Postgrad Corner: cage diving with great white sharks

Published in the October 2016 issue

Kirin Apps has been obsessed with sharks since she was 10-years-old. She has dived with many species across the globe which has helped inform her PhD research at Southern Cross University focusing on shark tourism and ethics.

SCU shark researcher Kirin Apps during a cage dive

Shark researcher Kirin Apps during a cage dive

After completing a Bachelor of Marine Science and Management at Southern Cross University, Kirin completed Honours research on grey nurse sharks, through the School of Environment, Science and Engineering in Lismore. This led onto a PhD candidature which started 2.5 years ago, with research entitled ‘The experience of cage diving with great white sharks in Australia and the potential contribution to conservation’.

The 40-year-old has taken her three kids on the journey with their ‘shark-obsessed mum’, even getting them into the shark cages in South Africa and taking them along to shark rallies to raise awareness of the protection of shark species.

“I always thought I would take part in shark observational research but I soon realised there wasn’t really much attention on the human and social dimension of sharks,” Kirin said.

“My Honours research on grey nurse sharks from the point of view of the diver has flowed on perfectly to my PhD which looks at shark tourism with great whites, particularly the cage diving industry in South Australia.

“I attended the International Shark Symposium in South Africa in 2014 and visited three shark cage diving sites. It was very informative seeing how they do things differently and dive only 10 or 20 minutes offshore, rather than hours off shore.”

Ms Apps said there were another three places in the world that offered commercial cage diving including New Zealand, Mexico and Farallon Islands off the Californian coast.

“Both of the recent videos of sharks breaking into diving cages that have been making the rounds of the internet were taken in Guadalupe in Mexico,” she said. “In both those instances the separate operators weren’t following regulations their industry adheres to. There are strict regulations related to the use of bait and burley, this is a highly controversial issue which is the subject of continued research.

“I have dived many times and I know the chance of a shark using its energy to crash into a cage with a human inside is very low unless it was following a moving bait line. In reality, many people go in thinking they are going to have an adrenaline-pumped experience, but most people are surprised by how placid, slow, peaceful and majestic the sharks are. My research is about knowing how to get people to use that experience and knowledge to somehow create a conservation outcome for the sharks from tourism.”

Kirin said the greatest threat to the conservation of sharks was the public perception of them as ‘man eaters’.

“If the cage divers become advocates for sharks through the stories they tell about it being a calm and peaceful experience in addition to the photos they post on Facebook, their friends may start to understand as well and we can start to change that perception of sharks,” she said.

Kirin’s first encounter with a shark was while holidaying in Woolgoolga at age 10, when she saw two teenage boys reel in a wobbegong on a fishing line.

“I wanted to have a look at it and I touched it, and from then I was obsessed and the next day I went out and bought my first shark book,” she said.

“My friends all knew I loved sharks. Most of the friends I went to high school with say to me now I can’t believe you’re actually doing this – you’ve been talking about being a shark researcher since 12-years-old’, so I guess I really did grow up and follow my passion.”

Kirin has worked as a dive guide in Byron Bay during the grey nurse shark season and is working at Southern Cross University in the protected area management unit alongside her studies, under principal supervisor Dr David Lloyd from the School of Environment, Science and Engineering, supervisor Dr Kay Dimmock, from the School of Business and Tourism, and external supervisor Dr Charlie Huveneers, a shark ecologist from Flinders University.

“In the first two years most of my research was down on the boats, and I spent more than 70 days at sea surveying participants when they got out of the cages. I’ve just completed another survey with them, asking them what has happened since they got home – are they taking part in shark petitions? Are they more involved in spreading a message of shark conservation?” Kirin said.

“I haven’t analysed that data yet, but that is the exciting part. If there is a conservation ethic which comes from wildlife tourism to benefit the sharks that’s great, but if not then maybe some more education is needed to gain a better outcome for the sharks.

“Education can definitely play a greater role in shark tourism, as customers are sitting for hours on boats and they want to learn more about sharks and operators should be sending that conservation message and talking to them about their experience.”

Kirin’s research has been approved by the SCU Ethics Committee.

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  1. Thanks Kirin,
    A bit of clarity & education is needed in the shark debate.