A Personal View from a Veteran Shark Diver.
Diving with sharks, which began in earnest after the Second World War with pioneers such as Cousteau and Hans Hass. It has evolved over the years. In the early days the trail-blazers really were being brave as there was no sensible information (as opposed to myth and sensationalism) to fall back on.
Since then there have been two basic ‘advances’ in human/shark interactions underwater. Subsequent ‘shark divers’, motivated by an interest in the natural history of these majestic animals and a determination to take decent underwater photographs of these, to date, very poorly photographed subjects, slowly but surely increased the quality and variety of their shark portfolios. Twinned with this was the growing tendency of scuba operators (especially in the tropics) to offer shark feed dives for their clients. Through the '80s and '90s more and more divers got to see more and more sharks in ever more situations and, in the vast number of cases, safely. Gradually, and despite the damage done by Speilberg's film Jaws (1975), divers began to realise that it’s quite difficult to get bitten by a shark.
The third, and frankly often ugly stage of shark diving is upon us. The advances in underwater photographic equipment mean that getting fantastic photographs in reasonable conditions is almost guaranteed. While there are plenty of responsible dive operators offering superb shark dives to genuinely interested divers, a considerable number of attention-seeking types have emerged who, seeking to use sharks to make themselves famous, indulge in ever more vulgar and irresponsible stunts for the sake of the camera – stunts that soon appear all over the Internet, and beyond. The perpetrators inevitably claim that their antics are for the benefit of the animals. Sharks that were previously thought to be extremely dangerous (bull, tiger, great hammerhead) are now being fed, hand-fed, handled and posed with. (So too is the great white by those foolhardy enough to leave the safety of the cage.) Elbowing each other out of the way for the limited limelight, these divers must come up with ever more idiotic stunts; one ageing ex-model recently posed naked among circling sharks as her own contribution to shark conservation. Little wonder this genre has been labelled ‘shark porn’.
John Bantin’s new book Shark Bytes spans the many years of his own shark diving with a very wide variety of sharks and is grounded in the common-sense approach of a serious veteran diver. Thankfully, indeed refreshingly in this age of narcissists and social media, there is none of that ghastly look-at-me-posing-with-sharks approach as he clearly enjoys the thrill of shark diving for its own sake. Nor does he shy away from an occasional, though thoroughly deserved dig at those whose claims could do with deflating (for example the multi-bitten, self-proclaimed shark behaviour expert).
John Bantin used to write for the UK’s Diver Magazine and his easy-flowing and informative style is present in this text. There is no information overload, nor does he treat his reader as an ignoramus. Neither is he not too proud to include some of his own trials and tribulations when diving – things every diver knows about but would rather not mention.
An accomplished underwater photographer, John Bantin’s text is adorned with lots of sumptuous underwater photographs of sharks. The Bimini great hammerhead photos are most impressive though my personal favourites would include the oceanic whitetip with the sun behind it on page 76 and the pair of scalloped hammerheads on page 148.
These are the sort of haunting natural history photographs that bring back memories, for me, of diving with these magnificent animals: no humans getting in the way or cluttering up the background, no ghastly intrusion of scuba bubbles, just the animals at home in their own otherworldly world.
Despite the title, Shark Bytes (ISBN 978-1-909911-45-1) is not confined to sharks. There are encounters with dugongs, dolphins, manta rays and – perhaps most intriguing – truly gigantic groupers.
The author constantly stresses how, when combining healthy respect and common sense, shark diving can be safe. Though never entirely safe. He mentions being picked up and carried away by tiger sharks – twice!
J. Stafford-Deitsch was author of Shark - A Photographer's Story, a best-selling book published in 1987. (ISBN 0-742-7996-9)