Why Sharks Are Getting Stuck in Diver Cages

Divers and conservationists say uptick in incidents could actually be beneficial to the species.

Shark Breaks Through Diving Cage

An underwater photographer got unexpectedly close to his subject when a great white shark broke into his cage.

The incident took place near Guadalupe Island, Mexico, where divers frequently descend into the shark-filled waters, and shocking incidents like this have occurred several times over the past year. And surprisingly, this phenomenon may also be beneficial to the sharks.

As the above video, released Thursday, shows, the diver and shark were both put in danger when the shark chased a piece of bait into a cage, blindly smashing through a large hole and becoming trapped.

Speculating as to why this may have happened, underwater photographer Brian Skerry, who has been diving with sharks for decades, thinks the use of bait contributed. The boat crew had thrown a rope with tuna tied to it into the water to lure the shark closer.

“If you bait repeatedly and the cage has a big opening, the shark will follow it in and at the last minute open its mouth, close its eyes, and end up running into the cage,” Skerry said.

According to Skerry, while the diver was not in tremendous danger of being bitten, he could easily have been slammed and hurt by the 2,000-pound fish if he remained in the cage.

The videographer, Brian Ernst, said he and the crew were worried for the diver’s safety.

“The shark is trying to get out of the cage and was going crazy. We were thinking we might be seeing somebody die. Luckily the crew were thinking properly, opening up the top of the cage. A few seconds later, we saw the great white flinging out.”

Leaving the cage presented its own set of challenges. Tied to the boat with an air hose and weighted down to stay at the bottom of the cage, the diver had to think fast in order to escape the cage without letting the weights around his waist pull him to the ocean floor.

The diver exited the cage through the hole opened up by the shark but maintained a hold on it so he didn’t sink. When the shark escaped, he was able to rise to the surface, returning through the same hole.

The shark was likely uninjured, according to Skerry, but it was difficult to tell from the video. The blood may be from the bait, a chipped tooth or another small injury.

In a similar incident Monday, also near Guadalupe Island, a shark swam into an open-top cage and became stuck, forcing dive operators to tie a rope around the predator’s tail to free it from the cage. Divers were also forced to squeeze past the shark to escape after the shark bit through their air hose. In that case as well, the shark was likely attracted by the tuna attached to the cage.

In October 2015, a shark got stuck in a diver cage off Guadalupe Island, struggling to free itself but breaking loose after about one minute.

“It was a shark enticed by the scent of tuna, not humans. I suspect and hope this incident prompts some changes in the operations, mainly the design of the cages so that this cannot happen again,” said Katie Yonker, director of operations for Bluewater Travel, a company that regularly takes shark dive tours to the area.

Skerry emphasized that these incidents are relatively rare and more or less inevitable with the increased prevalence of shark diving. “It is generally a freak accident and is sometimes hard to avoid,” he said.

Why This Might Be Good

While shark cage accidents have become more common, the increased popularity of shark cage diving has done some good, Skerry said.

“When I started diving with sharks 30 years ago, no one was interested in seeing them. Now there are shark ambassadors around the world. They’ve done some good things in trying to change the view most people have that they are dangerous villains.”

Ernst confirmed this experience, emphasizing the gentle nature of the animals.

“The sharks were completely awesome. They were not trying to break into the cage, they were just going for the bait,” said Ernst. “They weren’t trying to attack the humans.”

Sharks are also in danger. Estimates for the number killed per year for their fins range from a hundred million to 273 million. “We can’t kill a hundred million sharks a year and expect the ocean to remain healthy,” said Skerry.

He adds that diving in shark cages to witness sharks firsthand has helped to raise awareness of sharks' dwindling numbers and nuanced behavior, and it's helped spur advocacy efforts worldwide.

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