Every summer, sharks splash our TV screens through shows like National Geographic’s SharkFest. Millions of people tune in to watch a great white shark leap out of the ocean to catch its prey in the air or see a thrill of silky sharks surround divers. People love sharks, and for some, this interest has inspired efforts to seek out up close and personal experiences.
Shark tourism is a thriving multi-million dollar industry. Amateurs can dive or dive with them; witness their eating habits; or encounter great white sharks while submerged in an underwater cage. Once reserved for professional divers and marine biologists, safely approaching wild sharks is becoming an activity for the whole family. Here’s how responsible marine tourism can both inspire children and help conservation.
What children can learn from sharks
“If we have the opportunity to take the kids out and see a shark in the wild, they’ll see it in a different light,” says marine biologist Jillian Morris. “When kids see sharks behaving very differently from what they’ve been told all their lives, it’s the ‘aha’ moment. This gives them a connection with sharks that will stay with them for life. ”
(Learn how to help kids overcome their fear of sharks.)
This connection and education is essential to continuing conservation efforts, according to one study published in PLOS One, an open access, peer-reviewed scientific journal of the Public Library of Science. In a survey of 11 and 12-year-old students in Hong Kong, researchers found that they promote shark conservation when they are made aware of their ecological importance in marine life and their misconceptions corrected.
“There is so much misinformation about sharks,” says Morris, who began Sharks 4 Children, an educational program in Bimini, in 2012. She had noticed a gap between tourists coming to Bahamas– known as the shark diving capital of the world – and residents, who have stayed out of the water due to a culturally entrenched fear of sharks.
“We want local students to come out and see why tourists travel, why film crews come, why scientists come from all over the world,” Morris explains. “These children will grow up and maintain the shark sanctuary. They are going to work in tourism, and they are going to vote. Having the community connected to conservation is when you are successful.
After discovering sharks in aquariums, classrooms or on television, some children become strong ambassadors for sharks, enthusiastically reciting facts and pleading for their protection. “Children can influence their parents and the adults around them,” Morris says. “They are much more powerful than they think or people think they are.”
As shark conservation continues to gain momentum, there are many things parents can do to cultivate their children’s curiosity about sharks.
Why do we love and fear sharks?
All sharks are not created equal. Of the nearly 500 species, only a dozen are considered dangerous to humans. The majority of fatal attacks are attributed to great white sharks, tiger sharks, and bulldog sharks. Yet while 2020 was one of the deadliest years for shark attacks in the past decade, only 10 people have been killed globally. Statistically, you are 100,000 times more likely to die from a mosquito bite than from a shark bite.