Ecotourism Bites

Martha Tryban


In this episode of Ecotourism Bites, I investigate the growing industry of shark ecotourism! Featuring a claim made by this podcast details several sides of the industry, the good and the bad. I summarize information on shark behavior and how it could potentially be affected by ecotourism. I also look at the other parts of the ecosystem that may be affected like ecotourism practices like chumming. Providing, real life examples I explain how consumption of this chum could be harmful to other members of the marine environment. Referencing, multiple examples of recent work I look into how ecotourism should move forward and also point out which areas could use more research. I also offer helpful insight on how to participate in shark ecotourism in the most mindful way.



Hello and welcome back to Ecotourism Bites! Humans have almost forced white sharks into extinction, can we also be the ones to save them? I’m your host Martha Tryban and on this episode we will be investigating shark ecotourism, more specifically the claim made by that “shark ecotourism can help protect sharks from fishing and even allow shark populations to recover.”


We will be examining this claim in the environmental geopolitical framework inspired by Dr. Shannon O’Lear’s 2018 book “Environmental Geopolitics”. We will do this by asking three key questions about the claim: How are the role and meaning of the environment described and specified? What is the role of human agency? And what is the spatial focus?


First, I want to offer a little bit of background information. In this claim sharks are at risk and can be secured through ecotourism. According to an article on, 20-30% of sharks are close to extinction with the main cause being commercial fisheries accidentally catching them when fishing for something else. Shark stewards claim that ecotourism is a way to help remedy this.


Ecotourism in this case is up close interactions with a shark that a tourist can pay for. According to shark stewards, white shark ecotourism has grown substantially since the 2000s in places like Mexico, the Philippines, Paula and French Polynesia supporting thousands of jobs and protecting the animals from fishing. Protecting these habitats and the sharks in them can be achieved through ecotourism, but what side of the story do we miss when we focus on sharks alone?


So let’s dive in!  In this claim, the role of the environment is described as something that needs to be protected so that sharks can thrive in their natural habitat. The meaning of the environment is marine ecosystems where white sharks tend to be. Now what’s important to consider here is that white sharks are pelagic, meaning they spend most of their time moving through open water.


The ocean is a giant ecosystem housing thousands of species and everything that happens in the system affects the whole. Shark diving opportunities like free-diving or cage diving, are reliant on the sharks being there. I mean think about it, if you paid hundreds of dollars to see a shark and saw absolutely none on your dive you wouldn’t be happy. So in order to ensure this most managers use chum. But remember, everything dumped into the ocean at one site, moves throughout the rest of the system.


Chum generally consists of blood and pieces of fish, chicken, pig, anything that is cheapest really, it’s just kind of a slop. And generally when diving boats arrive, they dump this “chum” into the water to attract the sharks, they throw larger and larger pieces of chum to get the animals kind of, you know kind of as an incentive for the animals to move the closer the to the boat-allow better viewing experience.


The problem with this is that it’s not all consumed by the sharks, meaning it falls down and settles in different parts of the habitat. This could be on coral reefs, flat seabed at the bottom of the ocean, or it could even suspended in open water for a little while. In a 2020 article Meyer and coworkers analyzed the stomach contents of non-shark fish in a cage diving area and found that all of them had consumed chum at varying levels-and these are non-shark species.


They also found that these contents did not match those of the same species in areas where cage diving did not occur. Meaning these fish were getting something from chum that they don’t ordinarily get.

It’s unclear how this could affect the overall health of the animals, but here we should take into consideration the stability of that food source. The introduction of unfamiliar microbes to the environment is one thing, but also consider what happens if that food source stops coming or what if that food source changes suddenly? What if it’s made up of different things, different ratios, different animals? This could have detrimental effects on the population it has come to support.


Now what about the sharks who eat the chum? Well, according to Barbara Taylor’s “Encyclopedia of Sharks”, white sharks generally eat anything from other sharks, rays, marine mammals to even birds and turtles. They’re great generalist predators. So the random ingredients in chum might not really hurt them.


A 2019 study conducted by Meyer and her coworkers, found no evidence of reduced nutritional condition in sharks in a cage diving site. Just like sharks in areas where cage diving didn’t occur, they consumed a variety of prey groups.


This research concluded that ecotourism does not significantly alter a white shark’s diet where prey resources are abundant. So the content of the chum alone shouldn’t do too much harm to the sharks, but let’s investigate if it’s presence at all is harmful. A 2009 study by Guttridge and co-workers, explains that studies on white sharks in South Africa show that as frequency of tourist dives increased the speed at which sharks returned to the site the next time actually decreased.


Now the worry here that these scientists were kind of investigating is that sharks had become reliant on the food source from people and had almost started to associate human presence in the ocean with food presence, which is a really dangerous concept.


And so this is wonderful news because it shows that sharks are not coming to rely on the presence of food despite being rewarded for these interactions with humans and provided with a stable food source. Because this food source is only stable as long as the humans decides to keep showing up.

