9 Crazy Shark Diving Accidents — and What We Can Learn From Them

Whether surrounded by reef sharks on the seafloor in the Bahamas or gazing into the black eye of an enormous great white shark off South Africa, shark diving has become quite the industry in recent decades.

Its boom in popularity goes hand-in-hand with the trend of increasing interest in ecotourism, adventure tourism, and extreme sports in general.

But is shark diving and cage diving safe—for humans and for sharks? Have there been notable shark diving incidents and accidents? And is shark diving an ethical activity? Those are the questions we’ll delve into in this article, so strap in!

Manoel Lemos / Flickr

Shark Diving vs Cage Diving Explained

Shark dives include both cage-diving and cage-free experiences, though the former is probably the image that comes to most people’s minds.

In terms of cage diving, the number-one shark species targeted is the great white, the biggest predatory fish in the sea and widely regarded as the most dangerous of all sharks—even if that danger has been greatly overblown and white sharks appear little interested in human beings as prey.

The three main epicenters of cage diving with great whites are South Africa (near Cape Town), Australia (namely the Neptune Islands), and Mexico (Isle de Guadalupe/Guadalupe Island in the Pacific).

But there’s also some cage diving done at the Farallon Islands of California as well as out of Bluff, New Zealand.

While white sharks are the classic target, cage diving focused on other shark species, including mid-sized to large requiem sharks such as tiger, sandbar, and Galapagos sharks, does take place in various other parts of the world.

Cageless shark diving, meanstime, is available in quite a few places around the tropics and subtropics, as in the Caribbean, Costa Rica, Australia, and Hawaii.

These are specific shark-diving packages marketed as such, but of course divers on just about any underwater ocean tour have the opportunity to see sharks, which are often advertised as potential sightings at, for example, shipwrecks and artificial reefs.

In this article, though, we’re concerned with diving experiences specifically focused on sharks—and, therefore, which usually employ bait of some kind to attract these marine hunters for up-close viewing.

(Diving—and snorkeling—with the largest shark of all, the whale shark, which is a harmless filter-feeder, is also a subcategory of shark diving. It doesn’t involve baiting the animals, though; rather, tour operators take advantage of seasonal congregations of these huge, gentle fish to be able to offer shark-focused tours.)

Notable Shark Diving Incidents

Most shark dives, caged or otherwise, go down as planned.

There have been some high-profile cases of tours going awry, one way or another, and some of these have raised concerns over the safety—and the ethics—of the activity.

Here are a few examples of some of these incidents, not all of which, as you’ll see, actually involve any sharks.

South Africa, 2005

An estimated 18-foot-long great white shark tore into a cage on a dive near Cape Town.

A British tourist was inside the cage during the event, which saw the shark eventually bite a buoy and cause the cage to sink; the diver inside was able to escape out of the top and reach the boat unharmed, while the captain whacked the shark with an iron pole (an action the tourist, Mark Currie, told The Guardian “just made things worse.”)

Guadalupe Island, 2007

A 15-foot male great white shark, nicknamed Cut Caudal or “CC,” became stuck in a cage with two divers inside and severely damaged it while freeing himself; the divers were unharmed.

The terrifying event was captured on video and (in a still somewhat early example of the trend) went viral.

South Africa, 2008

In April 2008, a shark cage-diving boat out of Gansbaai capsized, and three tourists—two Americans and a Norwegian—drowned.

The accident was initially attributed to a “freak wave,” though reports subsequently revealed that sea roughness had gradually increased and that the vessel’s operators were negligent in failing to monitor the changing conditions and accounting for all passengers after the capsize.

The widow of one of the victims later won a lawsuit claiming as such.

Bahamas, 2008

A 49-year-old Austrian client of the Florida-based operator Scuba Adventures bled to death on a Bahamas shark-diving tour when he swam near a chum crate and was bitten on the leg by a bull shark.

According to CNN, the president of the Bahamas Diving Association at the time, Neal Watson, had sent out a warning to all members of the association recommending they stop cageless diving with such potentially dangerous shark species as tiger, bull, mako, hammerhead, and lemon sharks.

At the time of that Scuba Adventures incident, Watson’s tour company also offered cageless shark dives, but only with Caribbean reef, nurse, blacktip, blacknose, and silky sharks, which Watson deemed less hazardous.

