Saturday, December 27, 2008

Another Senseless Death

This time, it was a pregnant female that was caught and killed in the shark nets installed near Scottburgh beach today. A shark whose population is so threatened, it is raised in test tubes in Australia in a desperate attempt to save it from extinction. A shark that is rarely linked to incidents with humans (and more than half of those are provoked) whose main source of food is small fish and crustaceans. A shark who had made it through two sets of nets to the beach, and was then caught in the cloudy water returning to the sea. A shark that was brutally strangled and suffocated to death. A shark that never should have died.

And what’s worse, she was a pregnant female whose death marks the demise of dozens of unborn Raggedtooth Sharks. Running the gauntlet of hundreds of meters of nets installed up the coastline of South Africa, she had most likely made it the long journey up to Sodwana and back instinct guiding her to her birthing place before becoming entangled, not seeing the camaflouged black net in the murky water. Surprised, she must have fought to free herself, only worsening the nets’ hold as it tightened around her gills slowly choking the last breaths of air out of her. A beautifully elegant animal, she spent her last painful moments desperately alone probably never imagining a fate such as this, the remora affixed to her belly giving her no solace.

I found her a few hours later. Diving down, I knew there was a shark on the net – a dead shark. But no amount of dead sharks can prepare you emotionally for the sight. There she was, her head and gills engulfed in tightly meshed net, her timid eyes glazed over forced to accept her fate, her harmless mouth agape frozen in time as she struggled for her last breath of air. This magnificent shark, the kind that is so shy it won’t even allow a diver to come too close, murdered by ignorance and greed. My heart sank when I realized she was with carrying a precious cargo – as many mature females are at this time of year – a new generation of sharks slaughtered before entering the world. I stroked her graceful snout and wished her death was not in vain. That the world would wake up and stop the insanity. That the archaic nets would finally be removed – having caused the deaths of thousands of harmless sharks, dolphins, turtles, rays, and whales while serving a primarily psychological purpose. But while causing very real destruction to a very fragile place.

Then, I could only watch as men dragged her to the surface, joking and laughing as they tried to pull her into the boat, a very large shark, having spent years avoiding the nets of death, As if her death wasn’t brutal and senseless enough, they proceeded to dismember and destroy her in front of my eyes. She was just another fish to them. They gaffed her so hard the gaff broke in two, affixed thick ropes that sawed thru her gills, the water turning red with blood, and then, poked out her eyes only to stick their index fingers into her eye sockets. Her majestic beauty transformed into gore. The air filled with the pungent smell every shark conservationist dreads. The smell of fresh, dead shark.

More than 6,000 of her kind have been caught and killed in the last three decades joining the over 26,000 other harmless sharks that have been slaughtered. And many more will continue to die every year. Senselessly. Brutally. Needlessly.

Generations of animals – many threatened with extinction - who play a critical role in this planet’s health killed because of a media-induced, irrational fear.

When will this madness stop?

(All photos and images courtesy of Paul Wildman. Copyright, Paul Wildman, 2008.)

Monday, December 15, 2008

More Tigers Killed... By Fear

There is blood on my hands again. And this time, it is thanks to an archaic, culling technique called Shark Nets.

In this day and age, with all we know about sharks – including their dwindling numbers, their critical role in our ecosystem, their behavior, and the infinitesimal risk they pose to us – it is absolutely appalling that shark nets exist. Shark Nets are a crime against our oceans and our sharks, and they absolutely must be removed.

We spend our lives fighting to save sharks and their thoughtless and purposeless deaths are incredibly disheartening – especially in a country known for shark conservation. In the last month, I know of and have been witness in some cases to 10 such deaths – all tiger sharks – here in Aliwal Shoal, South Africa.

It was the last death that spurred me into desperate action, as I simply couldn’t sit by anymore and watch as our precious Tiger Sharks were being pulled in one by one, day after day, strangled to death. While the team on the ground here (a powerful group of passionate advocates that will remain nameless at this point) had already launched an anti-net campaign, I was, at this point, busy staying in the background and gathering intelligence – interviewing fisherman and dive operators, swimming the nets daily, even visiting Natal Sharks Board headquarters. Already, I knew enough to make my stomach turn – but little did I know, it would get much worse.

