No, harassing a shark for fun is not ethically equivalent to scientific research that helps conserve a species

Last month, I wrote an article for Scientific American that I shouldn’t have had to write. In it, I argued that riding, poking, prodding or otherwise harassing a free-swimming large predatory animal for fun is a bad idea. I do mean “argued;” believe it or not, there are people who strongly disagree with me. In my article, I was very general and diplomatic, and I took pains to avoid naming names.

However, my article was at least partially inspired by the disrespectful, potentially dangerous, and very public behavior of one person: the editor of Shark Diver magazine, Eli Martinez. Eli recently wrote an article for Medium, in which he stated that: “Look, I have no problem with touching sharks and I do not have any problem with other people touching sharks.” He also notes that ” I just think riding sharks is disrespectful to the animals .” He has also shared the following photos (and many, many more like them) on his Facebook page, photos showing behavior he does not seem to consider disrespectful.

Selected images of Eli Martinez harassing poking, prodding and harassing sharks for fun. Taken from his personal Facebook, used under fair use. Most photos by Paul Spielvogel.

Selected images of Eli Martinez poking, prodding and harassing sharks for fun .Taken from his personal Facebook, used under fair use. Most photos by Paul Spielvogel.

When my article was shared with Eli, he noted on Facebook that some scientists don’t like him harassing sharks, and he doesn’t like scientists hurting sharks for research, so we should just agree to disagree.  He has since expanded this logic into a new article for Medium, provocatively titled “those damn shark tags,” saying:

” I know that some researchers don’t think much of us Shark Diver’s feeding sharks or interacting, or touching them and that’s ok. It is good that we can agree to disagree, debate is healthy. What should matter is that we all love sharks, each in our own way”

No. I do not agree to disagree. Not all viewpoints are equivalentHarassing a shark for fun is not ethically equivalent to scientific research that is necessary to conserve a threatened species. It just isn’t. Obviously, scientists need to take great care to minimize the stress to the animals we study (and almost all do, see our lab’s animal welfare website as one example). However, tagging research is necessary to get data that managers need to conserve, manage and protect sharks, and it is significantly less harmful to sharks than many activists seem to believe. 

As I noted in my Scientific American article,  the growth of safe, responsible and respectful shark ecotourism has helped shark conservation. While Eli’s experience with sharks reduces the chance of an injury resulting from this behavior, at the end of the day, you’re dealing with a wild animal that is more than twice as long as you are,  the behavior of a wild animal can sometimes be unpredictable, and it only has to be unpredictable once to be a problem. Additionally, putting these photos out there in the public view the way Eli does greatly increases the chance that an inexperienced diver will attempt to copy him.

In the meantime, I continue to dream of a future where I won’t have to say things like “hey, maybe you shouldn’t poke the large predator.”


Update: This article inspired a series of in-depth conversations on other social media platforms. Here is a list of frequently asked questions, as well as my responses to them.

  1. Maybe I’m missing the point, but if the sharks were being harmed or were uncomfortable, wouldn’t they just leave? In those photos it looks as though they’re there by choice. Sorry for my ignorance, I’m just trying to get a better understanding of what the problem is. Thanks!

    • Another thought: I noticed in your twitter picture, you’re posing with (what I assume to be) a juvenile shark. Is this science related, or was the shark subject to unnecessary handling? I can’t imagine personal pictures being a science thing, but that’s just me.

      (Please know that I am asking these questions with respect for your work and all shark conservation projects. I’m a huge fan. But I have to play devil’s advocate here because I’m trying to get a better understanding of your argument. Thanks!)

    • “Harassment” of wildlife has a legal definition. “But they could just leave if they ‘wanted to’ ” doesn’t factor in.

      The shark in my photo has just been studied for scientific research and is seconds away from release.

  2. As the co-founder of Divers for Sharks and an avid diver I am all in favor of expanding shark diving tourism as a phenomenal education and awareness tool. However, I agree that touching sharks – or any other marine creature for that matter – should in no way be encouraged by dive professionals. An attitude of respect is what we should be teaching. I also am in favor of hands-on research, including tagging, that leads to vital information for management and conservation. We need however to recognioze that some researchers do handle sharks too rudely sometimes, increasing risks of injury to the animals; in particular some TV shows involving shark research have become appranetly oriented not to educate but to entertain the lowest kind of moron, by showing unnecessary stunts and antics mixed with research. I do agree, therefore, with David´s central point. Let´s promote shark diving in a respecful way and let´s support serious shark research framed by common sense science ethics.

  3. If he were taking hikers into Yosemite to feed and pet grizzly bears, there’d be no “debate”. Harassing wildlife for your own entertainment is bad for the animals and bad for conservation. Conditioning wildlife to associate humans with food is animal abuse. Even the National Park Service explicitly condemns it as animal cruelty – http://www.nps.gov/brca/naturescience/feedingwildlife.htm

    • Sharks have a special behaviour with humans. I cannot imagine a humanbeing touching a wildlion head just walking in Masai Mara or riding a grizzly or a leopard as you could see in their videos with great white or tiger sharks.
      What these guys are doing is to make people respect and love sharks, to put away fears.

