How sustainable dive tourism can protect sharks

Protecting sharks through dive tourism sounds paradoxical at first. But it is a sustainable solution that can make a significant contribution to shark conservation. But what does sustainable dive tourism with the predators of our seas look like? As a freediver and marine biologist, Lennart Voßgätter takes you on a dive into the world of sustainable shark tourism.

Blue. Nothing but blue. That’s all I see when I look over the railing of our little boat. The ocean here, around the Azores and just above the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, is 800 meters deep. It is home to whales, rays, dolphins, tuna, barracuda – and sharks.

Watching these predators up close and diving with them is what we’re here for. Adrenaline. Anticipation. And also a queasy feeling. I feel everything at the same time.

Then it’s off into the water.

Our skipper keeps pouring small amounts of fish blood (more information on this later) into the water so that the animals come closer to the boat. The current drives it right towards me and the other expedition members. We lie snorkeling on the surface, in a cloud of blood and offal, waiting to be surrounded by sharks. What is actually happening here?

Is it safe to dive with sharks outside the cage?

Before we get to sustainable dive tourism, let’s set one thing clear. Even if it is often claimed otherwise: Sharks are not bloodthirsty eating machines that attack anything that floats on the surface. The main reason why we believe this anyway? We humans have often lost touch with nature.

Nature is about survival. About risk management, cooperation and efficiency. A shark that attacks anything close to its size will not survive long in the ocean. A shark that carefully selects its prey, eats only what it needs to survive and avoids unknown dangers has much better chances of survival.

Of the more than 500 shark species that exist worldwide, almost all are much smaller than we are. Only a few species are even capable of seriously injuring a human. According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), nine people died after a shark attack in 2021. In comparison, about 1,000 people die annually from the much more aggressive and powerful crocodiles (CrocBITE). Moreover, the reason for fatalities by sharks, although vanishingly rare, is often due to lack of precautions (more on this later) by humans.

Back in the Azores, after about half an hour on the surface, a large shadow appears in the crystal clear water below us. My pulse quickens. The animal is shy and keeps its distance. It takes a few minutes before it dares to come closer to the surface. The shark is barely visible with its dark blue back as it glides elegantly through the water. We remain calm and keep an eye on him. He becomes more and more curious until he suddenly stalks us to within a few centimeters. It is a two meter long blue shark.

blue shark in the middle of blue water
The blue shark is globally the most fished species of shark. Photo © Lennart Voßgätter

His curiosity often makes the shark itself prey

This behavior is often interpreted as aggression. However, it is only pure curiosity. And it is precisely this curiosity that is the undoing of the sharks themselves:

About 100 million sharks lose their lives every year because their fins are sold in traditional Chinese medicine in Southeast Asia and because their meat is consumed worldwide (Worm et al. 2013). If you look closely, you will also find the death of sharks in our supermarkets: in cosmetic products, fertilizers, and even animal feed.

Countless sharks also die on longlines, in set or trawl nets. Often the animals also die in ghost nets – old, lost or intentionally sunk fishing nets from industrial fishing. Even the European Union, one of the largest shark fishing fleets in the world, overfishes shark populations throughout the Atlantic. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), about one-third of all shark species worldwide are threatened with extinction. If this downward trend continues, many species will soon be gone.

Sustainable shark tourism: hope for endangered sharks

There is still hope to stop the disappearance of the – for example through sustainable dive tourism. 

A living shark that is observed by divers is worth much more than a dead one. In many countries, dive tourism is largely driven by shark and ray sightings. On the one hand, this benefits the diving industry, and on the other hand, it promotes the entire tourism sector in the respective region. In many regions, shark fishing is now banned for this very reason. The Bahamas, for example, has been a shark sanctuary since 2011 – precisely because hundreds of travelers dive with the notorious predators there every day. There are now 17 countries worldwide that have recognized their waters as shark sanctuaries. That represents just over three percent of the surface of our oceans. For the most part, the reason is profit through dive tourism. But this tourism is not always sustainable or ethical.

