Shark: just the word is enough to get your heart pumping, but it’s more likely that your heart is beating with fear not fascination. I wouldn’t blame you; if you have watched “Jaws” or “Shark Week” recently you will have seen these apparently mindless killers ripping through seals and people, searching only for their next bite. The truth is, this kind of portrayal gets the ratings but it doesn’t share the facts. I’d like to give you a more personal look into these creatures of the blue in the hopes you might take this Shark Week with a large grain of salt. For that we have to go back in time.
It is 2012; I’m 22 and heading off the South African coast on my research boat with Oceans Research accompanied by my fresh-faced batch of interns hoping to see their first great white shark. No sooner have we poured our first cup of fish oils into the water than I hear someone call “shark!” It’s time. We load up the camera and get to work trying to get our finned friend into a position where we can capture a picture of the dorsal fin, to document population numbers.
I look over the back of the boat and smile, it’s Pasella: a three metre female with a celebrity attitude. When you are here every day you really get to know the resident sharks and how distinct their personalities and behaviours are. I like to call Pasella the diva of Mossel Bay, we have hundreds of photos of her as she seems to love the camera. We have a number of characters here in the bay and each is different, some are fast and feisty, others seem to barely move their tail and glide by like a slow dream.
Over the next month my interns come to realize how different these animals are to what they believed. The sharks are extremely intelligent: circling the boat in size order with the biggest coming up first. They learn which way you pull the bait and which hand you are weakest on and quickly begin coming up on your weak side in the hopes of catching you off guard and sneaking away some fish. Frequently we see seals and sharks swimming side by side both knowing that without the element of surprise there is no need for a frivolous energy-consuming chase.
Perhaps the most startling thing I learn while working with these awe-inspiring animals is that they are extremely inquisitive and surprisingly skittish. Often peeping their eyes above the surface just to get a better glimpse of the strangers on the boat, a simple splash on the water will send them bolting away, not to be seen again.
One shark I know all too well is Luna, a 4.2 metre female that helped us set the record for the longest manual acoustic tracking of a great white. After tagging Luna with a tracking device we followed her with our research boat for four and a half days, all day and all night. The goal of the tracking was to see which areas of the bay different sharks utilize at different times and at different stages in their development.
At dusk we would follow Luna to Seal Island where she would practice catching seals; we had the privilege of witnessing her thrust her entire body clear out of the water to catch one. By day she would sleepily lie in the waves just meters off Mossel Bay’s most popular swimming beach, allowing the moving water to oxygenate her gills while she digested her evening catch. Our fellow researcher, Dylan, would often be seen from our boat enjoying a surf close by, knowing full well we were following this beautiful female. These observations, as well as my personal experience free-diving with over 30 sharks have left me completely smitten with this utterly misunderstood animal. So why did I leave?
Although the research is integral to our understanding of these animals and their conservation, communicating that research to the public is what really instigates change. We live in a world where statistics are ignored and research is swept away as “just another theory.” What can’t be ignored is people; get enough support for something and you can overturn policies and create real change. At the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre I get to share research with thousands of people every day. I get to inspire visitors, some of whom will never see a shark in our oceans, despite living so close to them. Sharks are the great passion of my life and it is a privilege to share their story and help their conservation in any small way I can as an individual.
Join in the shark conversation online this week with our #sharkchat happening on twitter today at 11 am PST. Ask your shark questions to @vanaqua and learn more about we need to conserve these important apex ocean predators.
Blog post by Nathalie Graham, interpretation specialist at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.