Monday, September 29, 2008

Shifting my Perspective: The White Shark’s World

I have finally seen the world through the eyes of a shark.

For the last month or so, Paul and I have been on the National Geographic Crittercam deployment team thanks to Shark Angel Alison! Alison is working with the group to put cameras on the backs of white sharks and she needed a first mate and a cameraman. Enter Paul and myself.

Over the last several weeks now, the alarm has been going off quite early – as we are eager to get to Seal Island early to deploy cameras. The team consists of Mark and Graham (from Nat Geo), Alison, Paul and myself as well as a person or two on any given day from MCM.

Imagine my surprise to learn that Mike Rowe (Dirty Jobs) has actually come onboard to do a piece on the job I was assigned to. Yes, that is right – I am head chummer and it is considered, I guess, one of the grossest jobs in the world. That means I prepare the concoction that attracts the sharks (consisting of mashed fresh and very rotten fish as well as the dregs from the bottom of Alison’s fish freezer) and put as much in the water as I tend to get all over myself – including in my hair, eyes and mouth somehow. All day long it is stomp, mash, mix, dump, and pour. Oh, and I get to punch the eyes out of the fish that are used as bait. (Note to those of you who have never done it… fish eyeballs can squirt eye juices like 5 meters at an incredibly high velocity when the cornea is punctured which can even be directed at, say, an unsuspecting cameraman.) Funny, I love it and even more, the fact that I am contributing in some small way to learning about White Sharks.

Besides, these days I think any good day ends with me smelling like dead fish. I take great joy in getting as dirty as I can. I am beginning to love the aroma because I know that it means I have a chance to see the creatures I love. And, who wouldn’t love spending their days at the infamous Seal Island hanging with white sharks whom have been putting on quite a show – I am even lucky enough to have seen my fair share of predations, including breaches!

You see, we know so little about these animals. Even Alison who has spent 2000 hours at sea studying them has just touched the surface of the iceberg. The amount of time scientists study and are able to witness the behavior of white sharks is so limited, considering most of the shark’s time is spent below water and white sharks in captivity are not a feasible option. So the camera is a great way for Alison to get a first-hand view of how sharks behave when she isn’t bringing them to the surface to study them.

Being on the team is a chance of a lifetime that I know few will ever be lucky enough to experience. I feel so privileged to have the opportunity to participate in ground-breaking research, learn much more about a mis-understood animal, and get into the field to study the creatures I spend my life trying to save. It has really added to my arsenal of first hand experience and knowledge, making me a much better conservationist I am certain.

I am bound by confidentiality and cannot share details about the cameras, process and the results. But what I can share is the hard work and loooong days for the past month were all worth it. We gathered over 20 hours of footage in several camera deployments that were barely noticed by the sharks and went almost flawlessly. And, believe you me, the world from a white shark’s eyes isn’t at all what you would expect. We watched the footage on the edge of our chairs.

I cannot wait to hear more from Alison as she continues her quest and the gathering and analysis of the data.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Something much, much scarier than sharks...

Paul (my favorite camera man from Lkwid Productions) and I headed out to do some filming for the national evening news here in South Africa and nearly lost our livelihoods! (Read the story then watch the footage...)

It all started innocently enough. Shark Angel Alison’s research is being featured in a national story on SABC and rather than head out with her, they wanted some footage of her in action. Since we have spent the last two weeks on the boat filming just that, the timing was perfect and Paul provided some great footage.

However, they were quite keen on getting some underwater footage, and Paul was quite keen on using his pole cam. He has been dying for someone to mutter the words... "I just wish we had some underwater footage of the white sharks..."

So, without much fore-thought or pre-planning on the logistics of using a heavy camera on a pole, in rough seas, with White Sharks, out we headed to Seal Island to try our luck… It wasn’t long before a real player showed up, and Paul eagerly plunged the camera in the water. Our goal was to capture the shark underwater maybe even WITH the National Geographic Crittercam on.

This beautiful shark made several passes eyeing what we thought was the bait… My job was to let Paul know where the shark was, so that he could slowly pan towards her (in addition to my full time post as Head Chummer and First Mate). Each time, she came closer and closer into the camera, and Paul was beaming, just dreaming of the type of footage he was probably capturing. (With no screen, it is difficult to know exactly what is happening, and as Murphy’s Law often has it, you always think you are getting better footage than you are, but this seemed like it was definitely the million dollar shot.)