Bahamas, 2014

In July 2014, a 63-year-old man disappeared on a Scuba Adventures cageless shark dive with tiger sharks off Grand Bahama. His body was never found, although the U.S. Coast Guard “recovered a camera and some shredded dive gear,” according to Undercurrent, and suggested a tiger shark could have been responsible for the man’s death.

A 2017 Men’s Journal article, which partly focused on that 2014 incident, delved into the potentially fraught track record of Scuba Adventures (which also led the 2008 tour that saw the fatal bull-shark bite) and its founder, who apparently has also been bitten by sharks during his tours.

It’s one of a number of U.S.-based companies, the article notes, which shifted to leading cageless shark dives in the Bahamas after Florida banned feeding sharks during dives in 2001.

Guadalupe Island, 2016 (Incident 1)

A female white shark (nicknamed “Big Mama”) bit through the air hose supplying divers in a submersible cage at Guadalupe Island, then became trapped headfirst between the cage bars, the divers huddling below. She eventually freed herself and the divers, while shaken, were uninjured.

(One of the divers in the cage with the entrapped shark, Katie Yonker, wrote: “The first minute or so felt like a horrific earthquake underwater, and I kept thinking, ‘we just need to wait this out.’ But in the back of my head I feared the cage would break apart and this would be the end for me. I was calm, but felt very, very sad.”)

The tour operator in this incident broke the rules in place at Guadalupe Island by affixing a chum bag directly to the submersible cage. 

Guadalupe Island, 2016 (Incident 2)

In the same month (October) as the previous incident, a different tour operator had another hair-raising accident with a great white shark at Guadalupe Island.

In this case, a shark pursuing tuna bait lunged into a surface cage attached to the dive vessel. Here again, divers were inside the cage but emerged unscathed after the top of the cage was opened and the shark thrashed its way out—bleeding from the gills, likely due to the physical trauma of its brief entrapment. 

According to Earth Touch News, the company involved in this incident had a good reputation for responsible operations, but while it followed the rules in terms of pulling in bait once the shark approached the vessel, the angle at which the bait was reeled in versus the cage location appeared to violate regulations.

Guadalupe Island, 2019

In surely the most disturbing of the incidents we’re tallying here, a Guadalupe Island male great white shark got its head stuck between the bars of a cage in October 2016.

It was thus trapped for some 25 minutes and ultimately died in a cloud of blood.

Hawaii, 2019

Three snorkelers on a cage-free shark tour off the North Shore of Oahu received minor sharkbites during what was described as a “feeding frenzy” among multiple sharks.

One of the snorkelers told Hawaii News Now that a school of fish triggered the behavior in the sharks—which one source identified as Galapagos sharks ranging from five to nine feet long—and that she considered it a “fluke” that wouldn’t deter her from doing such a tour again.

The Debate Over Shark Diving: Is It Ethical?

As with many forms of ecotourism, shark diving is not without controversy.

How safe it is for both humans and sharks has been called into question.

And beyond the occasional tragic incidents of sharks being injured or even killed during cage-diving operations, critics have suggested chumming and baiting sharks for tourism purposes could alter their behavior, perhaps drawing them together in unnatural concentrations, warping their yearly movements and diet, and causing them to associate people with food, which might heighten the risk of shark attacks.

Advocates for shark diving—including shark-dive tour operators themselves—often argue that the activity raises awareness about one of the most widely misunderstood creatures on Earth, and spreads the gospel of shark conservation (which still very much needs spreading).

Let’s dig a little deeper into the conservation.

Safety of Shark Diving

From the standpoint of the diver, shark diving is overall a pretty safe activity. The greatest risks are probably the same as for any dive—drowning, the bends, etc.—with the sharks themselves posing a much lower danger.

As will be the main point we’ll return to again and again, though, much depends on the nature of the diving tour and the character of the tour operator.

A cageless shark dive that involves baiting large numbers of sharks in close quarters with people can’t help but raise the odds, to whatever degree, of somebody accidentally getting bitten.

And certainly dives that promote the touching of sharks, even “riding” the animals, are foolhardy: These are large, powerful predators we’re talking about, and while they generally want nothing to do with people, that sort of behavior—which is definitely a form of wildlife harassment—plays the odds to a reckless degree.

And even when touching or otherwise provoking the shark isn’t involved in a dive, the species matters in terms of relative danger, even if no type of shark is a bloodthirsty, man-eating machine.

