A New and Toothy Form of Ecotourism: Swimming With Sharks

When many people hear the words “shark” and “tourism” in the same sentence, the first thing they think of is how to avoid them. Unfortunately these people are missing the opportunity to witness and learn about one of nature’s truly astounding creatures. While shark attacks are real and many movies and media outlets capitalize on this fear (see the Discovery Channel), there are common sense ways to avoid danger and have a great experience while contributing to shark conservation efforts.

The real predator

According to the conservation group Oceana, an average of 4 people per year were killed by sharks, with only 3 fatal attacks in the US from 2006 – 2010 (out of 179 total). Beachgoers are more than 3 times more likely to drown than to die from a shark attack. Compare that to the more than 25 million sharks killed by humans each year, and it becomes clear who is more dangerous.

Sharks, as top predators, are critically important to the health of the ocean. One of the biggest issues why many shark species are endangered is due to the international trade in shark fins, used as a delicacy in shark fin soup, consumed primarily in Asia. According to Shark Advocates International, they are also valued for their meat, hides, teeth and livers. Due to the facts that sharks grow slowly, take a long time to reproduce and give birth to small numbers of offspring, these fish are especially susceptible to human threats.

Tourism As A Conservation Tool

One strategy to help protect and research sharks that is gaining popularity is ecotourism. A recent study of sharks around Costa Rica’s Cocos Island estimated the value of a hammerhead shark to tourism at US $1.6 million each, compared to just under $200 it could bring if sold. A 2011 study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science had an even more dramatic difference, estimating a lifetime value of nearly US $2 million dollars for a reef shark in Palau vs. only $108 for sale in a fish market. Governments are starting to take notice of this economic value; countries including Australia, Palau and the Cook Islands have recently created large new marine protected areas to protect sharks and other ocean life.

While diving to see sharks has its abstract value, many tour operators and volunteer organizations are taking advantage of shark tourism to directly benefit conservation. SEEtheWILD partner Sea Turtle Restoration Project has a unique trip for divers to the Cocos Island where people can help to tag hammerheads as part of a research program. In Belize, Earthwatch Institute has a volunteer program in Belize to study shark populations and the value of marine protected areas.

Another way that travelers can support shark research is by participating in the Whale Shark Photo ID Library. Anyone with underwater photos of whale sharks can upload them to this website for identification, helping to build this important resource for conservation efforts. Finally, some shark trips generate donations for conservation efforts, including this whale shark trip to Isla Mujeres (Mexico).

Playing it safe

For those who get sweaty at the mention of sharks, there are many ways to keep yourself safe when in the water with sharks. The easiest way to do that is to swim with the least threatening of sharks, the whale sharks. Though these giant fish can be 40 feet long and weigh 20 tons, they don’t have teeth and are not aggressive to humans. Also, by remaining calm around sharks and keeping your distance, you can minimize the risk of being around these fascinating creatures. If you are diving or snorkeling in areas where sharks live, ask your guide about what to expect and what species to look out for.

Tips for Shark Conservation Tourism

SEEtheWILD’s shark conservation tours and volunteer programs:

-Mexico Whale Sharks

-Whale sharks & turtles

-Belize shark research

-Undiscovered Belize

-Galapagos Adventure

-Cocos Island Shark & Turtle Research


Related Stories:

Can Tourism Benefit India’s Tigers?

Small Town Celebrates Endangered Turtles

Is the News Media Driving Sharks to Extinction?



Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Biby C.
Biby C6 years ago

I'm not for chuming. If you want to swim with sharks, do it in a natural way. Go diving. SE Asia is a great place to dive with sharks because sharks species here are generally not aggressive. Just give them some space. Of course there're certain rules to follow, such as not trapping the shark between you and the reef.

Annelies Haussler
liessi Haussler6 years ago

Bad idea. While there are good intentions in dispelling hate and fear of sharks, setting up situations where people can swim with them means capturing a few (which can result in others being hurt or worse, killed) and keeping them captive. We do not have the right to disturb the natural order to satisfy our whimsy. Anyone who wants to get to know sharks better need only turn on their television and watch the many excellent documentaries that show them in the wild, doing what they should be doing: being alive. Imprisoning sharks (or dolphins, orcas, belugas, etc) is exploitative and devalues their existence further. This is a bad idea for the same reason carnival side shows no longer display bearded ladies or conjoined twins.

Vicky P.
Vicky P6 years ago


Alana M.
Alana M6 years ago

It is a bad idea to chum waters to attract sharks for human viewing/entertainment. These sharks may learn to view human interaction with food, then get blamed for eating a few.

Really stupid.

Lynn C.
Past Member 6 years ago

Goodness, this isn't exactly new. A friend and I went on a 'shark' dive 13 years ago and the dive masters had been taking people out for years before that. Nevertheless, diving with them is thrilling. The real-life experience far surpasses any film or aquarium, as does any wild-animal sighting when you're in their habitat.

Isabel Araujo
Isabel Araujo6 years ago

I would love to swim with sharls!

Lee M.
Lee M.6 years ago

Since Scuba diving with a mini shark we just have to learn from them and them us. I do think if we do fish for sharks we should have regulated hunts. Plus use the whole shark not just the fins. Yeah I still want to see a Whale shark in the Georgia Aquirum one day

Amelia Coates
Amelia Coates6 years ago

I would like to do a lot of things. however there is such a concept as 'right and wrong' and this is definitely wrong for oodles of reasons. For one, animals aren't on this earth to be humans' playthings. Two, they are in and of the ocean, and though we are doing our human job of polluting it, the animals contained in it are so far 'untouched by human hands' and they need to stay that way; we are the dirtiest species there is and sharks don't need our cooties! Three, this is setting the sharks up for failure; the minute that someone is tasted by the shark, the shark is going to be killed. Four, has anyone asked the sharks if they are cool with this? For the love of Pete! LEAVE THEM ALONE!!!

Nicole W.
Nicole W6 years ago

leave them alone...stop using them for entertainment, tourism, etc.