Then before you could blink your eye, this four meter lady swam past the bait and launched towards the camera putting on her full attack speed… All we saw from our vantage point was a wide open mouth and teeth – and even more desperate, a terrified look in Paul’s eyes as he managed to pull the 50 pound camera out of the water attached to a slippery, straight swimming pool cleaner pole like it was a feather. I have never seen such super human strength, but he was centimeters away from losing his beautiful and quite costly lens… The shark didn’t stop there. Frustrated, she thrashed and managed to soak Paul at the same time. So Paul was dripping wet with freezing water and wide eyed just having been scared to death by the thought of the tens of thousands of dollars he might have just lost.

After Morne, Alison and I all had a good laugh (yes, at Paul’s expense just a bit) and checking the housing for scratches, we then heard from Morne that he has lost countless lenses doing just that… And even had to dive in for one camera! In our enthusiasm, Paul and I had just forgotten one thing: to ask if the shark ever goes for the camera instead of the bait.

It is definitely worth the risk though… we are both totally addicted to the pole cam. Had the visibility been better, the footage would have been simply amazing. We are already desperate to get another chance to peek in on the White Sharks. This time though, we are strapping the camera to Paul!

Watch the drama unfold... Note, Paul has a wide angle lens, so things are MUCH, MUCH closer than they appear!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Diving in with the Whites... and into controversy

As the second piece of my white shark series on the Underwater Channel, I headed out to Gansbaai, South Africa, where I was joined by shark whisperer and famous white shark underwater filmmaker (and my dear friend), Morne Hardenburg. The goal of this piece? To examine the controversy surrounding the cage diving industry.

Another important aspect to the great white shark’s conservation in False Bay is the white shark diving industry. Every year, the industry proves live sharks are worth more than dead, by bringing in more than ZAR 289m (South African Rand) in revenue and tens of thousands of tourists.

The white shark diving industry is not without its problems though. Sharks can become injured by handlers who encourage them to show the viciousness that the tourists are after – and it results in sharks biting motors, cages, hitting the boats etc.

There is also much controversy surrounding baiting sharks. Many people assume that baiting sharks leads to an increase in shark attacks, as sharks become more comfortable with human beings and also, associate them with food. Others contest that altering a sharks' natural behavior is causing both the sharks and us issues.

So, I examined these issues – and also got to get into the water with sharks (which is always a good thing!) Morne and I went cage diving to give everyone another perspective on these animals - and the cage diving industry. And you will see, with some additional regulations, which South Africa’s Marine Coastal Management is working on, cage diving can continue to prove to be very beneficial for sharks and for humans. We can witness a truly amazing animal in a new light, and many will continue to focus on their conservation.

It was a beautiful winter morning – at the height of shark season when I headed out to meet Morne and to dive with his family business, Shark Diving Unlimited. Morne is an incredible pro with the sharks and has also taken out Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Prince Harry, so I was in good hands. We jumped on their boat, the Barracuda, and jetted off to the famous Shark Alley, to see the whites in action – from beneath the surface – and learn more about how the whites can be protected.

I was eagerly anticipating some quality time in the water with my favorite shark. They are definitely the iconic image of the ocean. Though I have been diving with white sharks many times, I still cherish every experience as if it were the first.

As soon as we arrived, the chumming began. However, we weren’t actually trying to attract sharks that are not naturally attracted to this area. Permits in South Africa are only given to dive operators in locations that already have high concentration of sharks. In the case of Shark Alley, we had the Cape Fur seal colony on Dyer Island to thank for our healthy shark population. Interestingly, operators are always seeing new animals - as the sharks are highly migratory through this area. This is an important factor when debating whether or not sharks are conditioned.

In addition to chumming, we also started baiting. Morne repeatedly threw the tuna head into the water to attract the sharks and bring them in front of the cage. After ten years, he is a real pro. And you have to be to ensure the sharks come into the boat without receiving any positive reward.

There is a distinct difference between baiting and chumming. And an even bigger difference between baiting and feeding. Here, it is all about baiting and negative conditioning, as the sharks are never fed the tuna – and thus, are not positively rewarded. (NOTE: THE SHARKS ARE NOT FED!)

And this fact also significantly reduces the conditioned behavior of the shark, as was evident in a recent study conducted by Alison examining the effects of ecotourism on the white sharks behavior.

Additionally, the chumming models the same natural slicks that come from the seals on Dyer Island. And, the use of bait only serves a visual cue to the shark.

There are so many debates associated with white shark diving. In fact, many people assume because I am a shark conservationist, I oppose all cage diving. Yet, I believe if it is done respectfully and without positive reward, then there are more pros than cons.

