Saturday, May 31, 2008

Why dive with sharks?

I am still a little amazed by the reaction I get from people when I tell them what I do.

I am working to save sharks – a species facing a seemingly inevitable and closely looming extinction. As a Shark Angel and a director of Shark Savers, I raise public awareness about the issue, I educate people on the truth about sharks, and I tirelessly fight for their protection and against those that are destroying them.

But what seems to be of most interest - though completely happenstance to me - and what I love most… I dive with sharks.

Yes. I dive with sharks. Quite often. All over the world with all types of sharks including those most feared – great whites, tigers, bulls and hammerheads. And I do this up close and personal - outside of the “safety” of cages.

The responses I get range from disbelief, shock and awe, instant respect, or an immediate proclamation that I am insane.

But I don’t do it to surprise or impress people. I am not crazy nor am I seeking an amped-up adrenaline rush. And I don’t have some sort of death wish…

Why do I dive with sharks? I dive with sharks to save them.

The "fiercest" predator on the planet desperately needs our help. Desired for their fins, over 100,000,000 sharks are killed each year, and 90% of many shark species are almost extinct. Recent studies indicate that the great sharks, the tigers, the greater hammerheads, and the bull sharks, are 98% extinct from the North Atlantic waters.

Sadly, the public’s interest in sharks seems inexhaustible. An interest in the macabre – not the grim reality the sharks’ now face. The media feeds on our fears and provides us with embellished stories of vicious attacks by mindless man-eating monsters. The reality is quite different. There are very few shark attacks worldwide. Last year only one person died from a shark attack. In contrast, and what we don’t hear, is that sharks are the most hunted animal on the planet.

Even if you don’t have a passion for sharks like I do, they are still critically important to the planet, and we should all care very much about their conservation. As an apex predator, they are vital to the health oceans, the most important ecosystem on the planet – providing a major source of our oxygen and food. The oceans are kept in balance by sharks, who at the top of the food chain, regulate this ecosystem. The oceans - our very life support systems - are being destroyed.

Why are we brutally killing so many sharks? Primarily for sharkfin soup. A status symbol in many Asian countries. And soup consumption is on the rise.

So I dive with sharks to shift people’s perspectives on a mal-aligned and often despised species. To challenge our collective misconceptions. To bring awareness to an issue few know much about. To help ensure the sharks’ survival.

I have logged hundreds of dives and have spent countless hours underwater with sharks. But before you are impressed, know it is not as glamorously dangerous as it seems.

While there is inherent risk in all that we do, the risk of injury - let alone death - while diving with sharks is incredibly low. This year marks the first reported death from a shark bite on record during an organized shark dive. In comparison, many common leisure activities such as biking, swimming, and boating are statistically far more dangerous than diving with sharks.

In my own personal experiences diving with sharks, both with and without bait in the water, the sharks have gone out of their way to avoid contact with humans. Sharks clearly do not see people as prey, and even with bait in the water, I have never seen a shark exhibit aggressive behavior towards me. We are simply not on their menu.

As a responsible shark conservationist, I do realize these are wild animals and that there is some risk involved when I step into their habitat. With proper safety protocols, experience, and training, this infinitesimal risk is small when compared to the reward: the chance to experience an intimate encounter with one of the greatest species on our earth. And more importantly, share these encounters with others.

These interactions are captured on film, as part of the Shark Angels project, to enable others to develop a healthy respect and even compassion for this seriously misunderstood animal. So those people who do not dive with sharks can get a new perspective – counter to Jaws, counter to Shark Week.

And, as we continue to deplete populations and chase sharks to the brink of extinction, it is more important than ever to encourage people to care about sharks and gain an appreciation for their true character.

We tend to protect the things we understand, and sharks are largely out of sight, out of mind for us. Allowing others to live vicariously through the Shark Angels' experiences, I hope will be a powerful conservation tool to protect them. When you come virtually face to fin with the “world’s most dangerous sharks”, I believe you will realize as I have, that sharks aren’t the enemies - the only thing we have to fear is ourselves.

Our collective irrational fear of sharks entirely based upon myths and misconceptions, I think, explains our lack of desire to conserve them. Through awareness and understanding, I am on a personal mission to change all that. And of course spend as much time as I can in the water surrounded by the creatures for whom I have an incredible respect, interest and passion.

I hope that what the Angels (and I) do will shift your perspective – and you will want to save sharks too. But act quickly, because sadly, they are almost gone from this planet and soon, no one will be able to experience their magnificence.

(Photos by Jim Abernethy, Roger Horrocks, Jeff Rotman and Eric Cheng.)

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