Research News

How to Train Your Shark

We did not start off trying to train sharks; we just had some guests who wanted to taste lionfish.

It was the summer of 2012 and we were at the Xmas Tree site—a nice wall dive along with a pinnacle reef starting out in 50 feet of water on a sand bottom and topping out at 12 feet—where we typically encounter sharks. For the wall portion of the dive, the sharks come out over the wall and then swim either above or below the divers. For the second dive, the sharks come around the divers often swimming within 5-10 feet of the diver. On this day, we fed twelve sharks 14 lionfish by the time we finished our second dive.

I’m an experienced PADI instructor, but this was before I attended Shark School conducted by Dr. Erich Ritter. All of my knowledge of sharks came from observation and reading. After realizing that Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezii) would gladly consume lionfish, which are not indigenous to the Bahamas and Caribbean, we began to spear lionfish and place them out in an open white sandy area for divers who requested to observe sharks eating lionfish.

Why Target Lionfish?

Lionfish will devastate a reef system. They impact both the commercial, as well as the species of fish critical to the ecology of the reefs. Because of their venomous nature, lion fish do not have any natural enemies and they have a insatiable appetite for baby reef fish—the same population that would normally grow up to become potential shark food. It follows that if we could train sharks to view the lionfish as a food source, we could begin to control their population.

Top SharkTrainA Caribbean reef shark feeds on a lone lionfish. The results of efforts to train sharks to eat lionfish have been very promising in South Eleuthera, Bahamas.

Training the Shark

After placing the lionfish out in the open, we would wait patiently as the shark(s) would make anywhere from 3 to 7 passes over the lionfish and then gently bite the lionfish, drop it and then the shark (up to 7 feet in length) would immediately spin around in a circle of no more that 18 inches and pick up the lionfish and swim rapidly away followed closely by several other sharks.

I thought it very curious that the shark, seeing the wounded or dead lionfish out in the open the open area totally by itself, would make so many passes over the prey before then biting the lionfish, letting go and then spinning around and engulf the lionfish.

I learned a lot about shark interaction – shark behavior when attending Dr. Ritter’s Shark School Level I in early 2014, which included five days of in the water training and hours of lectures about sharks, interaction and behavior. The first day or two will keep you puckered up a bit until you develop an understanding and interact with these magnificent creatures. Education is a wonderful tool, especially in the marine environment.

One of the most important concepts you learn about at Shark School, is that sharks have what Dr. Ritter calls “search patterns.” There are certain things that trigger search patterns, and when enough search patterns are triggered the shark will do the “test bite” in an attempt to determine if what is triggering these search patterns is actually food.

My good friend, Florian Fischer, from Germany (Behind the Mask) came over to dive with us in early fall 2013. One of the dives on his list was to observe the sharks eating lionfish. He was absolutely fascinated watching the shark behavior as they looked for the prey, did the test bite and then consumed the lionfish.

A year later, Florian was back to Eleuthera with a list of underwater video projects involving sharks, most of the list consisted of feeding sharks’ lionfish for a movie he wanted to make called the “Shark & Lion,” released in the fall of 2015 on his website.

For about a week, we worked with the sharks feeding them lionfish. The first couple of days we observed the same pattern, swim back and forth over the fish, do the test bite and then circle around an consume the lionfish. But by the end of the week the sharks had developed a “visual recognition pattern” for lionfish.

Remember, the lionfish is nonindigenous to the Bahamas, so the shark does not know what the lionfish is until trained or over a long period of time the shark may adapt to recognize the lionfish as food. For that matter the baby reef fish do not know what a lionfish is either, thus the baby reef fish swim close to the lazy lionfish and get eaten instantly.

Watch a video of sharks eating lionfish!

Shark Diving with Oceanfox - Eleuthera, Bahamas from Ocean Fox Cotton Bay on Vimeo.


Sharks have short term and long term memory and can learn and adapt to new information. Going to Shark School level I & II was an amazing experience and provided me with a lot of information that helped me to understand the behavior we had experienced and observed on our dives where the sharks frequent. There is a whole lot more to learn at Shark School, which is very beneficial if you plan to dive in the ocean, where you always have the chance to encounter sharks.

One of my favorite sayings by Dr. Ritter is: “There are no dangerous sharks, only dangerous situations.”

I used to think that was the dumbest statement I had ever heard, until I finished Shark School and truly appreciated what Dr. Ritter was saying. The goal of Shark School is to educate divers about sharks and create awareness of the devastation ongoing to the shark population worldwide. Understanding how and why sharks react is part of a much-needed effort to rehabilitate their image, in order to encourage shark conservation.

Lionfish in Decline

These days, there is an obvious absence of lionfish here —especially in the area where we did the initial seven or so days in a row of feeding lionfish to sharks, doing two dives per day. On any of the dives in an area about four miles along the wall in either direction from the initial site where we trained the sharks, with five to eight divers in the water we are “lucky” if we can find one or two lionfish to feed to the sharks; on some dives, we never find a lionfish.

What is compelling about this pattern is that for miles to the east or west of our initial training site, where we have numerous wall dives and shallow sites, we have noticed a dramatic decline in the lionfish population as well. Apparently now that the sharks recognize lionfish as food (just as they do fish that have been in their environment for hundreds or thousands of years), the lazy lionfish are an easy meal for a hungry shark. Sharks are amazing creatures. In this case, they are doing their part to re-establish the natural balance on our very beautiful reefs in South Eleuthera, Bahamas.

With the reduction in lionfish we see an increase in the small and large fish population, which should further enhance the living and healthy coral reefs we already had before the apex predator began to help eliminate or stabilize the lionfish population.

A word of CAUTION: If you are not properly trained in shark behavior & shark interaction, please do not attempt to do what we have outlined. If a shark feels threatened or is competing for food, the shark bites with the same intensity as if they were defending themselves. With such a bite you can easily lose a limb or worse.

What you Can Do

Help us Save the Sharks so they can help us save the reefs, support shark conservation whenever you have a chance.

For more on what’s going on at Ocean Fox Cotton Bay, including their eco-style shark diving experience, click here.

By: Al J. Curry, PADI Instructor, Ocean Fox Cotton Bay at Eleuthera, Bahamas


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