There are some that do not believe in attracting sharks. However, these days, sadly, if you want to see a shark on a dive given their reduced population, typically, you need to chum. Or spend a lifetime in the water.

And with shark populations so steeply declining, anything that makes people want to protect sharks – without jeopardizing the shark’s safety, to me, is incredibly important.

(Julie & Morne hanging out on deck.)

I was so excited to get back into the water with the white sharks. I have been diving with them several times - inside and outside of cages – and every time it holds the same sense of magic for me. I always love to witness the magnificence of this animal in their own element.

Many people have proven you can get into the water with white sharks free of any cages. In fact, as a seasoned shark diver, I too have dove free of any cages with white sharks. Though for the Underwater Channel, I thought it was appropriate to show everyone the experience most have with great whites not because I believe there always needs to be bars between us and the white sharks. Additionally, laws in South Africa prohibit this (diving outside of cages) without permits – to ensure the sharks safety.

Finally it came time to see the sharks from below the surface, so I lowered myself into the cage with Morne and began quickly scanning the water. I couldn’t believe my eyes – there were at least three white sharks around the cage at any given time. I kept spinning about in the cage desperately trying to catch glimpses of each of them. It was such a beautiful sight.

I was surprised to see the sharks interacting so easily with one another. Sometimes these sharks can be quite territorial and frightened of each other. However, on this particular day, I saw them come so close to one another they almost touched.

White sharks are the top predator in these waters. They play an important role sitting a top the food chain, keeping our oceans healthy. Without white sharks in these waters, we are jeopardizing our most important ecosystem – an ecosystem that gives us much of the air we breathe and food we eat.

We saw eight different sharks – ranging from three to five meters. Morne can recognize these sharks by their dorsal fins – just as Alison does. While he does not see the same shark day after day, he does indeed see some of the same sharks year after year.

I, too, grew up in the Jaws generation, so I always enjoy seeing the sharks act in a completely contrary way to the manner we think they should. There were certainly no Jaws here. Instead, there were just eight magnificent and awe-inspiring sharks swimming calmly by the cage. They made frequent passes all around the cage – sometimes not even interested in the bait line.

Watching Morne in action made me realize how important it is to dive with a true shark lover – and expert. Many cage diving operators assume that what tourists want is the typical Jaws experience – chasing an adrenaline rush. Unfortunately, this only reinforces the negative stereotypes and also often leads to the sharks becoming injured in the process. This is why it is so important to choose a responsible dive operator. And Morne certainly fits the bill… someone who is heroically protecting the animal that he is so passionately sharing with the rest of the world.

At the end of the day, I think shark diving is an incredible conservation tool, and the concerns people voice surrounding changing sharks behaviors and increasing shark attacks are unfounded. Many people claim that by putting sharks in the water with human beings and food, you are turning sharks into voracious, man-eating monsters. That is hardly the case. I have been in the water – outside of cages with what are considered the world’s most deadly sharks – and I have never felt threatened.

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 divers.

As a responsible shark diver, I do realize these are wild animals and that there is some risk involved to both you and the animals when stepping into their habitat and even changing that habitat with chum and bait. With proper safety protocols, diving experience, and guidance from reputable dive operations, the risk is small when compared to the reward of an up-close encounter with one of the great co-inhabitants of our earth.

And, I believe the reward far outweighs the risk. Diving with sharks enables people to develop a healthy respect and even compassion for a seriously misunderstood animal that is critical to the health of our oceans.

Sadly, South Africa represents one of only a few places remaining where people can still go to experience the magnificence of the large charismatic sharks, including whites, tigers, bulls, and hammerheads. A growing number of shark species are approaching extinction, with over 100 million sharks killed by humans each year. As we continue to deplete populations and chase sharks to the brink of extinction, it is more important than ever to get people into the water safely and responsibly to experience and gain an appreciation for their true character.

People tend to protect the things we understand, and sharks are largely out of sight, out of mind for us. Allowing people to get into the water with sharks and come face to face with these magnificent animals is one of the most powerful conservation tools we have to protect them.

The public’s irrational fear of sharks (entirely based upon myths and misconceptions), I think, explains our lack of desire to conserve them. I urge everyone to go diving with Morne and Shark Diving Unlimited in South Africa. I am certain once you dive with them and with a shark whisperer like Morne, it will shift your thinking – and you will want to save them too. But go quickly, because sadly, they are almost gone from this planet and soon, no one will be able to experience their magnificence.

