Marine biologist and conservationist Naomi Clark-Shen used to be petrified of the ocean. “From a very young age, I’ve been obsessed with animals,” she says. “But I was never that interested in marine life. I was scared of the dark murky areas that I couldn’t see. I had a big imagination and would psych myself out thinking about predators—sharks and crocodiles—coming to get me.”
When her parents would take the family on snorkeling holidays in Malaysia, Clark-Shen would stay in the shallow sandy areas. All that changed when, at age 14, she saw a documentary about sharks in Costa Rica. She was mesmerized. “I watched hundreds of them swimming elegantly through the water. There was something so tranquil about it. From that moment, I knew I wanted to work with sharks,” she says. “My fear of the ocean slipped. I just became curious.”
Clark-Shen got her diving license at age 16, and she is currently working on her Ph.D. on shark and ray fisheries and biology in Southeast Asia. Until 2020, she was a National Geographic Explorer running a shark research project partially funded by the National Geographic Society in Singapore.
Each summer, sharks splash into our TV screens via programming like National Geographic’s SharkFest. Millions tune in to watch a great white shark leap out of the ocean to catch its prey midair or see a shiver of silky sharks surround scuba divers. People are wild about sharks, and for some, that interest has inspired efforts to seek up-close-and-personal experiences.
Shark tourism is a thriving, multi-million-dollar industry. Enthusiasts can snorkel or scuba dive with them; witness their feeding habits; or encounter great white sharks while submerged in an underwater cage. Once reserved for professional divers and marine biologists, getting close to wild sharks—safely—is becoming an activity for the whole family. Here’s how responsible marine tourism can both inspire kids and help with conservation.
What kids can learn from sharks
“If we have the opportunity to take kids out and see a shark in the wild, they’ll see them in a different light,” says marine biologist Jillian Morris. “When kids see sharks behaving very differently than what they’ve been told their whole life, that’s the ‘aha’ moment. It gives them a connection to sharks which will stay with them their whole lives.”
That connection and education are key to continuing conservation efforts, according to a study published in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed, open-access scientific journal by the Public Library of Science. When surveying 11- and 12-year-old students in Hong Kong, researchers found that they favored shark conservation when they were educated about their ecological significance in marine life and corrected about their misconceptions.
“There’s so much misinformation out there about sharks,” says Morris, who started Sharks 4 Kids, an educational program in Bimini, in 2012. She had noticed a disconnect between tourists coming to the Bahamas—known as the shark-diving capital of the world—and residents, who stayed out of the water due to a culturally ingrained fear of sharks.
“We want local students to get out and see why tourists travel, why film crews come, why scientists come from all over the world,” says Morris. “These kids are going to grow up and maintain the shark sanctuary. They’re going to work in tourism, and they’re going to vote. Having the community connected to conservation is when you have success.”
After learning about sharks at aquariums, in classrooms, or on television, some children become avid ambassadors of sharks, enthusiastically reciting factoids and advocating for their protection. “Kids can influence their parents and the adults around them,” Morris says. “They’re far more powerful than they realize or people give them credit for.”
As shark conservation continues to gain momentum, there are many things parents can do to cultivate their children’s curiosity about sharks.
Why do we love and fear sharks?
Not all sharks are created equal. Out of the nearly 500 species, only a dozen are considered dangerous to humans. A majority of deadly attacks are attributed to great white sharks, tiger sharks, and bull sharks. Still, while 2020 was one of the deadliest years for shark attacks in the last decade, only 10 people were killed worldwide. Statistically, you’re 100,000 times more likely to perish from a mosquito bite than a shark bite.
“We are not part of their menu,” says Evans Baudin, owner of a diving company in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. “Sometimes, they can be curious and come close. But they’ll leave as soon as they realize we’re not food.”
Although sharks are resilient—they have survived at least four mass extinction events in the last 400 million years—the toothy fish are now at risk of being wiped out due to human activity. Millions of sharks are killed each year when they’re caught in commercial fishing nets or slaughtered for their prized fins—a delicacy in some Asian countries. Today, 71 percent of the world’s shark species are at risk of extinction.
Marine biologist Caine Delacy is one of many scientists whose efforts to protect sharks are gaining traction. The hook? Combining conservation with tourism. “It’s a slow burn trying to convert people to like sharks,” says Delacy. As part of his shark conservation efforts, Delacy takes tourists on shark dives around the world from French Polynesia to Australia to Baja California. His goal is to show people that sharks aren’t mindless man-eaters but rather magnificent, ancient creatures vital to the ocean’s vulnerable ecosystem.