Unfortunately though, another study done in 2012 by Bruce and Bradford, explained that over time the number of sharks reported by cage divers has increased and sharks seem to actually be hanging out in cage diving areas for extended periods of time, so even after the tourist have left, the sharks are still kind of hanging out.


A third study done in 2018 by Huvuneers and their team explained that in interactions with humans, in these cage diving interaction, sharks are using significantly more energy, darting up and down vertically beside the cage. However, if interaction with individual sharks is kept to a minimum supposedly this should not have any long-term affects, but it’s definitely something to look out for.


These changes in behavior show that ecotourists need to be really, really careful with how regularly they return to the same site and how much they interact with each shark. The last thing we want is sharks in the wrong place or too many sharks in one space, but we’ll talk more about that later.


Moving forward, the role of human agency in this claim is the act of ecotourism and how it’s carried out. Ideally, the human in this situation would participate in an ecotourism experience like cage diving with a great white for example, and leaves so happy with their experience that now they want to help protect sharks and advocate for them in future settings, all while paying a little fee that supports the local economy, taking jobs away from fisheries and giving it to something that benefits wildlife. Now all of this only works provided that the tourist has the best experience. What happens if a diver has a horrible opinion-changing, life altering experience?


Imagine someone is cage diving and is attacked, this person may now wish harm on sharks and not care about their protection. They may even advocate against it in future settings. I looked into how risk like this is managed during shark diving experiences.


Eric Clua wrote a paper in 2018 where he concluded that the level of interaction between the human and the shark was most important when examining risk of an accidental shark bite. It seemed that as interaction between individual person and shark increased, the risk of bite also increased.


Most shark ecotourism operations now have codes of conduct that passengers are told to follow. Generally, these are rules about touching the animals and limiting personal interaction and eye contact with one individual. Limiting interactions with independent sharks lowers bite risk and as we discussed earlier, helps the sharks use less energy. So it’s really a win-win.


Even the most careful and experienced scuba divers can disturb the marine environment. A 2019 article by Luna, Perez and Sanchez-Lizaro, details the benthic impacts of scuba diving. The main disturbances are raised sediment, and they explain that the best way to avoid this is to have an experienced diver accompany and brief you, keep your hands free and learn about neutral buoyancy.


The last aspect to consider when looking at human agency in this claim is, is a good experience really worth all this risk? Well the way I look at it there’s two sides to this answer: the economic side and emotional side.


Ziegler and the rest of her research team investigated both sides of this question in a study in 2021. And here’s some really cool stuff they found: so in the study areas where shark ecotourism has proven to be successful, many locals actually expressed that they were no longer afraid of the shark and actually deeply cared about its protection, and held this new appreciation for what it offered the ecosystem. One particular local who had recently picked up work as a shark spotter said and I quote,

“I really want to protect whale sharks because of one interaction I had with a whale shark as a spotter where I was very happy seeing the whale shark, I felt like we played or danced under water. I really felt very happy looking at the whale shark, that’s why it should be protected.”


I just think that’s such a cool personal account of a shift in mentality towards wanting to protect the environment and appreciate it.


Additionally, fishermen in the area explained that having the whale sharks around actually helped the local fisheries by drawing in smaller fish. The local attitude toward the shark had shifted from negative to positive and appreciative. This is a really cool study, please feel free to check it out. I just think it’s such a lovely example of ecotourism doing what it’s supposed to do and actually benefiting people emotionally. They’re feeling more connections to their natural environment into the natural species that surround them.


And then also economically, the presence of the whale shark is actually stimulating local fisheries and and stimulating the economy in the area. I just think it’s definitely a best-case scenarios of ecotourism. It’s important to remember, that this data comes from a study with whale sharks, so more research on the impact on white sharks should be done. And of course, there’s always more research in this topic. This is just one example, but definitely a happy case.


The last question about this claim that I’d like to address is what is the spatial focus of the claim?

The organization making the claim I’m focusing on is Shark Stewards. This organization discusses over 180 marine protected areas over the length of the entire California Coast. However, when they discuss the benefits of ecotourism they don’t limit the discussion to just their protected areas. So when we talk about it spatially, I’m just going to focus on the areas of ecotourism. As I’ve mentioned, the main issue with shark ecotourism is the consistent chumming.


We’ve discussed the potential harm of ingesting this but what about the attraction to it? In general sharks are a solitary species and do not travel in groups, but-but when they do, they’re called shivers which is very cute-so just fun fact.


When chum is introduced this can cause sharks to swarm the area, having more sharks in a space than would occur naturally. Now remember earlier when I explained that as the frequency of visits to the site increased the duration of an individual shark’s stay also increased? Well this is also true in a study done by Clua and his coworkers on sicklefin lemon sharks in 2010.


They found that these longer stays were mostly males. So it was actually males hanging out in those cage-diving areas for extended periods of time. That poses a higher risk of inbreeding as there is less gene flow in and out of the population. With these same guys just hanging out.


