Riding on the backs of endangered whale sharks. Cruelly dragging sharks in speedboat wake. Touching marine life to attract and entice dive tourists. What do you do when you see someone illegally or unethically handling marine life?
In the age of the “selfie,” people are broadcasting their actions to a wider audience. Posting on social media to seek notoriety is resulting in unintended consequences for those captured on film. Posted videos and pictures are being used as evidence against those accused of such behavior. Is social media bringing justice to harassed marine life?


Viral Video of Shark Dragging in Florida

It is often the most shocking cruelty that forces us to re-examine what is acceptable in society. It has been almost a year since a video went viral showing a shark dragged behind a boat at high speed. Sharks are unfairly demonized in popular consciousness. However, even if you wrongly view this animal as dangerous, the helplessness of the shark in this footage is unmistakenly apparent. This deplorable incident was condemned around the world. The men pictured in the video were identified to authorities via social media. The result? Four Florida men were charged in this shark dragging case. They faced felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty and misdemeanor counts of illegal methods to “take” a shark. All men pled not guilty to the charges.


“This was not an accident, it was purposeful and it’s deplorable and tragic…Sharks; they are not toys,” said Florida Aquarium Associated Curator Eric Hovland. Charges against one of the men have since been dropped. The trials of the remaining accused have faced delays.


What are the Guidelines for Marine Life Interactions?

Whale shark populations are under pressure throughout Southeast Asia. This is especially true in Indonesia where their numbers have diminished due to overfishing. Their fins are taken for sale on the illegal Chinese shark fin market.
Whale sharks are protected in Indonesia; it is illegal to touch or ride them. In guidelines for whale shark interactions, the law clearly states that divers must keep a distance of at least three feet.  In 2016, whale sharks were moved from “vulnerable status” to “endangered.’ Latest estimates indicate that there might be less than 10,000 whale sharks worldwide. (photo – Simon Pierce)
Globally, out of control dive tourists are a chronic problem in the marine tourism industry. Lack of empowerment in tour operations combined with weak enforcement or poor education results in nightmare conditions for marine life.


Irresponsible Human Wildlife Interactions

whale shark dive tourists simon pierce indonesia Harassed Marine LifeIn one account, a hundred divers and snorkelers jumped into the water to chase a single whale shark in the Maldives. This behavior is not surprising to those in the industry.  Whale shark tours make good money from these experiences. With their livelihood reliant on successful interactions, they often don’t feel like they can place limits on their customers.

“The whale shark dives are becoming more and more money-oriented,” said dive master Mohammed Ismael. “We are seeing evasive behaviour from the sharks. They’re afraid.”


Social Media Through an Ethics Filter

In a shocking piece of underwater footage posted online, a scuba diver “successufully” rides the back of an endangered whale shark in Indonesia. Two others hold on to the shark’s sides. The whale shark, which appears to be a juvenile, is obviously distressed by the overwhelming human contact.
“It’s too stupid, claiming to be a diver but acting ridiculous. It’s a shame,” said environmental activist Rachmad Saleh.
Criticism of the diver’s actions in Indonesia came quickly.  Again social media proved a force for good in identifying the people in the footage. The diver that rode the whale shark has been arrested. He faces further sanctions if he enters into a conservation area.


What Happens When Behavior Is Not Illegal But Definitely Unethical?

splendid toadfish, cozumel mexico yucatan caribbean harassment protected species Harassed Marine LifeA photo shared on social media shows a scuba dive professional from a Cozumel company capturing and holding a Splendid Toadfish. Another diver appears to be attempting to pet it.

The incident occurred in the Reefs National Park of Cozumel. The park is a protected area; it is forbidden to touch, step on or collect live species in the park. The diver, who was apparently leading a group of tourists, should have known better; the Splendid Toadfish is a “vulnerable” species. As a direct result of the outrage expressed on social media, the Cozumel company fired the diver.


Dive Instructor Manhandles Octopus

In 2015, dive certification agency SSI took action against a dive instructor in Vietnam. The dive professional had uploaded a video of him manhandling an octopus for dive tourists.


Adam Hanlon, editor of Wetpixel, reposted the video. He said the footage was ‘in breach of all environmental, professional or legal regulations.’ The concerned editor asked his followers to express their outrage directly to SSI.  Following an established Grievance Resolution Procedure, SSI promptly responded to the outcry. They revoked the instructor’s license. SSI made a public statement announcing the termination of membership of the instructor as an SSI Dive Professional. They penalized the associated dive centres as well. These dive shops are no longer SSI-affiliated Dive Centres. Holding the community accountable to industry authorities resulted in satisfyingly clear action. This sends a message of steep consequences for such behavior.

In another incidence, George Xaris, NAUI instructor and owner of Netdivers in Cyprus, released a Facebook video of him harassing a sea turtle. He mistakenly seemed to think this behavior would attract dive clients. Local operators testified that Xaris is a repeat offender, claiming he has behaved similarly for decades. Sea Shepherd Dive called on NAUI and Cypriot authorities to take action against Xaris. We have no follow-up report yet.



How Can You Prevent Marine Life Harassment?

It is apparent that when incidents of harassment are seen on social media, the result is outrage and a demand for accountability. Take this to heart. If you witness an incident of marine harassment, take a selfie for good and document the behavior. Express your outrage to those participating and the business they are accountable to. The threat of lost consumers in the competitive, word-of-mouth tourism industry is a real concern for any smart businessperson. Share your captured footage with your online networks. Use social media to track down the identities of those involved. Bring the incident before a larger audience and ask them to add their voices to yours. As you can see, it works.

Scuba diver responsibilities: Get in front of the problem and choose a responsible dive operator to start. Be curious about the practices of your tourism operators.


Do your dive leaders chum or feed the fish to bring them closer?
Do they touch fish or coral?
Does the dive operation give back to the local community?
Do they promote sustainability?


Before you book, get answers, check the operator’s website, send them emails asking these questions. If you decide not to go with a marine tourism operator for any of these reasons, let them know why. Suggest that they change their behavior.


Educate yourself further about responsible human wildlife interaction:

NOAA Fisheries has published guidelines on feeding or harassing marine mammals in the wild.
Read Mark Crowley’s article on how to interact with marine life. He shares tips on being a responsible diver and how to avoid distressing marine animals. Crowley is the author of DIVE’s Easy Diving.


If you have something to report, contact certification agencies to regulate industry behavior:

by Robert Frerck and Caitlin Flannery, Blue Ocean Network


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Shark Killing Banned in Florida
Whale and Dolphin Watching may Not be the Low-impact, Sustainable Activity Once Thought.
Ban the Trade in Shark Fins
A Guide to Best Practices for Shark and Ray Tourism
Rays Killed for Fun?? In Chesapeake Bay??
Save the Dolphins of Japan

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