Skomal weighs in on shark swimming

Scientists caution spellbound Instagram followers not to emulate Ocean Ramsey.


Images and video posted by Ocean Ramsey of her swimming alongside a colossal white shark off Hawaii have gone viral on Instagram, sparking debate as to whether such activity is reckless or conservation-minded. Marine biologist Michael Domeier, a white shark researcher, called Ramsey’s shark swim “irresponsible” and “alarming,” the Washington Post reported. Marine biologist David Shiffman, a shark researcher, whom the Post also quoted, tweeted, “It doesn’t show that sharks aren’t dangerous, it shows that some humans make bad choices.”

On Instagram, Ramsey, a shark ethologist and conservationist who sports 744,000 followers, defended her swim, which also included touching the shark and holding onto one of its pectoral fins: “I wish more people would have a connection with sharks and the natural world, because then they would understand that it’s not petting sharks or pushing them off to maintain a respectable space that is hurting sharks (because trust me if she didn’t like being pet she can handle and communicate ?) it’s the wasteful and cruel practice of grabbing and catching sharks to cut off their fins (which slowly kills them) for #sharkfinsoup in a process called #sharkfinning or the wasteful #sharkfishing or #sharksportfishing.”

In the midst of winter, with temperatures in Massachusetts down to bitter digits, the prospect of swimming at all, let alone with white sharks, seems far off. Nevertheless, the commonwealth’s top expert on the giant fish, Greg Skomal, told The Times while it isn’t illegal to swim with white sharks (or any sharks) in state or federal waters, he doesn’t support doing so. “I don’t think it is a good idea to swim alongside white sharks,” he emailed.

Skomal pointed out one thing that is illegal is attracting white sharks, which are more and more common in Massachusetts waters due to robust seal populations. Using chum, bait, or decoys to lure white sharks is against state regulation, as is catching them, he wrote.

Skomal has gone on record in the past stating that injuries people have sustained from white sharks in Massachusetts, including the fatal injury in Wellfleet last year, appear to stem from the fish misidentifying people as its food of choice — seals.

Purposely attempting to swim with them in often cloudy Bay State waters could be an invitation to be mistaken, Skomal wrote.

“When close to shore, white sharks are hunting where their visibility is hampered by turbid water,” he wrote. “Based on our observations, white sharks do not see potential prey in these waters until they are [in] close proximity. That does not allow the shark much time to make a decision as to what is prey and what is not. Therefore, swimming unprotected with this species where it cannot see you very well is not a good idea.”

Ramsey told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser she was part of a research team studying tiger sharks at the site of a dead sperm whale when the shark, which she believed was Deep Blue, the world’s biggest known white shark, cruised in unexpectedly. On Instagram Domeier disputed the shark was Deep Blue, and asserted it was Haole Girl, a recent find in the shark world.

“In offshore waters, the chances of seeing a white shark are very slim, but they have been encountered scavenging whale carcasses,” Skomal wrote. “In these cases, the sharks are feeding. Again, I don’t think swimming with white sharks unprotected is a good idea when they are feeding.”

On Instagram Domeier conceded the shark was likely “very satiated” from whale and “unlikely to bite,” but that Ramsey was setting a bad example. He made reference to Timothy Treadwell, mistakenly calling him “the bear whisper[er]” but getting his fate down correctly — death by bear.

Treadwell, a bear conservationist and wildlife author, gained fame at the turn of the 21st century for his fearless close contact with brown bears. In 2003 he and his girlfriend were mauled and eaten by a brown bear in Alaska. “[H]e thought he knew them so well that he was part of their family,” Domeier wrote.

After criticism of her adventure mounted, Ramsey qualified her shark swim with an Instagram disclaimer: “Disclaimer: I highly discourage people from purposely jumping in the water with great white sharks or tiger sharks or any large shark like a bull shark or a Galapagos, even smaller sharks are capable predators who need and deserve respect however they are not the mindless monsters they are portrayed as in the media as you can see. In my experience this is the most mellow #whiteshark I have ever had the privilege and honor of meeting.”