Audubon Society fights shark feeding at Blue Hole As our last story suggests, Belize’s World Heritage sites can be preserved and at the same time produce income for nearby residents; it all comes down to smart management. But what’s happening at the Blue Hole is considered by many to be anything ¬but smart. News Five’s Janelle Chanona reports on the potentially lethal mix of sharks and SCUBA divers.
Janelle Chanona, Reporting
For diving enthusiasts, a shark encounter is a highlight of any underwater experience. But researchers say feeding sharks while you’re in the water is a recipe for disaster.
Videos like this one were posted on the popular internet website “YouTube” by divers visiting the Blue Hole. But according to the National Monument’s co-manager, the Belize Audubon Society, the footage provides evidence that the activity is not only unsafe, it’s bad for the country’s eco-tourism image...and business.Tanya Williams Thompson, Advocacy Manager, Belize Audubon Society“I was watching CNN last week Saturday and they reported that a diver was killed during a shark feeding dive in the Bahamas, that’s our worse case scenario. That we get a call that somebody has been killed during one of these shark feeding dives. I think we are putting people’s lives in great danger by doing that so for us right now, we need to act. We need to legislate, we need to enforce a ban on shark feeding.”
Shark feeding is not isolated to the Blue Hole. It’s a regular event at places like the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark/Ray Alley. When I visited Shark/Ray Alley last July, nurse sharks came right up to the boat.
Janelle Chanona“But there’s a big difference between the nurse sharks at Shark/Ray Alley and the big predators at the Blue Hole...they’re called “teeth”.”
Nurse sharks are considered docile but the sharks spotted in the Blue Hole and around Lighthouse Reef include the Bull, Tiger, Lemon, Hammerhead and Mako sharks...all of whom have a reputation for aggressive and unpredictable behaviour and have been linked to shark attacks around the world.
Here in Belize, in 1979 shark attack victim Tom McDonald was actually bitten while spear fishing in the Blue Hole by what was believed to be a seven-foot Tiger Shark. Thompson maintains such attacks will recur if shark feeding continues unchecked.Tanya Williams Thompson“Audubon has been built on a foundation of educating people and creating awareness and that’s important for us even in this case but we cannot really justify us sitting back and trying to educate tour operators while the dangers continue and persist.”
The Belize Audubon Society has drafted an anti-shark feeding policy but the document has yet to become law. While the Forest Department quotes the National Park System Act to state that “any act that detracts from the good order or general enjoyment of the area” is prohibited, Product Development Manager at the Belize Tourism Board, Anthony Mahler, says the language is too broad to enforce.
Anthony Mahler, Product Development Director, B.T.B.“We’ve had reports from tourists who say they’ve gotten trapped in shark feeding frenzies and stuff like that and they were scared for their lives. If the rules and regulations are put in place and you have proper monitoring and evaluation of the area and you have any breach of those regulations then you can act on it but right now we just can’t.”
“But you do agree it’s totally unsafe.”Anthony Mahler“I’m not an expert. The experts have said it’s unsafe but the tour operators who operate in the area say they know what they’re doing.”
One of those tour operators is Amigos del Mar in San Pedro.Amigos del Mar“Blue Hole, as long we get enough people, we do it three or four times for the week.”Janelle Chanona
“What’s enough people?”Amigos del Mar“Minimum of ten.”Janelle Chanona
“And how much notice would you need?”Amigos del Mar“Just let me know the day before.”Janelle Chanona
“Do you all do shark feeding as part of that tour?”Amigos del Mar“Aha. Yes, yes.”Janelle Chanona
“That’s at the beginning of the dive or the end of the dive?”Amigos del Mar“During the dive for the Blue Hole.”Janelle Chanona
“During the dive. Okay, people are still down in the water.”Amigos del Mar“Yup.”
But when we spoke to owner Jose Paz a few minutes later, he denied his dive shop was still selling shark feeding as part of the Blue Hole experience.
Jose Paz, Owner, Amigos Del Mar“I used to do it right but I already stopped doing it because of Audubon. Audubon stopped me doing it so I’m not doing it anymore.”
But Paz did maintain that there is a ‘safe’ way to feed sharks.Janelle Chanona
“Everybody’s out of the water when you’re doing it?”Jose Paz“No, they’re in the water.”Janelle Chanona
“Okay.”Jose Paz“They’re in the water but there are so many ways you can do it. And as long as you talk to your people and your people listen to what you’re doing it, it’s going to safe. But if you don’t talk to your people and then other groups of divers come in and interfere with what you’re doing, it’s very dangerous.”
“And who talks to the sharks because I know when food deh out, the sharks might get a little crazy.”Jose Paz“They don’t want to get crazy, they just want to eat.”Janelle Chanona
“How do you make sure the shark knows what is the chum and what’s the diver?”Jose Paz“Well they can tell...animals have instinct.”
And according to shark researcher Rachel Graham, it’s that “instinct” that has to be respected.Voice of Rachel Graham, Shark Researcher, Wildlife Conservation Society“Shark feeding is not a good idea for biological, for ecological, and for the case of the sharks and from a safety standpoint for people. I definitely do not encourage shark feeding and the main reason for that is that you are actually changing the habit of the sharks. They come to expect the food. They come to expect that that food is being by given to them by people. So then they start making this connection between “Ah ha! Food” and people!”
And Graham says in her ten years of shark research, associating food with people has often led to curiosity and aggressive behaviour...both of which can involve a shark bite.
While many reviews of shark feeding in the Blue Hole are ringing endorsements, letters of complaint like this one do exist. According to Dr. William Bilek while snorkelling in the Blue Hole, the crew of another boat started to chum and he and his wife got so scared, he hurt himself trying to get out of the water.
Tour operators are aware of the very real danger.Rodolfo Marin, Big Fish, Caye Caulker“The rangers have been going out there you know and it has been stopped.”Janelle Chanona
“I heard that was still happening out there, that you are were still doing that.”Rodolfo Marin“No, at least my dive shop we don’t.”Janelle Chanona
“Why you think they stop it, it’s unsafe?”Rodolfo Marin“The sharks are pretty big sharks, when I say big, I’m talking anywhere from four, six foot sharks and a shark like that could do a lot of damage if they make a mistake and they mistake somebody for what you’re throwing out there you know.”
If someone were injured in Blue Hole, they’d have to be transported fifty-five miles into Belize City for medical treatment. Safety must come first but Audubon says that goal can only be attained with strong laws and political will.Tanya Williams Thompson“Actually having man power out there to make that no chum is thrown in that water. At the end of the day, that really is enforcement that is needed. We need to act quickly. I’d think we have been dragging our feet not we in terms of Audubon, but we collectively, have been dragging our feet and we need to act immediately before something serious happens.”
Reporting for News Five, I am Janelle Chanona. http://www.channel5belize.com/archive_detail_story.php?story_id=20344