PHOTO: by Dr Olaf Meynecke
Will people one day come to the Gold Coast to see sharks?
Marine scientist Dr Jan Olaf Meynecke has suggested the Gold Coast as a likely place for controlled shark encounters with after seeing a successful bull shark feeding program in Fiji. Shark tourism is based around people coming to see sharks in their natural environment, with locations as diverse as South Africa, Scotland and Florida. Some forms of shark tourism such as swimming with whale sharks are already highly popular in places like Western Australia’s Ningaloo Marine Park.
Dr Meynecke said he had gotten a positive response from a local dive operator and Sea Shepard, but nothing would happen quickly if the idea was taken up. “I think in general no one wants to make the first step as it is too political in Australia but this could also be the drawing point for many people to come and do a shark dive on the Gold Coast.”
“It would require permission to create an artificial reef offshore from the government, then we would need at least three years of feeding trials and research and I think a first commercial dive operation could start after five years.”
There’d be benefits for the Gold Coast tourism industry as well as shark conservation, he said.
“It would open up a new attraction to the Gold Coast that is built on our natural wonders. Just like people come to spend time on Gold Coast beaches a new tourism for shark diving could evolve.”
“Sharks are here naturally and we may as well redirect them from beaches and manage them properly rather than paying millions of dollars for an ancient lethal shark program.”
He was also interested in the potential research into that shark tourism on the Gold Coast could provide.
“There is a lot we can learn from sharks. For example the migration pattern of some of the large sharks is still not fully understood. But also the use of their sensory system, genetic diversity and behaviour are all fields that need further research. We might learn that some of the sharks are not as solitary as we believe and that there are ways of diverting sharks from busy beaches.”
He doesn’t believe shark tourism would cause shark numbers to increase.
“The idea behind the project is to redirect the animals from inshore waters and away from the beaches. Juvenile bull sharks would be the main target species and to provide an area for them outside the seaway.”
“We have a number of visiting sharks every year such as Tiger Sharks, Hammerheads and Great Whites. These sharks would be more likely to stay around a feeding station than swimming along the beach,” he said.
Currently South Australia is the only state to allow cage diving and encounters with species such as great whites. Western Australia has specifically banned it in 2012 due to shark attacks. A spokesperson for the Gold Coast City Council said no one had approached them for support for a shark tourism related venture.
“The council is committed to supporting the tourism industry which presently supports 27,000 jobs on the Gold Coast.”
“The (council’s) Destination Tourism Plan aims to deliver a world class dive attraction to secure more of this important market. Investigations are presently underway to build a purpose-made structure or secure a vessel to sink offshore.”
Craig Maddison, a surfer and surfboard maker who has lived on the Gold Coast since 1979, felt that shark tourism shouldn’t be encouraged on the Gold Coast. He said though offshore Gold Coast shark tourism wouldn’t affect surfers, he’d be opposed to chumming the waters to attract sharks for tourism as it might attract more sharks to the area.
“I don’t think they’d be enough out there on the coast to naturally to run a business,” he said.
“It might work in Victoria or South Australia where there’s breeding grounds and they’re already there.
“I like surfing around here [the Gold Coast beaches] because it’s safe.”
“I’m for shark awareness and learning about sharks but against changing their behaviour.”
He’s only had experiences with small sharks such as hammerheads and bronze whalers, and said they’d never been a big problem for him as a surfer.
“It’s never been a big issue if you’re careful,” he said.
Even if the Gold Coast doesn’t become a shark tourism destination, Australia still may see an increase of shark tourism in the future. Shark tour operators Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions are among the oldest established shark tour operators in the world. Founded by Rodney Fox after a shark attack in 1963, it aims to research species such as the Great White Shark.
The expeditions take people such as tourists and scientists out to the Neptune Islands, which are a breeding ground for great whites. The range of activities offered includes surface and ocean floor cage diving and topside viewing. Andrew Fox said he had seen a rise in shark tourism worldwide.
“Dive magazines didn’t use to want to talk about sharks, but over the last couple of years more and more sharks are appearing on the covers,” he said.
“People go around the world to look at the sharks.”
“We want everyday people in the public to realise they’re not monsters.”
Rodney Fox Expeditions works closely with the CSIRO and provides data that’s aided in scientific shark research, as well as running their own research program. Mr Fox said any eventual shark tourism on the Gold Coast and world-wide needed to have a code of conduct and be regulated.
“The shark diving industry does have a big responsibility to be transparent,” he said.
“It needs to be handled carefully and delicately, it’s a very hot political topic.”
“We’re very sensitive about other recreational users such as surfers and fishermen.”
Sharks have been a high profile topic over the last year, with events such as Western Australia’s controversial three month shark cull putting sharks on the public agenda. Shark populations worldwide are decreasing due to threats like finning and commercial and trophy fishing. Dr Meynecke thinks awareness of the risks sharks are facing might be the key to their survival.
“I think we are at a breaking point where fascination overcomes fear. With the possible extinction of some shark species caused by overfishing, more and more people want to see sharks before they no longer exist,” he said.