The shark has now become accustomed to us. Again and again it tries to take advantage of the blind spots, but as experienced freedivers, my group and I are attentive and keep an eye on what is happening around us. We avoid fast movements not to scare the shark away. I dive down. For the animal I am much more interesting as a diver. Suddenly I move with him in the three-dimensional space of his habitat. He catches sight of me and heads straight for me. I keep eye contact. We are at 15 meters depth and I notice how my air is getting short. But surfacing frantically now would be a mistake. I wait for the interaction. We stare into each other’s eyes for what feels like an eternal moment. The shark turns away. I surface.

The new industry of shark diving is leading to more and more dive sites being developed. Now, over 85 nations in total attract at least half a million travelers annually for shark diving. Therefore, dive tourism offers a huge potential to protect sharks. At dive sites, the predators are lured with bait to get around their natural shyness. Without bait, it would be impossible to ensure interaction for divers. But unfortunately, standards in terms of safety, sustainability, and ethics are often lacking. Mostly there is a lack of expertise and experience. The quality of shark diving sometimes fluctuates as much as an inflatable boat in high waves.

diver in front of blue shark – dive tourism
The experienced free diver registers the blue shark long before it can stalk stealthily. Photo © Lennart Voßgätter

The new industry of shark diving is leading to more and more dive sites being developed. Now, over 85 nations in total attract at least half a million travelers annually for shark diving. Therefore, dive tourism offers a huge potential to protect sharks. At dive sites, the predators are lured with bait to get around their natural shyness. Without bait, it would be impossible to ensure interaction for divers. But unfortunately, standards in terms of safety, sustainability, and ethics are often lacking. Mostly there is a lack of expertise and experience. The quality of shark diving sometimes fluctuates as much as an inflatable boat in high waves.

Certain standards must be met so that we actually help sharks instead of reinforcing their image as aggressive.

Shark feeding: keep in mind for sustainable dive tourism

The issue of feeding is controversial. Not every baitfish comes from a sustainable fishery, it can affect animal behavior, and ultimately large predators get very close to humans. For example, a few hammerhead sharks in the Bahamas meet their entire energy needs through fed fish. Accordingly, their natural hunting instinct is suppressed (Heim et al. 2020). In the Maldives, tiger sharks appear at the dive site a few minutes before food is released into the water, as this happens at a similar time every day. Studies show that it can have a short-term impact on shark movement patterns, but so far does not alter long-term migration patterns (Gallagher et al. 2015).

Nevertheless, feeding is a very effective method for shark conservation: dive tourism increases the added value of the animals and thus flushes more money into the coffers of the local population. If the diving industry in the Bahamas were no longer allowed to attract sharks, sightings would be rare and by no means guaranteed. Demand for shark diving would likely decline rapidly. That makes it more profitable to legalize the fishery again.

In other words, baiting is necessary to create consistent and sustainable dive tourism around the sharks and thus indirectly protect them from extinction.

Again I dive. At a depth of ten meters, I hold my camera ready for a scenic shot of another diver with the shark. But a strange feeling spreads through me. Something is wrong. I haven’t looked around for a while. Shoulder glance. Suddenly, behind me, three meters away, is another shark. It is smaller than the other, about one and a half meters long. But he is brave. He swims directly toward me. I turn my upper body in his direction to be able to act better. I decide to swim towards him. The shark comes closer and closer. But he is not aggressive. I realize he just wants to get past me, follow the trail of blood. A few centimeters in front of my face I let the animal pass. My head is empty, no thoughts present. Only the silence of the open blue, the sharks and us freedivers.

Nevertheless, the interaction remains a provoked situation where sharks expect to eat. They are designed to spot potential vulnerabilities in other animals and know exactly if a person is paying attention and where they are looking. Sharks have a sense of whether or not they can risk a bite without being noticed. To avoid potential dangers, there are some points to watch out for before jumping into the water with the animals on vacation.

