By RICARDO WELLS
Tribune Staff Reporter
DIVING experts and marine science officials are emphasising that the public should not be alarmed by instances in which Great Hammerhead sharks are spotted near harbours, warning that the often passive species has a history of swimming in shallow waters.
They said that hammerhead sharks are a natural predator of rays, which are known for dwelling in shallow waters.
Shelley Cant-Woodside, Bahamas National Trust (BNT) director of science and policy, insisted that recent sightings of Great Hammerheads around New Providence is nothing “out of the ordinary.” She stressed that for generations of Bahamians, bull sharks, lemon sharks, nurse sharks and hammerheads have long been part of the marine culture, all existing as vital parts of the marine eco-system.
Last month videos shared on social media showed a Great Hammerhead shark - estimated to be between 14ft and 16ft - swimming near the shore at Montagu Beach and fish dock. One video also showed dozens of onlookers marvelling at the presence of the shark; in another, snorkellers accompanied the shark in the water as it swam around.
“I don’t think we need to be so concerned,” Mrs Cant-Woodside said. “There are several species of sharks that frequent shallow waters. These species have operated like this for decades.”
She suggested the views of the current generation of Bahamians have of the various species of sharks are similar to those held by many of garden snakes.
She said they were views bred out of fear and a lack of understanding.
“Once an understanding is established we see more persons moving away from the need to be violent toward them. For someone like me, there is no fear toward snakes, but for others there is a natural fear and out of that natural fear comes a belief that one has to eliminate them.
“However, if truth be told, once the purpose of that snake is explained persons move to a general understanding that its presence in necessary. That is where we are working to get with these particular species of sharks. Initially, persons are afraid but in most instances we see these very same sharks, particularly Great Hammerheads, swimming alongside people with no issue.”
The hammerhead which swam into Montagu - one of the most popular beaches in new Providence - is believed to have been driven away after attempts were made to spear it. It is illegal to capture, harm or kill sharks in the Bahamas.
The BNT hails the Great Hammerhead as a “keeper of the conch” because the species is said to be directly responsible for controlling predators - such as stingrays - that feed on the queen conch.
However, other observers of human and animal interactions have speculated that the presence of the hammerhead at Montagu is a result of vendors at the fish market throwing fish scraps overboard consistently for years and attracting the shark. The presence of the discarded conch and other seafood attracts stingrays and, as a result, sharks that hunt them.
“Humans interacting with nature (throwing fish scraps overboard consistently for years) and when nature responds (sharks coming in to feed they) react by indiscriminate killing,” said one shark diving expert.
“Whether it’s sharks or bears, wolves or lions, alligators or cougar, mankind reacts by killing the animal for being an animal. We rarely look at what we did to invoke the behaviour. Because we never look at what we did to invoke the behaviour we repeat the scenario over and over again. Even though the government has taken steps to protect sharks in the Bahamas, ignorance still prevails, sharks are routinely hunted and killed with applause and support from local communities. Enforcement continues to be the challenge for the good intentions of any government.”
However, Mrs Cant-Woodside emphasised that while that theory about the sharks being attracted by the fish detritus could prove true, it has to be formerly researched and proven.
Neal Watson, the president of the Bahamas Diving Association, was concerned about people hunting hammerhead sharks out of fear and in retribution for coming so close to shore.
“There has never been one reported incident of a hammerhead attacking a person that wasn’t spear fishing. Hammerheads feed mostly on stingrays, and stingrays are in shallow water, that’s why they are near shore, for stingrays not people. Now that everyone has camera phones and go pros you will see lots more of it, but the sharks have always been there,” he said.
Mr Watson, the owner of a renowned diving business in Bimini and with 60 years experience of diving, said that Great Hammerheads only respond violently toward humans if tormented or approached with force. He urged Bahamians to show caution with the sharks and to understand that the particular species is not out to harm humans.
The BNT’s Executive Director Eric Carey told The Tribune that his organisation is in the process of reviewing legislation and consulting with conservation partners and scientists to develop protocols to guide the approach to these types of situations. He said that the BNT was in communication with the Office of the Attorney General to craft and enact legislation to protect several species of sharks found in and around the Bahamas.
BNT has received new funding from the Pew Global Shark Programme to conduct more public awareness activities.