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Ocean for Conservation?

In light of One Planet Week, Hannah Rudd assesses the ethics of marine biologists that interfere with their subjects of study

Photo Credit: Terry Goss

Touching sharks, or indeed any wildlife whilst diving has always been something I’ve personally felt uncomfortable with – in fact, it’s scuba diving 101.

During my first scuba experience in Cape Verde I witnessed several of my fellow divers trying to ride a loggerhead turtle, and whilst in South Africa my dive leader tried to coax a catshark to bite his finger – effectively shoving it down the shark’s throat – to demonstrate that they “won’t hurt you”.

You can imagine my amazement when witnessing dive masters openly engaging in such interactions in the presence of a relatively novice diver like myself. People who commonly pride themselves on being marine conservationists, engaging in animal harassment cases like these seems incredibly out of character.

Ironically, tourists seem to behave better overall; aside from ghastly incidences like snorkelers attempting to ride a whale shark in Indonesia and weighing it down, resulting in a highly distressing experience for the shark - I am more than happy to report that they got jailed for doing this.

All these experiences and viral online videos have been met with global condemnation – so why should Ocean Ramsey be held unaccountable for her actions?

For those of you who don’t know, Ocean Ramsey is a marine biologist and dive tourism operator with One Ocean Diving in Hawaii. She is most widely known for becoming a social media sensation, with an impressive following on Instagram thanks to her breath-taking photographs with marine megafauna.

At the start of January, a gigantic female great white shark identified as ‘Deep Blue’ – the largest great white ever caught on camera and last seen two years ago in Guadalupe – was spotted in Hawaiian waters. Unsurprisingly, Ramsey and her team jumped at the opportunity to witness this beautiful animal in its natural habitat. Nothing wrong with that, right?

The controversy begins when you consider that one video clip showed Ramsey attempting to ‘ride’ the shark – an accusation she has since refuted on her social media – and that there are multiple inexperienced divers surrounding the shark who seem to be engaging in harassing behaviours. Then there is also the small addition of the unbelievably well-placed branded equipment, which she will undoubtedly rack in fortunes for due to her wealth of brand endorsements.

But perhaps most worryingly for me is that the group of 7 or 8 divers – it’s unclear from the footage – are freediving and snorkelling around the shark whilst it is feasting on a dead sperm whale. Getting between a shark and its dinner is not the smartest of decisions.

Her whole scenario leaves me agonisingly conflicted. I have friends who work within shark science and know Ramsey personally and they don’t believe she is doing anything beyond her remit as a conservationist, but then I have also read multiple online condemnations of her behaviour by notable shark scientists, such as Dr. David Schiffman.

It is undeniable that her fans on Instagram – almost 800k of them – are in awe of sharks and want stronger protections for them, but has she also influenced them to engage in activities that could potentially knock back the efforts of shark conservationists around the world?

You’d be forgiven if you’ve believed that sharks are ravenous monsters who seek out human flesh. Ever since the 1970s movie Jaws, sharks have had a pretty bad reputation – especially our friend the great white shark. Even "Finding Nemo" portrays the great white Bruce as becoming ravenous at the faint smell of Dory’s cut flesh wafting through the ocean current.

Every summer we are bombarded with media reports of “shark attacks” and “menacing killers” lurking beneath the depths waiting to strike on a defenceless swimmer, furthering the ridiculous rhetoric that exists surrounding these magnificent animals. Sometimes, these stories have ludicrous consequences too, like the recent tiger shark cull in Australia.

“I need people to see that they’re not monsters so that they can care enough, or respect them enough, just to give them the same protection that dolphins and whales have been given,” Ramsey recently told the Washington Post.

Their populations have declined by as much as almost 90% for some species in recent years, so it is both remarkable and a privilege if you observe one patrolling its watery kingdom and undeniable that they require stronger protections.

Shark are perhaps one of the most misunderstand organisms to grace our planet and anyone trying to showcase how integral these animals are to a healthy ocean should be applauded – however, causing stress to the animal you love so dearly seems a counterintuitive methodology to me.

To find out more about the health of our oceans, check out the film screening of ‘A Plastic Ocean’, the open lecture ‘Plastic in Our Ocean - Who are the Biggest Culprits?’ and talk ‘Can the Circular Economy Save Our Seas?’ during One Planet Week, happening all this week. To see the full list of events, check out the ‘One Planet Week 2019’ Facebook event or head to bit.ly/OnePlanetWeek.

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