    • “I cannot imagine a human being touching a wild lion head just walking in Masai Mara or riding a grizzly or a leopard” There are totally people who try to do this. If that’s considered unacceptable, so should this.

  4. I think we shouldn´t mix issues here. Shark feeding in a controlled way and touching sharks wantonly are VERY different things and shark feeding can be done in a way that does not impact highly on shark behavior – guess that´s a couple of scientific papers out there on the subject.

  5. First off, why did I get assigned a Sloth Avatar, I am more of a Liger guy. Next off, your post is on target. Martinez is/has been using sharks as a vehicle to fame nothing more or less for the past ten years. While he has found a way to explain what he is doing to the uninformed as education and good for sharks, the wider community is not buying into it. Worse, as you pointed out his continuing antics are causing others to try the same stunts. In a position like his (high media profile) instead of fostering a trend that is completely disrespectful to the animals he professes a deep love for, he should instead show a modicum of leadership. But Eli Martinez is also a natural extension of what he was shown in his early years from the shark diving industry leaders of 2003. Like a high stakes game of musical chairs, Eli is at the end of a long record that has been playing for almost a decade. When the music runs out someone will find themselves and the sharks in a completely untenable situation. There will be plenty of blame to go around. In the meantime, enjoy the show, enjoy the pseudoscience, and enjoy what amounts to street corner cat juggling of magnificent wild predators. – Liger Guy Forever!

    • Hi Stephen, avatars are pulled from the Gravatar network, so at some point in the past you probably set your av to a sloth on a different site. If you want to change it, you’ll have to go to http://en.gravatar.com/

  6. Sorry guys I don’t see any harassment. In fact the sharks seem to enjoy the interaction.

  7. David Shiffman, I respect your blog. However, I felt differently after seeing your photo at the top. Now, is the shark in your hands fake? Dead? Or are you handling a shark out of water? Now, explain to me why I should think you’re NOT a hypocrite?
    I took a screen shot. I will be starting my own comments on your photo in relations to your article 🙂
    Glad you are working to protect skarks, tho. Keep up the good work.
    P.S. Change your photo if you want to make a point

  8. I fully agree with David here. As a 20 year diver and scuba instructor I have always insisted with friends, students and fellow divers that the underwater world is there to be seen and not touched and its a mantra that I live by. As a medic I constantly see the “worst case scenario” and the “I’ve been doing that for years and never had that happen” its amazing how often things go wrong and as David said it only needs to happen once. There are a countless laws and regulations put there that were put in place because of a hand full of people ignoring common sense and proving to the world that what they were doing wasn’t actually cool it was dangerous. Especially being in the public eye and advocating and thus propagating this ignorance. I remember when the GoPro 3 was released and shortly after GoPro posted a few videos that involved free divers riding sharks, imagine the size of adrenaline infused audience that reached. I was infuriated when I saw that video! The really unfortunate thing is that should something bad happen to one of these limelight seeking yahoos its the shark that will get the bad reputation, not them.

  9. I don’t understand how this is “harassment”. The shark is in control of the situation. It’s not our job to tell people what is the safest or what we believe the “best” thing to do, as long as they are not harassing the wildlife. If you have ever been face to face with a shark in the wild you would know that they are in control.

    • Harassment of wildlife has a specific legal definition. This meets it. It doesn’t matter if you believe they are “in control”. It doesn’t matter if they actually are “in control”. It is totally possible to dive with sharks and enjoy the experience without harassing them.

      And promotion of best practices is ABSOLUTELY part of my job.

  10. I have to disagree with the writer. I am also an avid scuba diver, and the highlight of any dive, involves seeing sharks. I agree with not harassing wildlife, and it bugs the heck out of me when i see divers riding turtles and sharks..etc. It’s highly disrespectful to the animal and shouldn’t be allowed to happen. Where I disagree with the writer, is in what Mr. Martinez does. In my opinion, he isn’t harassing the sharks. They come to him, and yes, he touches them and handles them, but he isn’t harassing them. They are free to come and go as they please, he doesn’t chase after them. What he brings to the table, is a deep respect for the animal and a desire to show them as calm, respectful, curious animals and not the man-eaters films like Jaws portrayed. He has built what appears to be, a mutual respect with the sharks that frequent his dives. I personally am fascinated with the re pore he has with them. There very well may be other divers out there that are harassing the sharks, I just disagree it’s Eli. Maybe you should put on some dive gear, and go with him to Tiger Beach, and see it for yourself.

    • Thanks for commenting, Dayleen. Wildlife harassment isn’t a matter of anyone’s opinion, yours or mine. There are legal definitions. This behavior, which by Eli’s recounting resulted in permanent behavior modification, meets that definition.

      You can (and most divers do) effectively show that sharks aren’t dangerous by safely swimming with them without touching them at all. “But the animals can leave” doesn’t change anything here.

      Flipping sharks over for fun does not demonstrate what most people would consider to be respectful behavior towards these animals.