To touch or not to touch?

This month, SCUBA DIVING Magazine is running an article authored by our executive director, Julie Andersen. Typically their "Ask the Expert" section has two perspectives on any topic, but given Julie's interesting position on touching sharks - they decided to have her author both perspectives. The thoughtful article is below.

The topic of touching sharks can spark heated debates. And it’s an inner turmoil I also wrestle with on a frequent basis having spent hundreds of hours underwater with sharks. A simple Google search will quickly reveal many images in which I am brazenly touching sharks. Yes, it is something I did (and often still am tempted to do), but it is something I don’t encourage. In fact, just the opposite.

My first few years diving with sharks, all I wanted to do was touch them. Not to dominate or conquer – but to connect with them – like any other wild animal I encounter. I often found myself reaching out to lightly touch a fin or stroke a tail.

Mind you, I do not ride, wrestle or even chase sharks. Instead, these interactions occur quite naturally – often initiated by the shark.  More than just selfishness, the imagery from these encounters is an incredible tool in the shark conservationists’ arsenal, as it immediately erodes the irrational fears we’ve been programmed to believe. And I’ve also shared wonderful moments with others, who upon first touching a shark are filled with intense feelings of compassion for the otherwise maligned creatures.

Even the most hardened surfer or terrified youth is, in one tender touch, connected and forever transformed. I would even argue respectfully touching sharks contributes to their survival. After all, few people are motivated to protect sharks until they personally realize sharks aren’t the bloodthirsty monsters they’re portrayed to be.

I’ve received much criticism from those with a strictly “hands off” policy when it comes to nature. And personally, I don’t care. I find sharks to be intelligent, curious and even social. So interaction is common and hardly what I would consider invasive or abusive, particularly given how tough a shark’s skin is and how resilient they are. And, when I think about how brutally sharks are treated – from gaffing poles to steel wire wrapped around their heads – and how many thousand die on a daily basis for their fins, I am reminded there are certainly bigger issues facing sharks and those of us who care about sharks – and the oceans – have to tackle. 

But, even so, I do not advocate touching sharks – and these days, I do my best to avoid it. Regardless of how much it fuels my drive, the incredible moments shared with animals I spend my life protecting. Why? Simple. As divers, we assume a very important responsibility when we enter the water with sharks. We must always act with the utmost of caution to ensure no thoughtless risks are taken. This is not to say we can instigate a shark bite through a single casual touch or sharks are intrinsically dangerous. Instead, the few times I have ever witnessed a potential issue, it has been due to the diver’s carelessness. And, we can’t afford to make mistakes with sharks. Not because they will eat us – but because it is extremely irresponsible to contribute to the misperceptions of sharks. An otherwise incredible experience can be quickly marred by a diver grabbing a tail or hugging a shark. While these incidents are highly unusual and the diver at worst may only need a few stitches, they are doing an incredible disservice to sharks. No one stops to question the diver – they assume the shark is the monster. 

I also realize what I do unintentionally influences others. Though I’d hardly call myself a role model, I know many people look to me to set an example. I’ve taken dozens of people into the water for the first time to dive with sharks. If they see me touching, I could be setting in motion a lifetime of shark petters. Or coral grabbers. Or turtle riders.  And, it’s hard to know where to stop and even harder not to get carried away when it comes to sharks. I don’t pass judgment on my peers, but I do silently wish some of the times I touched sharks weren’t so widely publicized or shared.

People tend to protect the things they understand. Establishing a better understanding of sharks through diving is critical for their survival, and operating on a positive set of guiding principles is fundamental for both divers and sharks. As we collectively chase sharks to the brink of extinction, it is more important than ever to encourage people to care and gain an appreciation for their true character through safe diving experiences. So, while it feeds my conservationist soul, I’ll forgo the touching to ensure just that and hopefully others will do the same. 

Julie Andersen is the Founder and Executive Director of Shark Angels, a U.S. non-profit dedicated to the protection of sharks. This month Shark Angels is launching their Shark Diving campaign, a set of best practices for divers based upon years of collective experience. For more information, visit