Coincidentally, I was editing video from shark dives in the Bahamas and West Palm Beach earlier this week, when narration from a television program caught my ear. The Florida footage I was chopping up was shot during the good old days here in the Sunshine State, before indulging in that sort of recreational activity could get your ass fined, dragged into court or worse.
Image from: 'Shark Business', The Underwater Channel, Babelgum.com
The program, 'Our Earth - Blue Realm: The Shark Business', was one in a series of six ocean-related episodes that aired here on PBS (WEDU), out of Tampa. Producer, Director and Writer, Danny Mauro managed to pull off the daunting, but respectable task of balancing appropriate messaging for the general public, along with the obligatory cautionary disclaimers. Most notable, though, was his positive promotion of the shark diving industry and its crucial role in education and conservation efforts; not just for these fish, but entire marine eco-systems.
'The same animals that strike terror in the hearts of swimmers ... generate excitement with many scuba divers' was, at first, another typical voiceover script versed to open the program. The premise did, howevr, quickly switch gears from a terror alert to a more purposeful theme touting how human and animal interaction experiences are among the most effective means of promoting awareness, while fostering care and protection for sharks and their habitats.
If you're in the industry or a fan of shark-centric programming, you'll see plenty of familiar faces throughout 'Shark Business', providing industry-specific points-of-view from Gansbaai South Africa to the Bahamas, and the Pacific Northwest. But it also contains some welcome, un-recycled content, footage and perspective, including some from the Georgia Aquarium. Depending on who you talk to, this program is destined to be fodder for argument and controversy, but taken in its entirety, and overall spirit (as it should be), it's well worth a watch.
As a staunch advocate for the profitable sustainability of natural resources, I'm also a proponent and participant in the diving industry, and its more specialized and growing shark diving segment. Recent conversations with those at the very apex of this business, and viewing programs like this one, remind me how good we used to have it in some places, and what's possibly at stake, moving forward.
My home state of Florida, which I lovingly refer to as a peninsula surrounded by sharks, legally prohibited 'any form of diving and related activities for the purpose of feeding sharks' in 2001 -- void of any major incident. The Cayman Islands and Hawaii followed suit, and misguided and confusing political campaigns in other aquatically endowed destinations are going on with increasing regularity. The questions for me are:
Who's stirring up the muck and making the case against shark diving in the first place?
Who ultimately makes final 'go or no' decisions?
And, how are those decisions justified?
The justification for most successful prohibitions, including ones I've been directly involved with, generically tout 'public safety' and 'animal welfare' as legislative motivators. That kind of ambiguous knee-jerking is always a tough one to wrap your noodle around, so I'll offer this as purely respectful perspective. According to Dropzone.com, unofficial skydiving fatalities since 2004 tally up at 373 with 50 of those impacting stats for this single year-to-date.
Not to trivialize any recreationally attributable death, but I don't recall hearing a single news report of any of those incidents or subsequent efforts to ban the sport. Anyone else hear anything, other than on the local news level? Statistically, at least, gravity appears to suck an awful lot more than sharks do when it comes to public safety, but it doesn't win the marketing and media wars ... that's for sure.
And what about that 'animal welfare' position? The plight of sharks and the need for education, awareness, and sustainable practices, coupled with the value of live sharks versus dead ones, should win the day on that point.
That leaves us with what the politicos and policy makers should be spending their time, energy, and oh, yeah ... their constituent tax-payer dollars on: fiscal responsibility and economic stewardship. There are billions of dollars being generated annually by eco-tourism and adventure travel, even in recently challenging times. These two behemoth tourism industry sectors could and should be aggressively courted and entertained by any coherent local government that has the natural resources to chum them up.
I served on the Sarasota County Economic Development Board, here in Florida, when it was already too late for the shark diving ban, but the past does not equal the future. Granted, it's an uphill battle, but I know others who have and are still willing to issue the challenge. When I think about how many people jump out of perfectly good airplanes everyday or visit our National Parks to raise tents and sleep in grizzly country, and all those mountain climbers, base jumpers and mixed gas deep divers doing their thing -- the shark diving issue makes me scratch a hole in my head.
Just when that hole starts to bleed, I'm reminded of African safaris and people with no training whatsoever, sitting completely vulnerable in open vehicles, taking pictures of terrestrial apex predators like lions and tigers, as they lick their chops, just feet away. I'm all for it. Anyone doing these things, knows the risks and we all sign something called a 'D & D' or death and dismemberment waiver before setting off with any professional outfitter, guide or charter operation. Adventure, wildlife, conservation, and sustainable economies have been effectively proving their mutually beneficial effectiveness and value, for some tme now.
Somehow, someway, we need to take the legislative wet blanket off willing people who have desires to pursue certain goals in the outdoors -- even if those ambitions include wildlife interaction experiences with sharks. This does need to be done with the highest level of responsible, industry-driven regulations, training and quality controls, but those are necessities than can be met and orchestrated, even with government involvment. After all, they'll be getting a cut of any action that involves the profitable sustainability of natural resources. We just need to find some way for it to make perfect $ense to them.
Nothing would make me happier than to see the diving side of the shark business brought back to American waters, beginning right here in Florida. In an annoying and unfortunate way, it's just not the backyard, one-day, affordable activity it used to be. We should do something about that. In the meantime, I'll step off my soap box to start saving money and planning my next jump off a boat into shark-infested waters ... somewhere else.
Over & Out, For Now -stp-