The topic of touching sharks can spark heated debates. It’s an inner turmoil I wrestle with often, having spent hundreds of hours underwater with them. A quick Google search reveals many images in which I am brazenly touching sharks. Yes, it is something I did (and often still am tempted to do), but it is something I don’t encourage. In fact, just the opposite.
My first few years diving with sharks, all I wanted to do was touch them. Not to dominate or conquer but to connect. I often found myself reaching out to lightly touch a fin or stroke a tail.
Mind you, I do not ride, wrestle or chase sharks. Instead, my interactions occurred quite naturally, often initiated by the shark. More than just selfishness, these encounters yield imagery that is an incredible tool in the shark conservationist’s arsenal, as it immediately erodes the irrational fears we’ve been programmed to accept. I’ve shared wonderful moments with those who, upon first touching a shark, are filled with intense feelings of compassion for these otherwise maligned creatures.
In one tender touch, even the most hardened surfer or terrified youth connects and is forever transformed. I would even argue that respectfully touching sharks contributes to their survival — after all, few people are motivated to protect sharks until they personally realize sharks aren’t the bloodthirsty creatures they’re portrayed to be.
I’ve received much criticism from those with a strictly hands-off policy when it comes to nature. Personally, I don’t care. I find sharks to be intelligent, curious and even social. So interaction is common, and nothing I would consider invasive or abusive, particularly given how tough a shark’s skin is and how resilient they are. When I think about how brutally sharks are treated — from gaffing poles to steel wire wrapped around their heads — and how many thousands die on a daily basis for their fins, I am reminded there are bigger issues facing sharks.
Even so, I do not advocate touching sharks — and these days, I do my best to avoid it, regardless of how much those incredible moments fuel my drive. Why? It’s simple: As divers, we assume a very important responsibility when we enter the water with sharks. We must always act with the utmost caution, to ensure no thoughtless risks are taken. This is not because sharks are intrinsically dangerous — the few times I have witnessed a potential problem, it has been due to diver carelessness — but because we can’t afford to make mistakes with sharks. Not for our safety, but because it is extremely irresponsible to contribute to the misperceptions about sharks. An otherwise incredible experience can be quickly marred by a diver grabbing a tail or hugging a shark. While these incidents are uncommon, and the diver at worst might need only a few stitches, they do an incredible disservice to the shark. No one stops to question the diver — they assume the shark is the monster.
I also realize what I do influences others. I’ve taken dozens of people into the water for the first time to dive with sharks. If they see me touching, I could be setting in motion a lifetime of shark petting. Or coral grabbing. Or turtle riding. It’s hard to know where to stop, and even harder not to get carried away when it comes to sharks. I don’t pass judgment on my peers, but I do silently wish some of those times I touched sharks had not been so widely publicized or shared.
People protect the things they understand. Establishing a better understanding of sharks through diving is critical for sharks’ survival, and operating on a positive set of guiding principles is fundamental for both divers and sharks.
As we collectively chase sharks to the brink of extinction, it's more important than ever to encourage people to gain an appreciation for their true character through safe diving. So, while contact feeds my conservationist soul, I’ll forgo touching to ensure just that, and hope that others will do the same.