The first white shark cage diving ethnography, and human-white shark multispecies research.

To my knowledge, this is the first full-scale white shark cage diving ethnography, and human- white shark multispecies research. Lets talk briefly about the major objectives and theoretical considerations. 

© Raj Sekhar Aich

Some theoretical considerations of the research

     This research was situated in the interstices of conflicting ideas, tensions and beliefs: the imagined monsters vs. the actual fish; and the imagined experience of cage diving as opposed to the real one. As a participant observer I lived, worked and learnt with the cage diving operation of Shark Experience NZ (now the only surviving WCN), and the local community of Bluff, for a total of eight months across two years.


    The overall objective was to explore the effects of human and White Shark interaction through cage diving in New Zealand, on the sharks, the tourist, the local community, and global shark knowledge. Furthermore, to situate this objective, the research also needed to extensively elaborate on the creation of the monstrous image of the White Sharks, and the conflict in the country created related to it.

  1. To explore the genesis of the monstrous image of White Sharks and human fear of them.

  2. To explore the Conflict in NZ with White Sharks and WCN.

  3.  To explore Bluff’s relation with White Sharks and WCN.

  4. To ethnographically describe WCN.

  5.  To explore the relation of cage diving and White Sharks to lives of the tourist.

  6. To explore the effect of the shark encounter on the tourist and their attitude towards White Sharks.

  7. To explore the relation of cage diving with lives of the White Sharks in Foveaux Strait.

  8. To explore the emergent knowledge of White Sharks from WCN

  9. To explore the sensory experience of WCN and the human-shark interaction facilitated through it.

    Being a participant observer, I worked as a boat hand with the Shark Experience team. I learnt about the operation first-hand, from baiting the sharks, to cleaning the boat, helping the tourists ‘suit up’ for the dive, and observing the interaction of humans and sharks facilitated through this practice. Residing in Bluff and engaging with the locals helped me to get a deeper understanding of the lives of the people of the town and their relationship with the sharks and the cage diving operation. This gave me insights into the lives of the sharks and the humans impacting each other that few scientists are privileged to have.

    There were two conceptual aspects that had to be addressed before delving into the thesis. Firstly, as mentioned, as much as I was interested in the practice and the humans associated with it, I was equally interested in its effect on the lives of the sharks involved; my aim was to create a holistic multispecies picture of the practice, acknowledging the influence of both the species on the practice and its effect on both. The research needed to ask the question how can we study the culture and the life created around cage diving if we did not study the sharks as influential actors in the practice (as elaborated on in further chapters), whose lives were affected by and were affecting the lives of the humans sharing the water space with them? To address this, the thesis had to recognise the limits of classical anthropological investigations of cultures and the animals around them and adopt the ‘more than human’ approach in contemporary social scientific research.

    In the Multispecies salon [a series of panels, round tables, and events in art galleries held at the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association (in 2006, 2008, and 2010) (Kirksey & Helmreich, 2010, pg. 546) ] “Anthropologists have collaborated with artists and biological scientists to illuminate how diverse organisms are entangled in political, economic, and cultural systems”(The Multispecies Salon, n.d.). Kirksey (2014) stated that in the general practice of cultural anthropology, ethnography has been commonly understood as people-writing (ethnography), written primarily based on the agency of human beings on having significant influence on their environment and other lifeforms sharing it. However, multispecies ethnography challenges these classical notions; “A new genre of writing and mode of research has arrived on the anthropological stage: multispecies ethnography. Creatures previously appearing on the margins of anthropology—as part of the landscape, as food for humans, as symbols—have been pressed into the foreground in recent ethnographies” (Kirksey & Helmreich, 2010, pg. 545).

Even in a lot of contemporary ethnographies on cultures which involved animals - the animals were invisible (Kiik, 2018). Historically, sharks like many other non-human life forms were considered to be by-standers in anthropological and ethnographical investigation, therefore my aim was to make the sharks as visible in my ethnography, as the humans involved. Kiik noted even in anthropologists of conservation and other human animal researchers, there seemed to be a trend of intentionally avoiding ecological and behavioural research on the animal of the region. This may be primarily to take a political stand against the prevalence of natural sciences in animal studies, a stance which had ethical relevance often to defend native knowledge against empirically argued ‘scientific’ knowledge and conservationist knowledge but is ultimately harmful to the investigation as a whole. Much like conservationists, and even natural scientists ignoring native knowledge, social scientists can overlook natural scientific knowledge which might help to answer specific questions relevant to the topic they are enquiring about (Kiik, 2018).

    This is not helped by the fact that un-familiarity with methods and tools and approaches in varied disciplines are always the inherent challenges of these mixed disciplinary projects. Especially if it is a singular researcher working on it, or a team, who are trained in specific disciplinary silos (Parathian, McLennan, Hill, Frazão-Moreira, & Hockings, 2018). I aimed at constructing an ethnography which was inclusive, exploring the shared lives of both the species. Consequently, I endeavoured to utilize methods of investigation from ecology as much as classical anthropological methods as interviews and surveys and participant observation [elaborated on in chapter no 2].

    Another theoretical approach relevant here is Actor Network Theory (ANT) [Explained in more detail in chapter 2 and 7]. MacLeod et al., (2019) argued that:

    “ … fundamental connection between actor-network theory and ethnography is their focus on practices: everyday sayings, doings, and relations with objects that make up what people do in their everyday lives... Practices themselves are multi-layered and heterogeneous; therefore, understanding practices requires carefully tracing multiple actors that assemble and give meaning to human worlds, activities and lives.... Practices can be described as a ‘mangle’ of people, things, intent, knowledge, processes, and many other factors.... [in other words] practices are both social and material; and, focusing on detailed description of what is actually happening in the field, including the mundane” (pg. 180).

    To create a coherent account of complex assemblages and agentic abilities of human and non- humans interacting within varied affective networks, ANT collects data from varied points of data collection. Consequently, I used ANT to elaborate on the network of WCN.

    Finally, while knee deep in the field work (literally one day when I was half submerged on the cage diving platform in the undulating Foveaux) I realized one significant element was missing from the thesis; that which cannot be entirely expressed through written documents. This was the sensory experience of the human-shark encounter facilitated through this practice in the dynamic Foveaux, and the researcher observing it. Hence, the final part of the thesis was creation of a sensory film ‘expressing’ the perceived sensations from the first-person view of the anthropologist. It aims to take the viewer into the experience of being in the field; the practice; the boat in the high sea; the waiting involved in such an unpredictable environment; finally encountering the sharks, and its impact on tourist’s attitude towards them.