The day prior, I had received information that two Tigers – both almost 3 meters – had been caught and killed in the Nets and the death toll was at 8. Since I have been diving in Aliwal for two months and had only seen a single Tiger Shark, my blood boiled to think the nets had killed 800% more sharks than I had seen in that same period. My informant also saw Natal Sharks Board intentionally hide the Tiger Sharks underneath life vests on their boat hoping to avoid any further bad press.

You see, Natal Sharks Board has to hide the truth of the nets, keeping the deaths away from public eye to ensure that popular opinion supporting the nets won’t sway when people witness the true, grisly outcome of the nets - dead dolphins, turtles, and sharks that hardly seem threatening. Just pathetically sad and heart wrenching. Not the stuff our nightmares are made of, the deeply seeded fear Natal Sharks Board draws upon to justify their existence.

They are so desperate to keep their nasty secret, Natal Sharks Board operates in the shadows, removing their kill early in the morning before anyone can see and hiding victims on their boats far from prying eyes, quickly whisking the casualties away to headquarters. Worse, they even abandon their dead catch at sea – to avoid having to report the growing death toll. – only days prior a dead, 3 meter tiger shark with gill net wounds had been found by a fisherman on the Shoal after another fisherman witnessed a large object being thrown from a Sharks’ Board boat. The Sharks’ Board deceit is not without reason – as I am quite certain if the casual observer began learning about all of the destruction in an already fragile environment, Natal Sharks Board would lose ground fast.

And we were about to prove that, firsthand, when I received a call that another Tiger Shark was trapped in the Nets. I raced to the beach hoping to get out there and rescue the shark. By the time I arrived, another passionate shark lover and team member, Steve Benjamin, had attempted to rescue the shark by cutting her out of the net, but she was already dead. He also had called Sharks Board as is the protocol– who arrived at the same time I did. However, the Sharks Board boat refused to take the shark onto their boat regardless of protocol or constant pleas from Steve to take the Shark. Steve, confused, was not going to leave the shark at sea, so he told me to get ready - he had to bring the shark ashore then re-launch to return to work. Steve is a skipper for Blue Wilderness, run by Mark and Gail Addison – some of the best friends the sharks of South Africa have.

Paul grabbed his camera, as I raced down to the beach to help Steve land. As soon as he approached I saw the two-meter beautiful Tiger Shark lying stiffly on the side of the boat and the anger welled up inside me. Here was a shark no older than a year or two killed by ignorance at a time when her population was already greatly threatened.

Waves broke over me as I tried to wrestle the shark to the beach while holding back the tears welling up inside. I couldn’t help but recall my days at Tiger Beach surrounded by Begonia and Mini-T – sharks just like her. Her rough, lifeless skin scraped my arms and legs raw as I strained to keep her from floating out to sea. No one would help me. While she was a small tiger, she was still quite heavy and I battled to dig my feet deep into the sand with the pouring rain only complicating matters. Mother Nature was weeping no doubt. Finally, another kind Blue Wilderness team member showed up, and together, with a winch, we dragged the shark to higher ground.

There she lay on the sand, a perfect Tiger Shark specimen, her eyes sunken, blood running from her orifices. My fingers traced the tell-tale marks seared into her head – gill nets had strangled her and suffocated to death. Opening her mouth, I saw her small teeth were no bigger than my fingernails and I knew she was too young to have learned the avoidance techniques many older sharks have learned. Ironically, over 40% of sharks are caught on the reverse sides of the nets meaning they have avoided them on the way in, as the nets are not truly effective barriers. And, many of the sharks caught are juveniles – barely old enough to be a threat to squid, let alone bathers on the beach.

Why had another shark been killed here?

I spun around and saw, as I usually do, only the occasional fisherman, person walking on the beach or boater. This area was a launch site for boaters and dive operators – and not a beach that swimmers and bathers used. Yet a net was installed here anyway, keeping the sand and driftwood safe, I suppose.