  • What is used to attract the sharks? Often fish blood is used. Does the fish used come from a sustainable, local fishery or is it industrially caught fish with unsustainable fishing methods (e.g. longlines, trawls, etc., which often cause ghost nets)? Is it the whole fish or are only the remains of a utilized fish used? Again, sustainable choices can be made to reduce the spread of ghost nets through fishing, for example. It is best to ask operators in advance where the fish comes from.

  • How are the sharks attracted? Are the sharks actively fed or is the so-called “chum” simply released into the water? Chum is haxed fish mixed with seawater that is gradually released into the sea to create a blood trail to the dive site. Sharks have an excellent sense of smell, which allows them to pick up blood trails at great distances. In order to influence the behavior of the animals as little as possible and to limit the consumption of resources, the animals should be attracted mainly by chum. In this way, the sharks do not consume too much food, so that their natural hunting instinct remains intact. At the same time, this allows the blood trail to be maintained for hours with relatively few fish.

  • What are the safety standards? A detailed briefing is a must, as well as a minimum of diving experience of all participants in the dive. Equipment should be shark appropriate: for example, dive in ninja gear (all black or dark blue) so that there is no contrast for the shark to see. Because they are insanely good at that.

After another half hour, both sharks suddenly leave the dive site. Why? Do they feel uncomfortable? Did they smell prey somewhere else? Are there dolphins nearby or is there a larger animal lurking in the depths? Something is happening in the ocean that we don’t yet understand.

The blue shark has not been seen for several minutes now. Suddenly we catch sight of a pointed snout. Dozens of razor-sharp teeth protrude from its jaws. With two or three powerful strokes of its fins, another shark rushes at us head-on. Only at the last moment does it turn to the side. A large black eye looks directly at me.

The eye of a two and a half meter large mako shark.

This close relative of the white shark is the fastest shark in the ocean. It is notorious among divers for its unpredictability. The shark shoots past us again. He is curious and enormously present, but does not seem aggressive.  Again and again it comes towards us, swims to the boat and turns away again.

Ten minutes that feel like an eternity.

diver diving into water behind mako shark
I dive down to take a photo of the infamous mako shark. Photo © Lukas Müller

An encounter like this is not a given. The mako shark is in acute danger of extinction throughout the Atlantic. A large part of the population is already extinct, only a few survivors migrate through the Atlantic. To see it in the Azores is a rarity. If I didn’t have my wetsuit on, I would feel the goose bumps on my body.

Back on board, we all have big grins on our faces.

It turns out that divers can contribute to shark conservation by acting sustainably. But only under certain standards the welfare of animals and humans is secured. To pay attention to this and to inform ourselves extensively is in our hands. Only in this way can the next generations also experience what fascinating predators inhabit our seas.

Article by Lennart Voßgätter:

Lennart is a master’s student in marine biology at the University of Bremen, Germany, researching in particular the population ecology of tiger sharks. He has a passion for diving with sharks and spent five weeks in the Azores, a volcanic archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, as part of a Bracenet scholarship. There he studied and photographed the marine megafauna.


Cisneros-Montemayor, A. M., Barnes-Mauthe, M., Al-Abdulrazzak, D., Navarro-Holm, E., & Sumaila, U. R. (2013). Global economic value of shark ecotourism: implications for conservation. Oryx, 47(3), 381-388.

Dulvy, N. K., Simpfendorfer, C. A., Davidson, L. N., Fordham, S. V., Bräutigam, A., Sant, G., & Welch, D. J. (2017). Challenges and priorities in shark and ray conservation. Current Biology, 27(11), 565-572.

Gallagher, A. J., Vianna, G. M., Papastamatiou, Y. P., Macdonald, C., Guttridge, T. L., & Hammerschlag, N. (2015). Biological effects, conservation potential, and research priorities of shark diving tourism. Biological Conservation, 184, 365-379.

Worm, B., Davis, B., Kettemer, L., Ward-Paige, C. A., Chapman, D., Heithaus, M. R., … & Gruber, S. H. (2013). Global catches, exploitation rates, and rebuilding options for sharks. Marine Policy, 40, 194-204.

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