mexico, where divers frequently descend into the shark-filled waters, and shocking incidents like this have occurred several times over the past year. And surprisingly, this phenomenon may also be beneficial to the sharks.

As the below video, released in October 2016, shows, the diver and shark were both put in danger when the shark chased a piece of bait into a cage, blindly smashing through a large hole and becoming trapped.

SHARK BREAKS THROUGH DIVING CAGE

Speculating as to why this may have happened, underwater photographer Brian Skerry, who has been diving with sharks for decades, thinks the use of bait contributed. The boat crew had thrown a rope with tuna tied to it into the water to lure the shark closer.

“If you bait repeatedly and the cage has a big opening, the shark will follow it in and at the last minute open its mouth, close its eyes, and end up running into the cage,” Skerry said.

According to Skerry, while the diver was not in tremendous danger of being bitten, he could easily have been slammed and hurt by the 910-kg fish if he remained in the cage.

The videographer, Brian Ernst, said he and the crew were worried for the diver’s safety.

“The shark is trying to get out of the cage and was going crazy. We were thinking we might be seeing somebody die. Luckily the crew were thinking properly, opening up the top of the cage. A few seconds later, we saw the great white flinging out.”

Leaving the cage presented its own set of challenges. Tied to the boat with an air hose and weighted down to stay at the bottom of the cage, the diver had to think fast in order to escape the cage without letting the weights around his waist pull him to the ocean floor.

Much of what we think we know about great white sharks simply isn’t true. They aren’t merciless hunters, they aren’t always loners, and they may be smarter than experts have thought.

PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SKERRY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Searching for seals, a shark swims near the Neptune Islands. Great whites do not live in groups, nor are they purely solitary creatures. Sometimes they congregate near food.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SKERRY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Perhaps no other animal stirs primal panic like a great white shark. This one returned again and again to investigate a caged diver in waters off Australia. But scientists say people may pose more of a threat to great whites than the sharks pose to people.PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SKERRY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A great white trolls the surface off the southern coast of Australia. In 2015, 33 people were attacked by sharks of all species in the oceans off Australia, according to data from the Taronga Conservation Society Australia. PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SKERRY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The diver exited the cage through the hole opened up by the shark but maintained a hold on it so he didn’t sink. When the shark escaped, he was able to rise to the surface, returning through the same hole.

The shark was likely uninjured, according to Skerry, but it was difficult to tell from the video. The blood may be from the bait, a chipped tooth or another small injury.

In a similar incident Monday, also near Guadalupe Island, a shark swam into an open-top cage and became stuck, forcing dive operators to tie a rope around the predator’s tail to free it from the cage. Divers were also forced to squeeze past the shark to escape after the shark bit through their air hose. In that case, as well, the shark was likely attracted by the tuna attached to the cage.

“It was a shark enticed by the scent of tuna, not humans. I suspect and hope this incident prompts some changes in the operations, mainly the design of the cages so that this cannot happen again,” said Katie Yonker, director of operations for Bluewater Travel, a company that regularly takes shark dive tours to the area.

Skerry emphasised that these incidents are relatively rare and more or less inevitable with the increased prevalence of shark diving. “It is generally a freak accident and is sometimes hard to avoid,” he said.

WHY THIS MIGHT BE GOOD

While shark cage accidents have become more common, the increased popularity of shark cage diving has done some good, Skerry said.

“When I started diving with sharks 30 years ago, no one was interested in seeing them. Now there are shark ambassadors around the world. They’ve done some good things in trying to change the view most people have that they are dangerous villains.”

Ernst confirmed this experience, emphasising the gentle nature of the animals.

“The sharks were completely awesome. They were not trying to break into the cage, they were just going for the bait,” said Ernst. “They weren’t trying to attack the humans.”

Sharks are also in danger. Estimates for the number killed per year for their fins range from a hundred million to 273 million. “We can’t kill a hundred million sharks a year and expect the ocean to remain healthy,” said Skerry.

He adds that diving in shark cages to witness sharks firsthand has helped to raise awareness of sharks' dwindling numbers and nuanced behaviour, and it's helped spur advocacy efforts worldwide.

Header Image: A shark scientist, inside a protective cage, studies an Oceanic Whitetip Shark in the waters of the Bahamas. This species was once the most abundant large animal on Earth but today is on the verge of extinction. In the years between 1995 and 2010, their numbers declined 93 percent due to hunting of their fins. PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SKERRY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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