I spent the next hour fighting with the Sharks Board as I begged for them to take their shark. The shark they killed. They refused. Someone at headquarters had unwittingly instructed them not to touch the shark – though this public display was the exact thing they try and avoid. Seizing the opportunity, I began educating the large crowd that formed about tiger sharks, the nets, and how this the poor little shark had died. As soon as beach goers happened upon the beautiful shark, there was disgust, outrage, frustration and sadness. Never fear. This was the first time they were able to see the results of the nets – seemingly sterile and non-threatening, or so the Sharks Board would have you believe. And instantly, each reached a common consensus: the nets must go. Only one lone fisherman opposed, screaming that this was my fault (many people, and typically fisherman, ignorantly accuse shark divers of killing sharks by interacting with them with bait and thus, making them more apt to attack people) and that the beach needed protection from me and these sharks. “When was the last shark attack on this beach?” I screamed back, furious. He could answer because to date, and well before the nets, there have been NO shark attacks here. Not a single one – bait or no bait.

It wasn’t until the other fisherman arrived, landing their boats after a day at sea that my sadness and anger turned to desperation. They marched up to the shark and started coldly inspecting her fins and jaws – kicking her belly. I knew what they were going to do and I started yelling “You are not taking this shark. Not her fins and not her jaws. You will not touch her.” There were many of them and I began fearing the worst. This magnificent creature was ruthlessly murdered, Sharks Board refused to take any responsibility, and now, the opportunistic fisherman were going to cut her up to take her valuable fins and jaws. “Are you really going to let them do this? The blood is on your conscious.” I screamed at the Sharks Board crew while trying to drag her to safety and fend off the fisherman.

Someone at headquarters finally wised up and realized that what was happening was not doing them any favors and gave the order to remove the shark – just in time. This was the first time they had experienced such a blatant display of anti-nets sentiment to my knowledge, and it took a foreigner and a some passionate, and bold folks from a Tiger Shark dive operation, Blue Wilderness, to do it. This was long overdue – and it was time for someone to stand up against the nets in a real way.

Ironically, I was later informed that the rumors were flying : not only had I reportedly killed the shark to get publicity but that I was also under investigation by Marine Coastal Management for killing a protected animal. And, that I (not to mention the whole team) have been labeled as a vigilante and I better watch my back.

The politics of sharks in South Africa are completely disheartening – nor will I I fall victim to fear mongering and intimidation. Sadly, many of the rumors originated from individuals who are supposed to care about sharks. I guess they care more about getting into the limelight and feeding their egos than making sure no more sharks are killed.

But, we are above politics and care about one thing. So best find a new source of income, Natal Sharks Board, because the people of South Africa and the world are going to choose live sharks over dead ones.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Running with the Big Animals

I have been all over the world diving with some of the most incredible animals on the planet. But today, I had the best diving experience I have ever had. Without any tanks. Which is the exact reason why it was so special.

Having just completed my freediving lessons, I was eager to try out my new skills. Somehow Mother Nature knew and delivered the perfect day which was all the encouragement Mark needed to get us out on the ocean.

Our goal? Swim with whatever the sea offered.

First up, a group of friendly Common Bottlenose dolphins – many with calves so young, it looked like they had just been born within the past few weeks. Time and time again, we dropped off the boat and dove down into their world, with the freedom to enter it for as long as our lungs would allow. The dolphins proudly showed us their new additions as they playfully dove between us.

Then, we met the sharks. Our first stop? The Raggies’ hood to see how the youngsters were doing finding mates. Free-diving to Raggies Cave was peaceful and easy though only days earlier it had required me to strap a heavy cylinder on my back. And the Ragged Tooth Sharks – a particularly skittish bunch – never let air guzzlers get too close. However, without the noise and disruption of tanks, the Raggies were quite hospitable and hung out closely to us. Being on their terms made them comfortable enough to share their personal space and I got the opportunity to get in tight with my new friends.

