Ideas

IDEAS | WILLIAM MCKEEVER

Summer on the Cape means shark panic. But what if we embraced these majestic fish, instead of pushing them away?

The waters off Gansbaai. South Africa, offer close, intense encounters with great whites.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
The waters off Gansbaai. South Africa, offer close, intense encounters with great whites.

SUMMER HAS ARRIVED on Cape Cod. That means fried clams, breezy walks along the water — and low-grade panic.

Last fall’s deadly shark attack on Arthur Medici, 26, off the coast of Wellfleet, has left everyone jittery.

Emergency call boxes have sprouted in beach parking lots and the locals are learning how to pack shark-bite wounds.

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There’s talk of more active measures, too: shark-detecting sonar buoys and nets anchored to the ocean floor. Jurisdictions in other parts of the world have tried shark surveillance towers and baited hooks.

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Trouble is, there’s little evidence these high-priced technologies have much effect. And Medici’s death, however horrific, was an anomaly. The Revere man was the first person killed by a shark in Massachusetts since 1936. And worldwide, only six people per year die from shark-inflicted wounds.

That’s not to say we should be cavalier, but we’re fooling ourselves if we imagine we can ward off sharks altogether. They’ve been around for at least 450 million years, after all — and if we don’t incinerate the planet, they’ll be around for hundreds of millions more.

So it may be time to consider a very different approach — one focused less on repelling these majestic fish, and more on embracing them.

Sharks may be dangerous. But they’re also deeply alluring. There’s a reason they figure so prominently in our imagination and in our popular culture.

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What if we decided to embrace our elemental attraction to these animals? What if we decided to make close encounters with sharks not something to be feared, but something to be desired? Monetized, even.

Sound far-fetched? It’s not. In fact, it’s already happening in beach communities all over the planet.

TWO YEARS AGO, as part of my research into a book on sharks, I took a trip to South Africa for my first dive with a great white.

My flight to Cape Town was a grueling 19 hours from New York and then I drove four hours to Gansbaai.

Tourists flock to this old fishing town in hopes of dropping into a shark cage and coming face-to-face with one the world’s great apex predators.

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As I drew closer to the waterfront, I made out the life-size plasters of great whites. Then, in the marina: nine cage dive operators vying to attract customers with their oversize signs.

I hopped onto one of the charters and headed out to sea, wearing a full-body wetsuit to protect against the cold of the ocean.

Truth be told, I was nervous. It’s one thing to think about swimming with a great white when you’re sitting in your apartment in New York City and quite another to be moments away from confronting one.

We arrived at the appointed spot, and the guides handed me a mask and underwater breathing regulator, the lid to the cage closing with a bang. In a matter of moments, I was completely alone in the silence of the ocean.

I peered through the bars into the green miasma and saw vague shapes below; great whites like to swim at depth during the day. But some chum and tuna heads got their attention and suddenly one of those vague shapes turned into a 20-foot shark.

Its top portion was a marine blue, and the pectoral fins were wide and long. As the beast surged by, the muscles in his crescent-shaped tail gently flexed from side to side, in an elegant thrust. My fear quickly turned to exhilaration.

I didn’t want to touch, though. I didn’t want to destroy the moment: He was majestic and powerful and devoid of ego. I watched. And I watched. And eventually, the shark slipped back into the depths.

After I returned to my hotel, my thoughts turned from the thrill of the encounter to the economy built around it, all the money pouring into the town for hotels and meals and tours. And as I continued my journey around the world, I learned that Gansbaai isn’t the only place that’s figured out sharks can pay.

Yes, some beachfront communities are killing sharks in a misguided attempt to allay the fears of tourists, but others — especially in the Pacific — are recognizing that a shark is worth a lot more alive than dead.

Just as countries in Africa rely on the lion to draw safari tourists, island nations are using sharks to draw curiosity-seekers.

Take Fiji. Shark-related diving contributes $42 million to the country’s economy annually, by one conservative estimate. And in Palau, Micronesia, shark tourism accounts for approximately 8 percent of G.D.P. A few years ago, the government impounded, then burned at sea, four Vietnamese poaching boats to protect its valuable marine life.

“We have a simple message for those who try to steal Palau’s marine resources,” said the island nation’s president, Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr., at the time. “We will not tolerate poachers in our ocean.”

Here in the United States, we are beginning to see the development of a shark ecotourism industry in Florida, especially. According to Oceana, an ocean advocacy group, shark-related dives in Florida generated more than $221 million in revenue in 2016 and supported over 3,700 jobs.

The industry is growing in Rhode Island and Long Island, N.Y., too. And even on the Cape, we’re seeing the beginnings of shark ecotourism. One local company offers not just cage dives, but open water swims.

GETTING CLOSER TO these animals — on the Cape and around the world — will mean unparalleled thrills for divers.

Few fish can match the blazing speed of a mako, the sheer power of a great white, or the great cunning of a tiger shark.

But there is potential for something larger here, too.

Sharks play a vital role in marine ecosystems — presiding over the sort of balanced food chain that keeps oceans healthy. And a broader appreciation for that role could spur a badly needed ocean activism.

Even as we awaken to the dangers of a changing planet on land — elevating buildings to mitigate climate change and coming to grips with massive species loss — too many of us ignore the worrisome changes taking place in the water.

We need charismatic creatures that can turn our attention to the seas and inspire real change. Creatures of grace and power.

For many, sharks have been a symbol of fear. If we play this right, they could become a symbol of hope.

William McKeever is the founder of Ocean Guardian, an organization dedicated to the protection of the ocean, and the author of “Emperors of the Deep.”