In the last few weeks, the ongoing controversy over cage diving has reached fever pitch in the wake of this viral video (see below), which shows the moment a great white shark became stuck in a cage. The incident took place on October 4th, aboard veteran cage-diving vessel Solmar V. The boat was running a cage-diving trip to Guadalupe, an island off the coast of Mexico renowned as one of the world’s great-white hotspots. What really happened during the now-famous Solmar V great white shark incident?
The video, filmed by a Solmar V passenger, shows a crew member drawing a large great white toward the cage using bait attached to a rope. The shark lunges for the bait, then continues onward into the cage wall. According to a statement released by Solmar V, the shark hit one of the cage windows, causing the top part of the cage front to break. With nothing to stop its momentum, the shark ended up inside the cage.
The topside crew immediately opened the escape hatch in the cage’s roof. Moments later the shark lunged out and back into the ocean, bleeding visibly from its gills. The lone diver in the cage at the time, Ming Chan, subsequently appeared unharmed out of the same escape hatch. According to Solmar V, he escaped the cage through a lower hatch as soon as the shark breached its walls. He then waited for the shark to free itself before re-entering the cage and exiting through the roof. He recounted his story to the New York Times here.
The video went viral almost immediately, sparking online hysteria. Many media outlets framed the story as a tale of a man’s survival after an attack by an aggressive shark. The cage diving industry received much criticism for putting people in danger. Chan, however, has since spoken out in support of Solmar V, naming the boat’s crew as his “heroes” in an online post and labeling his experience as life-affirming.
On the other end of the spectrum, the video’s content outraged conservationists. Some used it to condemn shark cage-diving as a whole. Others were legitimately worried that the video might promote the perception of great whites as dangerous killers, thereby undermining much-needed shark conservation efforts. Many commenters expressed anger on behalf of the shark, especially in light of its apparent injuries.
In reality, how much the shark was hurt is unclear. Solmar V’s official statement claims that “the shark did not suffer any serious injuries,” and company representatives replied to a commenter’s concerns about its health saying that they saw the same shark the next day, apparently in good health. While it seems likely that the shark’s injuries were superficial, the blood in the video is evidence of the damage that can occur when cage-diving goes wrong.
How is cage diving supposed to work?
Cage-diving takes place all over the world. Every destination has its own methods and regulations. In Guadalupe, operators like Solmar V use a cage made from alloy aluminum or stainless steel. The cage is attached to the boat and may accommodate up to four divers at a time. The use of authorized bait is permitted, although the area’s code of conduct states that it may not “touch the cage or pass over the top of the cage.”
The purpose of towing the bait through the water (on natural-fiber ropes) is not to feed the white sharks, but to draw them close enough so that divers in the cage can see them. However, the rules also state that operators must remove the bait from the water if the white shark “approaches within 6.5 feet (2 m) of the vessel” in order to prevent collision with the cage. The bait line must not be shorter than 40 feet (12 m).
What went wrong?
There has been some debate over whether the Solmar V crew violated any of the area’s cage-diving regulations. While regulations allow baiting, some commenters believe that the bait was not thrown in at the stipulated angle of “45 degrees from the cage to the outside of the boat,” therefore bringing the shark too close to the cage. Nevertheless, Solmar V is a well-respected company, with an injury-free record since the start of the Guadalupe shark diving industry in 2004.
It seems likely that the incident was an unfortunate accident. When white sharks bite, a protective layer known as a nictitating membrane rolls over their eyes, rendering them temporarily blind. The shark likely misjudged its proximity to the cage and the power of its forward momentum. Once inside the cage, the white shark could only thrash around attempting to escape, as great whites can’t swim backwards.
Instead of deliberately attacking the cage, as some breathless outlets suggested, the white shark was simply following through on instincts awakened by the bait in the water. Solmar V’s official statement claims that “shark breaches of this magnitude are a one-in-a-million-occurrence.”
Other cage breaches have occurred (both in Guadalupe and elsewhere), suggesting that this isn’t a completely isolated incident.
Should cage diving be banned?
Some shark conservationists are passionately anti cage-diving, claiming that baiting wild sharks puts both people and sharks at risk. Some believe (not without reason) that baiting affects the sharks’ natural behavior. This can cause the animals to visit areas that they wouldn’t naturally frequent, altering the balance of the surrounding ecosystem. The chances of shark-human contact also increase, potentially leading to incidents that generate bad press for sharks.
Others believe that cage-diving supports shark conservation efforts by allowing people to experience sharks firsthand. In this way, it debunks myths perpetuated by movies like Jaws. People begin to understand sharks and value them as key ocean predators. This change of perspective is particularly important for the great white. Humans have persecuted these sharks to such an extent that populations have declined dramatically all over the world, with over 100 million sharks losing their lives annually.
Responsible cage diving
Although incidents like this one prove that accidents do happen, cage-diving can be positive for both diver and shark. If you do choose to cage dive, research your options first. Make sure that your operator adheres to local regulations and focuses on conservation rather than cheap thrills. To limit the environmental impact of baiting, choose a location in which the target shark species occurs naturally.
Solmar V has already taken precautions to ensure that the events of October 4th do not happen again. They’ve both reinforced their cages and extended the no-bait zone around the vessel.