Next up was the Blacktip pack who just admitted several new members to their club: the Dusky sharks. The blacktips were so close that I frequently bumped into them while ascending or descending – much to their dismay. But it was the Duskies that I found absolutely enchanting. They are the type of sharks that stay in the outskirts of a crowd, never confident enough to check you out eye to eye. With your back turned, they would slowly enter your private space lurking over one of your shoulders only to dart away as soon as you turned and locked your eyes with theirs. However, on this particular day without any tank, I met a very different shark. These duskies were fearless and quite curious. They would circle me a few times slowly decreasing the radius of their circles until finally, they would swim right up to my nose, stop a few inches from my face and hang there until we were able to mentally connect and exchange salutations.

I was already high with excitement as we started to head back into shore. Little did I know the days’ highlight was still in store for me.

This time of year, the humpbacks come through Aliwal, on their way down from Mozambique after giving birth to take their calves to Antarctica with them. They pick up an escort here to make the long journey with them and in return for protection, the escort is given the chance to mate with the indebted female. The whales had been thick the last several days, but on a mission, so it is difficult to get a chance to enjoy anything more than a slap of the tail and an occasional breach.

I figured today was no different, so when Mark cried whale, I dove into the water assuming I might see a quick flash of a white belly. It was a hectic mad dash in the water as Mark kept yelling directions to us. As I lifted my head, I could see a pod of whales just beyond my reach and at some point, decided I was never going to catch them. That is when Mark enthusiastically shouted for me to dive – the whales were headed straight towards me.

Forgetting everything I was taught, I dove down and peered into the blue. Suddenly two whales materialized just a few meters in front of me. As I swam forward, a third whale entered my peripheral vision and I realized this was mom and a calf. It was an absolutely gorgeous sight – a mother humpback and her baby peacefully gliding past me. Knowing the mother would be nervous if I was too close, I stood my ground and just enjoyed from a distance. My heart stopped as I experienced an encounter I had only dreamed of. I could have never imagined this was possible. A whale shark, maybe. A whale? No way.

I must have glanced down to get my bearings because as I looked up, I found myself literally inches away from a huge eye and barnacles. Imagine my surprise to realize that I was about to bump head first into a humpback whale. I had not seen the escort and suddenly, he was right next to me letting me know that I could look but not touch. I immediately realized I was way too close to such a powerful creature and began backing up as quickly as I could remembering the stories I had heard about their powerful fins. By the time the whale’s pectoral fin came near me, I was far enough away to be out of danger, but close enough to get a strong, warning swipe across my fin. Wishing I could have shared the moment with someone, I turned to find Paul had materialized behind me, catching the swipe on camera. (Not that I needed it… the experience itself was seared into my mind. I will never forget it for as long as I live.)

Jubilant, I broke the surface and basked in the spectacular glory of the sea with Paul. Freediving that day, combined with Mother Nature, just gave me the most amazing gift I will ever receive.

I may never put a tank on again…

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Day as "Shark Bait" ?!?

Every time we get the message out there, we are one step closer to saving our sharks. So we always welcome [positive] press.

A follow up to the Planet in Peril piece that featured both Shawn filming and Alison on camera, Nightline decided to do a piece on White Sharks – and the Shark Angels. Sadly, only Alison and I were together – as Kim was busy gearing up for the 2009 Sea Shepherd whaling campaign – though we missed her very much.

You can watch the footage and read about the experience here:

Unfortunately, due to low visibility and howling winds, Nick Watts walked away still afraid of white sharks, as his cage diving experience was not the calm and beautiful one many of us have had where you realize, these sharks are not Jaws. Instead, sharks were appearing right in front of him out of no snapping at bait and hitting the cage where while he got thrown around in the “washing machine” aka cage due to the rough seas, but it was still nice to hear him acknowledge sharks are critical to this planet.

And I love this statement: “And the cage diving? Did it change my mind? Well, I'm probably more scared of sharks now than I ever was. But boy am I impressed by them. I'm on board with the Shark Angels: Let's save the stuff of my nightmares.”