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THE antics of unscrupulous operators of shark-diving tours could end in tragedy, say conservationists. They are worried by practices which may lead great white sharks to associate food with items such as surfboards or children's toys. Any resulting attacks could undermine years of effort to save these endangered marine predators.
In South Africa, people pay for a face-to-face meeting with the great white shark, one of the ultimate predators of the seas. Tourists go diving in cages that are supposed to protect them. But as interest has grown, five or more boats at a time have sometimes jockeyed for position in the narrow channel at Dyer Island near Cape Town, a magnet for great whites thanks to a breeding colony of seals, their favourite prey.
If the dive operators all acted responsibly, this melee might be harmless, say conservationists. But some use rusty cages that other operators have scrapped. "Guaranteed there will be a death or bad injury," says Craig Ferreira of the White Shark Research Institute in Cape Town, which itself runs carefully regulated shark-diving tours. Worse still, in addition to attracting sharks with food, some companies have been seen putting surfboards or children's toys into the water. Sharks are naturally curious and mouth objects floating on the surface.
"The sharks are getting the opportunity to find out that every time they see a surfboard there might be food around," says George Burgess, a shark expert at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. "One day they will find out there is a human on the other side of the sandwich."