“We are not afraid of predators, we’re transfixed by them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival.”
– E.O. Wilson
I was scrolling through my social media the other day, as one does when various important deadlines are looming, when something caught my eye. It was a video, featuring a woman swimming alongside the largest white shark I had ever seen. Her body moved in the smooth, undulating style of an experienced free diver as she kicked to keep up with the animal, her hand resting on its side. As I continued to watch, the camera zoomed out to reveal several other people in close proximity to the woman and her subject. I assumed these were members of her film crew, a suspicion immediately confirmed by the fact that most were carrying GoPros. This didn’t surprise me. In fact, I was not an uninformed observer. I knew who this woman was. However, she will remain nameless for the purposes of this piece. That is because media featuring this type of human-wildlife interaction is fairly common, even among those who are not well-known conservationists.
#sharkselfies might seem like a great way to contradict existing misconceptions of sharks, which are often perceived as “mindless man-eaters.” However, such human behavior may have the opposite effect if the animal responds poorly when provoked. (Left to right: Calypso Star Charters/mediaredrumworld.com; Facebook/Joshua Butterworth; Getty Images/iStockphoto)
As a shark researcher, I was torn. Based on the woman’s current work, the intended message of the video was relatively clear: sharks are not to be feared, but rather revered. Due to the stigma surrounding predators in general, and sharks in particular, this is a tactic adopted by many in the conservation world. Even I have been guilty of featuring photographs of myself with my study species on various platforms, usually in an attempt to promote my own conservation or research agenda. The term “wildlife harassment” has yet to come to my mind as I’m doing so, but in a world where information is shared globally in milliseconds, it probably should.
To be clear, though I thought I understood the purpose behind the woman’s actions, my views tended to align with the concerns that I saw posted by many fellow shark researchers: this behavior could lead to other people putting themselves, and the animals, in precarious situations. There is a fine line between interacting with wildlife for the purposes of research and doing so for self-promotion, whether personal or professional. This is particularly important among species whose misinformed reputations have historically led to near-extinction. I later learned that the next day, several boats traveled to the dive site where the film took place, only to find that all of the white sharks had vanished. Some researchers speculated that these predators, which feed opportunistically, may have altered their behavior in response to human presence and left an otherwise productive foraging location (though this was unconfirmed). However, it is perhaps because of my personal journey with shark research that I felt a pang of sympathy, even empathy, for the woman in video. The fine line that separates advocacy from self-promotion can be fuzzy, the area between outreach and wildlife harassment, grey.
I was raised in a landlocked city in the Midwestern United States. For the first eighteen years of my life, my home was an eight-hour drive from the nearest coastline. Yet by some strange twist of fate I was bestowed with an innate obsession with marine predators – specifically, sharks. I am not alone in my fascination; in fact, I can almost guarantee that the woman from the video was driven by a nearly identical sentiment. However, our shared passion for conserving sharks has evidently manifested itself in different ways. I am now firmly entrenched in academia, sharing my work opportunistically in between collecting and analyzing data. She spends her days in the water, using social media as a professional platform to support her conservation work.
Reading the hundreds of criticisms accumulating underneath the online video, I had a moral crisis. Were we really so different? I distinctly remember idolizing similar conservationists as a child, and much of my base shark knowledge was from programs such as Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. Furthermore, like a significant portion of the global population, I would have had very little access to the ocean unless I made a concerted effort to leave home and pursue a better understanding of this environment. I’m acutely aware that in many ways, people like this woman helped instill in me a sense of duty for protecting endangered species, one that ultimately shaped my current career.
More importantly, I had to ask whether the methods I now use in my research were really a better alternative to simply handling the animals. Because we cannot breathe underwater without technical assistance, our ability to observe marine animals is limited. In shark research, we rely on a variety of creative technologies to give us a more comprehensive understanding of behavior and movement patterns. These almost always entail attaching a device to the animal. Some can send out signals telling us the whereabouts of each individual, while others store data about their movement patterns. Regardless of the type of equipment, attaching any device to an animal is necessarily invasive to some degree.
However, the wildlife research community is aware of this and is actively striving to reduce our impact. Animal tracking devices are decreasing rapidly in size to limit the weight added to the animal, and we often select methods that can simultaneously minimize immediate harm while allowing us to answer the questions that will be necessary to effectively protect the population as a whole. An extensive permitting process is conducted prior to any fieldwork, and we are usually required to document the entire device-attachment process. This includes noting the length of time the animal is handled and a justification that our method is as minimally invasive as possible to collect the required data. Entire committees at universities are dedicated to making sure that every action is ethical. What I realize as a science communicator, however, is that this process that seems transparent in the scientific community is not necessarily so to the general public. Even on The Ethogram, a university-affiliated blog of dedicated animal behaviorists, we carefully check every piece we post. Does it count as wildlife harassment if a primate researcher is holding a juvenile titi monkey, if a salmon researcher is injecting small tags into chinook salmon, if a pinniped researcher is attaching cameras to captive sea lions, or if a shark researcher (like me) is fishing for sevengill sharks? It might appear that way if we aren’t clear about why our actions are necessary: to help the monkey eat, to monitor salmon survival, to find evidence of natural behavior in captivity, or to estimate the abundance of a local shark population. So how do we distinguish between an educational piece for promoting conservation and a platform inadvertently encouraging inappropriate human-wildlife interactions?
The answer is not always straightforward. Wildlife harassment is much more nuanced than it first seems. In its most blatant form – sport fishermen posting videos of their endangered catch, hunters sharing photographs of bloody lion carcasses and guns – it is easy to identify, and punish as laws and cultural values see fit. Yet even the most well-intended media, without context, can cross the line. Here at The Ethogram, we now follow a simple rule: set an example. If others could misinterpret what you present, play it safe. Don’t leave room for misinterpretation. Importantly, however, it’s not entirely up to the research or conservation community. In a world dominated by social media, each individual is presented with a consistent influx of information. It is therefore up to us, the global audience, to be accountable when interpreting the information we see.
Part of my personal conservation mission is to share what I am privileged to learn while interacting with animals in their natural habitats. Yet as a researcher, my goal is not to have a monopoly on human-wildlife interactions. To see a hammerhead shark gliding slowly below your fins is a wonderfully enlightening and humbling experience, one that I wish everyone could responsibly have. Those who are fortunate enough to have such moments, however, need to be aware of the message they are sending to those who do not. The smallest touch, the slightest misinterpreted cue, can result in tragic consequences for animal and human alike. Especially if your goal is education (and even if it isn’t), think before you share and provide context when you do. Consider this: what would the world be like if everyone followed your example?
“A wonderfully enlightening and humbling experience”
(Video of hammerhead shark surveys at the Bimini Shark Lab)
Alexandra McInturf is a shark researcher and ardent conservationist. She has traveled internationally for her work, to South Africa, the Bahamas, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. In doing so, she has come to recognize the value of science communication in achieving both research and conservation goals. Consequently, she is a regular contributor and editor for The Ethogram, and also enjoys maintaining her own personal blog.
The opinions and media presented here are her own, and all videos and photographs were taken during research excursions, unless otherwise specified.