In the long-term this could really hurt shark populations. Additionally, they noticed significant amounts of aggression between sharks regardless of the species, which poses a higher risk of a human diver accidentally being bitten. When food is introduced to a system with so many large predators, they tend to go into kind of a feeding frenzy where all they’re really doing is eating. They’re not really thinking about –or working towards anything else. And this can be very dangeours for a human to be close to.

Again, additional research needs to be done to see how this could translate to larger species like white sharks. But I can only imagine as the species gets bigger and the mouth gets bigger,s and the teeth gets bigger, it’s more dangerous.


Another thing to consider with these extended stays in tourism areas is what happens when you consistently have too many big gigantic apex predators in one area. Again, white sharks have a very diverse diet and can eat almost anything.


And studies have shown that sharks only eat what they need to, they are not mindless eating machines always eating, they get full just like us. This means that one or two white sharks in a marine ecosystem would happily keep that system in check consuming meso-predators like skates, rays and bigger fish at an appropriate level, you know just when they’re hungry.


But if four or five are drawn to an area they could easily begin wiping out too much of their prey population. Once that’s done, they could go after the smaller prey or worse, leave the area with no predators for that smaller prey meaning that population will get out of control. More information about cascading events like this can be found in Myers et al in my sources. It is a really really cool topic.


Overall, I’d say if you are looking to participate in shark ecotourism, follow the guidelines you’re given carefully, limit your interaction with each individual shark and try to attend a program that varies the visitation site and hopefully gives back to the conservation cause.


If done within moderation and carefully shark ecotourism can be beneficial for shark populations. And there’s plenty of evidence for this on, it’s just also important for people participating in ecotourism to consider the other parts of the ecosystem that they may be affecting when they enter that environment.


There’s so much to learn and understand about sharks and they truly are fascinating animals, if you have a second please check out any of the lovely articles cited in my bibliography. I hope you enjoyed this analysis of shark ecotourism in the geopolitical framework, and hope to see you on future episodes. This is Martha Tryban, thank you!



Bruce, Barry D., and Russel W. Bradford. 2012. “The Effects of shark cage-diving operations on the behavior and movements of white sharks, Carcharodon carcharias, at the Neptune Islands, South Australia.” Marine Biology 160(2013):889-907.

Clua, Eric E.G., Nicolas Burray, Pierre Legendre, Johann Mourier, Serge Planes. 2010. “Behavioral response of sicklefin lemon sharks Negaprion acutidens to underwater feeding for ecotourism purposes.” Marine Ecology Progress Series 414 (2010): 257-266.

Clua, Eric E.G. 2018. “Managing bite risk for divers in the context of shark feeding ecotourism: A case study from French Polynesia (Eastern Pacific).” Tourism Management 68(October 2018):275-283.

Guttridge, Tristan L., Arthur A. Myrberg, Ila F. Porcher, David W. Sims, Jens Krause. 2009. “The role of learning in shark behavior.” Fish and Fisheries 10(4):450-469.

Huvuneers, Charlie, Yuuki Y. Watanabe, Nicholas L. Payne, Jayson M. Semmens. 2018. “Interacting with wildlife tourism increases activity of white sharks.” Conservation Physiology 6(1)

Luna, Beatriz, Carlos Valle Perez, Jose Luis Sanchez-Lizaso. 2009. “Benthic Impacts of recreational divers in a Mediterranean Marine Protected Area.” ICES Journal of Marine Science 66:517-523.

Meyer, Lauren, Sasha K. Whitmarsh, Peter D. Nichols, Andrew T. Revill, Charlie Huvuneers. 2020. “The effects of wildlife tourism provisioning on non-target species.” Biological Conservation 214.

Meyer, Lauren, Heidi Pethybridge, Crystal Beckmann, Barry Bruce, Charlie Huvuneers. 2019. “The impact of wildlife tourism on the foraging ecology and nutritional condition of an apex predator.” Tourism Management 75: 206-215.

Myers, Ransom A., Julia K. Baum, Travis D. Shepherd, Sean P. Powers, Charles H. Peterson. 2007. “Cascading Effects of the Loss of Apex Predatory Sharks from a Coastal Ocean.” Science 315(5820): 1846-1850.

O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Shark Spotters. “Threats to Sharks.” Accessed November 13, 2022.

Shark Stewards. “Shark Ecotourism.” Accessed November 13, 2022.

Taylor, Barbara. 2016. “Great White Shark.” In Encyclopedia of Sharks, edited by Amy Johnson, 270-272. Essex, UK: Miles Kelly Publishing Ltd 2016.

Ziegler, Jackie, Gonzalo Araujo, Jessica Labaja, Sally Snow, Joseph N. King, Alessandro Ponzo, Rick Rollins, Phillip Dearden. 2020. “Can ecotourism change community attitudes towards conservation?” Oryx 55(4):546-555.


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Ecotourism Bites Copyright © 2022 by Martha Tryban is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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