Cageless diving with such big apex predators as tiger sharks and bull sharks is inherently riskier than doing so with, say, reef sharks or nurse sharks. As we noted in describing the Bahamas incidents above, some tour operators question whether cage-free dives involving baiting certain large requiem sharks is responsible.

Some tour operators have even offered cageless dives with great white sharks. Again, despite their dreadful reputation, great whites aren’t out to gobble people. But getting in the water in close quarters with a white shark without the protection of a cage is pushing your luck—and, one could argue, disrespecting this utterly spectacular creature. 

In terms of the more standard cage dives with white sharks, rules are supposed to be in place regarding how, when, and where chum and bait are deployed to minimize the likelihood of sharks accidentally ramming or biting cages.

The 2016 incidents we described above show how not following those regulations can increase the odds of a bad situation.

The capsizing of the South African cage-dive boat in 2008—plus a 2022 case where a dive boat also used for Guadalupe cage-diving foundered on a reef off Mexico’s Socorro Island because its entire crew was asleep—demonstrate other basic ways in which irresponsible tour operators can put passengers at risk. The reported deaths associated with cage-diving haven’t been due to shark attack, but rather drowning.

Ethics of Shark Diving

Human safety is understandably of paramount concern during a shark dive, but the well-being of the sharks should also be a top priority.

As some of the incidents we summarized above attest, irresponsible operations not only endanger humans, but can injure or even (in extreme cases such as what happened in October 2019 off Guadalupe Island) kill sharks.

Beyond the potential for doing sharks bodily harm, some critics of shark diving contend that baiting the animals for the purposes of recreational tourism is unethical. It’s not cut-and-dried whether chumming and baiting for sharks substantially changes their behavior or movement patterns:

It’s a challenging question for scientists to definitively answer, and there’s been evidence for and against

Some arguments for shark diving suggest even if there may be some level of impact on the movement and diet of a local shark population due to chumming/baiting practices, the benefits of this kind of ecotourism in terms of heightening appreciation for sharks and support for their conservation outweigh those effects.

As part of that line of thinking, shark-dive companies sometimes suggest the experiences they offer help dispel myths about the savagery and danger of sharks. Some critics push back on that idea, contending the opposite may be true.

Cage dives offering up-close views of a great white shark’s gaping, toothy maw, perhaps bloodied from bait or cuts and scrapes due to metal or rope, might simply reinforce the inaccurate notion of the animal as a bloodthirsty, mindless eating machine.

To Dive With Sharks or Not to Dive With Sharks

It’s worth mulling the ethics of shark diving before deciding whether or not to try the activity. To many divers, seeing sharks lured in by bait feels more artificial than lucking out with a chance sighting of a shark cruising past on a dive.

Then again, that’s overall a rare, luck-of-the-draw occurrence. If you want decent odds of seeing a white shark underwater, you’re going to go with a standard cage-diving tour.

“Without a chumslick and a bait or decoy in the water you simply will not get a white shark to interact with or stay at the vessel for guests to see,” Dyer Island Conservation Trust marine biologist Alison Towner told The Independent. “That’s why chumming is also a standard procedure for shark research.”

What’s most important if you decide to go shark diving is choosing an upstanding tour company that puts safety first and values the well-being of sharks.

As marine biologist David Shiffman wrote in a column for SportDiver, “Lots of ‘swim with the sharks’ dive businesses are run by ethical operators who care about the safety of humans and sharks, but some are run by macho cowboy idiots who are unsafe and cause harm to sharks. The good news is that it’s usually not hard to tell the difference.”

Shiffman penned another SportDiver column about choosing an eco-friendly dive company that’s worth reviewing.

Also highly informative is the Earth Touch News article we linked to earlier about the 2016 Guadalupe Island shark-cage mishaps.

In it, author Sarah Keartes offers useful tips for choosing a responsible cage-diving outfit, with links to the regulations in effect in some of the top cage-diving locations and the following nuts-and-bolts suggestions: “As a general rule, avoid operators who dive close to other human-use areas like popular beaches, bait directly on the cage, and those who allow participants to exit the cage, or touch and hand-feed passing sharks. Cages that use round, tubular bars rather than traditional square-edged bars are less likely to cause injury to sharks that pass too close.”

Diving with sharks can be the thrill of a lifetime, no question. But you want to make sure the company who’s giving you that bucket-list thrill is acting safely, ethically, and with shark welfare in mind.