Does tourism help conservation?
In Belize’s warm Caribbean waters, tourists can swim with a shiver of six-foot-long nurse sharks in the Shark Ray Alley four miles south of San Pedro. While the region has an abundance of nurse and whale sharks—the only two protected shark species in Belize—the rest of the area’s sharks were fished out. “Tourists were coming to see nurse sharks, and they found out the locals were killing them in large numbers,” says marine biologist Carlee Jackson. “The government ended up protecting them specifically for tourism. The locals were terrified of sharks. Now they’re fine with nurse sharks because they bring in money.”
Conservationists hope that tourism profits will incentivize countries to protect sharks. A pivot to a tourism-based economy means residents could rely on different sources of income. “The money you spend locally will mean people can feed their families with earnings derived from tourism, not fishing,” says Delacy.
Another way tourism can help shark conservation is via exposure and education. “Once people do a shark dive, they see how beautiful they are underwater and how they really have no interest in humans as food,” says Mickey Smith, an underwater videographer with a Florida shark-diving operation. “Then customers may start to care about sharks, help sign petitions, or help bring up bills to protect them.”
Efforts to rehabilitate sharks’ reputation may be working in Smith’s state and around the world. Hawaii enacted a Shark Protect Act, which made the state a marine sanctuary for the more than 40 species of sharks that frequent the waters, while Florida recently banned the import, export, and sale of shark fins. In June, the U.S. Senate, in a rare bipartisan action, approved a similar bill.
Can you safely swim with sharks?
Shark tourism is not without controversy. One much-debated practice is “provisioning” or “chumming,” in which outfitters lure sharks with food. “I personally don’t think it’s a safe thing to do,” says Jackson. “Ecotourism is [about] having less of an impact on the environment, but when you’re feeding an animal, you’re having a direct impact on that animal, which indirectly has an impact on the environment.”
Research has shown that when sharks are fed by humans, they will spend more time in the areas tourists frequent, rather than roaming around searching for natural food sources. Fishes that are normally their prey increase in abundance, which could have a cascading effect in the food chain.
Some scientists also consider cage diving problematic. The practice submerges divers in locked cages while tour operators chum the water to lure predatory sharks like great whites. Critics believe that this encourages unnatural behavior in sharks and may lead them to swim too close to other humans or spur attacks.
Another pressing concern is overtourism. Slow swimmers like whale sharks and nurse sharks could get hit by boats crowding the waters. Inexperienced divers might kick coral with their fins, causing irreparable reef damage.
The desire to swim with sharks is multifaceted. “There are people who are trying to face their fears and want to do something out of their comfort zone,” Delacy says. “And there are the enthusiasts who just want to see as many sharks as they can. For them, it’s like birdwatching.”
There are companies all over the world that allow families to snorkel or dive with sharks. Children as young as 10 can be certified in scuba diving. “Research and select the best option based on age and how much water experience your child has,” says Morris. For example, parents of children who are not strong swimmers can take them to wade in shallow waters surrounded by gentle nurse sharks at Compass Cay Marina in the Bahamas. Near Port Lincoln in South Australia, they can sit in a submerged glass pod to watch great whites weaving through the deep blue ocean.
Many adventure outfitters offer photography and videography packages to document guests’ underwater experiences. Images of sharks, from a frenzy of hammerheads to toothy mako sharks, dominate social media. Chasing likes, some people stumble into questionable practices, like touching sharks.
Marine biologist Jackson agrees that kids can safely swim with sharks under proper supervision by an experienced adult. “For both children and adults, safety with sharks is usually dependent on your actions while in the water,” she says. “It’s safe if a child is old enough to learn how to respect sharks by keeping their distance.”
For the least negative impact on both humans and sharks, Delacy says it’s important to stay out of their way and just quietly observe. “I want people to turn off from our crazy world and be amazed at what’s bigger and grander than you,” he says. “The amazing thing is someone having a really profound emotional connection to the environment and the animals.”
Rachel Ng is a Hawaii-based travel writer. Follow her on Instagram.
National Geographic’s SharkFest celebrates the ocean’s apex predators in July. Watch Shark Beach With Chris Hemsworth and other shark programming on the network, and the feature documentary Playing With Sharks streaming on Disney+. Join the National Geographic Society in protecting our ocean at natgeo.com/ocean.