Wildlife tourism operators like to claim their operations make people care more about endangered species. Others contend this is just preaching to the converted, without changing hearts and minds. The debate is long-running, but until now it has been largely evidence free. An initial effort has provided some good news for the tour providers and those seeking ways to increase support for conservation.
Off Port Lincoln, South Australia, divers can be put in a cage in an area frequented by great white sharks, possibly the most fearsome predator in the ocean. Southern Cross University PhD student Kirin Apps and Dr Charlie Huveneers of Flinders University surveyed 783 people before they took part in the experience, 54 percent of whom agreed to be contacted afterward for a follow-up survey. Months, or sometimes years, later those who agreed were sent a second survey, of whom 136 responded.
A paper in Marine Policy reports that on seven out of eight measures tested, support for shark conservation had risen. Many divers had joined groups on social media dedicated to saving sharks, and signing petitions and promoting sharks to friends were also much more common than before the dive. Respondents were much more aware of the threats to sharks, and had a better understanding of their role in the marine ecosystem, after the dive.
The shark dive was chosen for the study, Huveneers told IFLScience, because a lot of those who take part are seeking an adrenalin rush. Films of the rare events where sharks heavily bump cages are widely circulated, so many people expect the experience to be, or at least feel, dangerous. Consequently, participants start off with much more diverse views on conservation than would be the case for many other wildlife tours.
The experience has a powerful emotional effect, perhaps greatest on those with a negative view of sharks beforehand. “Many are surprised by their experience,” Apps said in a statement. “They come with the idea that it’s going to be a scary experience, but they get out of the water and use words such as beautiful, peaceful, and majestic – words they wouldn’t usually associate with sharks.”
“We haven't specifically tested whether it was the material [about sharks] distributed on the boat or the dive itself that caused the difference,” Huveneers told IFLScience, adding the sample group was too small to break down to see if the effect wore off on those who had taken the dive a long time previously. The study also only tested attitudes to sharks, rather than marine conservation more generally.
Could it work on reluctant participants? Can the world's most famous shark-hater be persuaded to take a dip? “You'll have to ask him," Huveneers said.