(The gang at Shark Diving Unlimited. Morne, Jamie (Shark Saver!), Julie, Dickie and Michael. )

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Shark Cherubs

One of my absolute favorite things to do is to teach children about sharks. Sadly, I have had more meaningful discussions with them then plenty of the adults I deal with.

And, children not only tend to have a much more balanced view towards sharks, but some absolutely LOVE them. In fact, it is quite often that I run into a child who can barely form complete sentences, but can still tell you the latin name of all 15 types of shark puppets I have!

Their interest in sharks is matched by their concern about our environment and the shark’s important role keeping the oceans healthy. They absorb information like a sponge, soaking up every detail and they form opinions based on truths, their world not yet tainted by our media’s portrayal of sharks. Finally, they relish in all of the amazing, quirky and unusual things about the vastly different 400+ species of sharks. As a shark geek myself, I can certainly identify with this.

And, I feel like I am indoctrinating in the next generation of shark savers.

Their innocence and passion is something I wish I could bottle. Although I could probably become a billionaire selling it, I would selfishly keep it all and drink a big huge glass of it every night!

As a Director of Strategy & Outreach for Shark Savers, I am constantly involved in outreach - giving talks and presentations to school children, organizations and companies about the shark’s plight, attending conferences as a speaker, and also manning a booth at local and national fairs and trade shows. We have been at several fairs recently – many of them Asian in the hopes of getting the word out about Shark Fin Soup.

Though, since I have been in South Africa, I haven’t had much opportunity to give classroom presentations or get out into the community – and most importantly reach its children – in a larger scale effort. So, I was thrilled when Alison asked me to come with her to speak to a classroom of 30 third graders about sharks.

Funny… She wasn’t. I think I found Shark Angel Alison’s kryptonite. Calm, cool, collected, incredibly knowledgeable and completely factual Alison can be flustered by children! And, this Shark Angel can be easily intimidated answering questions about a shark’s biology, behaviors and variances in species in front of a brilliant scientist!

But, the two of us had an absolute blast and quickly got swept up with enthusiasm. We were supposed to speak for ½ an hour, and two hours into it, Alison finally sent up a white flag asking for relief – though she was doing a great job! The kids were captivated and I got to relish in their passion and innocence just a bit longer than I had planned. I just hope one of those kids just might grow up to be a Shark Scientist like Alison. Or a conservationist. Or a science teacher. But I am certain at least a few will grow up with an appreciation and compassion for sharks.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Lush Joins the Fight to Save Sharks

While Alison and I have been busy in South Africa, our third shark angel Kim, Executive Director of Sea Shepherd, is setting the rest of the world on fire - and making sure our message is out there. That sharks - completely misunderstood and mal-aligned creatures - are being chased into extinction, without most of us knowing or caring.

A few months ago, Kim made a heartfelt presentation to over 300 Lush executives regarding the state of our sharks - and rumor has it, some were even left with tears in their eyes. I have seen Kim in action, so I know this can't be far from the case.

Now Lush (who was already my favorite manufacturer of all natural - and really hip, fresh, handmade cosmetics) is launching an awareness campaign like no other. They are manufacturing a Shark Fin Soap, which is a blue soap made with seaweed and sea salt with a cardboard shark fin sticking out the top. They are making 11,416 bars of the soap, the number of sharks killed each hour, with all proceeds going to Sea Shepherd.

AND, in each of Lush's 88 UK stores, there is a video display in the windows showing the SHARK ANGELS intermixed with footage of sharks being pulled from the water and having their fins sliced off only to be thrown back into the ocean still alive. Shawn, the director and producer of Shark Angels did an amazing job on the video, which you can see on the Lush site.

As part of the campaign, a former employee and performance artist will suspend herself from shark hooks in one of the stores. Kim promises to send pictures shortly. And, Lush has written to restaurants throughout the UK asking them to remove shark fin from their shelves and two retailers have already bowed to the pressure.

This is just the type of publicity we need. Awesome work Kim, Captain Paul and Shawn!!!

Buy your soap today.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Making Friends in Sodwana

Paul just sent me a highlights reel from our trip to Sodwana filming for the Underwater Channel (which coincidentally launched today). It features me basically getting mauled by quite a few different creatures on my search to find a whale shark.... Not only is it quite amusing, it is a proud moment for my parents. Dad, my certifying instructor who taught me to be such a responsible diver, gets to watch me literally run out of air and Mom, my staunch conservationist mother who taught me to respect animals, can be horrified to see me feeding the wild life. (We have HEATED family debates regarding baiting and chumming over dinners, you can be certain.)