The experience of shark diving in Pacific Harbour, Fiji: who goes and how important is education and interpretation?
Altobelli, Roberto Donato
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The idea of interacting with predatory sharks in their natural environment may have caused a great deal of apprehension twenty years ago. Recent changes in perceptions towards predatory sharks, especially among the scuba diving community, along with increasing worldwide accessibility enabling interaction with these animals, have led to a growing popularity in the activity of shark diving. There are many destinations around the globe, ranging from the United States (US), South Africa and Australia to, more recently, Fiji, where paying clients can participate in tours that take them beneath the surface of the sea to view a variety of shark species. The emergence of shark diving has also attracted the attention of academic researchers in tourism. Studies have begun addressing some issues surrounding this activity but few have focused on the concepts of education and interpretation or on gaining greater knowledge about the participants on shark diving tours. This study set out to achieve two main aims. The first aim was to gain insights into individuals participating in the activity of shark diving in Beqa Lagoon, Fiji and on a live-aboard ship operating out of Lautoka, Fiji. An overview of the study’s respondents is developed by exploring a variety of demographic and psychographic characteristics. The second aim was to examine the role of education and interpretation within the context of shark diving by measuring various aspects such as respondents’ overall satisfaction with on-tour interpretation, the importance of learning, and visitors’ recommendations for improving the educational efforts of the operators. Particular attention is paid in this thesis to the Theory of Mindfulness and Orams’ Interpretation Model, and their relevance within the context of shark diving. The main data-collection tools used in this study were a review of relevant literature, and on-tour (paper and pen) and follow-up (on-line) questionnaires. Interviews with shark dive operators, and conversations with and observations of divers and operators were also used, but to a lesser extent. The on-tour questionnaires were administered during the period from 29 February 2008 to 11 October 2008. Follow-up on-line questionnaires were administered three months after respondents completed their on-tour questionnaire. The follow-up phase ran from 1 July 2008 to 27 February 2009. The majority of respondents in this study were young, well-educated professionals and above-average earners; they came from a variety of countries around the world. The respondents valued learning highly and felt strongly about having on-tour educational information provided to them, which was available on-site but not always being effectively communicated by the operators. Being exposed to sharks in their natural environment had a profound impact on these divers, especially on their learning. The survey results, however, indicated that developing a formally structured educational programme, although important, is not absolutely critical to this type of wildlife tourism. Even so, the respondents indicated that they would like more educational information from the operators. By ensuring a shark diving environment which is educational and conducive to learning, operators increase the likelihood of divers having the best possible shark diving experience, which potentially translates into benefits for operators, divers and sharks. This thesis will contribute to the small but growing body of literature on shark tourism as well as to the larger body of literature on wildlife tourism. The first main contribution of this thesis is combining Orams’ Interpretation Model with the Theory of Mindfulness within the context of shark diving, and the newly adapted Interpretation Model for Shark Diving demonstrates how these two constructs fit together. The second main contribution is the methodological technique of surveying the same respondents twice: first on tour, immediately following their shark diving trip, and then three months post tour. The third main contribution of this thesis is the development of the Shark Diving Experience Model which illustrates the impact of being exposed to sharks in their natural environment.