I recently spent a day at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) filming Dr. Kim Holland and his graduate student team tagging a 14 ft. tiger shark with a satellite tag. Dr. Holland and his team head up a subgroup within HIMB known as the Shark Lab. Their work expands our knowledge of sharks, their behavior and their movements around the oceans. The electromagnetic scanning capabilities give us information on what they eat, how much, and when, along with many other things that are invaluable to further our understanding of this species.
The encounter was so thrilling and informative that it made me appreciate my love of sharks. I realize many people don’t have the same opinion. The 1975 film Jaws helped create the reputation of a super monster. The horribly inaccurate stereotype of one of the ocean’s premier predators put instilled fear in many. While this hasn’t been the primary reason for our worldwide decimation of the species, it hasn’t helped.
In the water with these creatures!
After Jaws, I had a view of sharks, their ragged teeth, and fierce determination, lying in wait to devour me. My experience in the water around sharks has been much different, just the opposite really. I admire and respect them and have been in the water around them repeatedly. At no time did I feel threatened with being eaten alive. Most shark “attacks’ are rare given the incredible number of people who enter the ocean. Almost all of these attacks are cases of mistaken identity, not a vicious premeditated attack. If it was the “Jaws” attack, the shark would devour us but instead, once the shark recognizes the mistake it moves off to find its intended meal, not us stringy humans. Rather than fear, I admire their grace, efficiency of movement and critical place atop the ecosystem hierarchy.
How much do we really know?
Sharks are far from bloodthirsty demons. Instead, they are incredible animals with extraordinary evolutionary traits that might teach us many things. There is so much we don’t know about them and the potential for learning is not only interesting but might lead to advances in any number of fields. I have learned they are incredibly efficient predators on par with lions of the Serengeti or grizzly bears in Alaska.
They hunt to eat, not unlike almost all species in the ocean and on land for that matter. I’ve learned there are numerous types of sharks from very small to the largest of all, the whale shark. I found out random things: they don’t have any bones in their body, they have an uncanny ability to sense electricity, they are constantly losing teeth and re-growing them and some are not solitary but form communities.
Will sharks become extinct?
I forget that many of my friends don’t realize that worldwide we kill 100 Million sharks a year. 100 Million!!
And some say that figure is conservative. The primary reason for the slaughter and decimation of over 90% of most shark species is shark finning to feed appetites for shark fin soup, a delicacy in parts of Asia on par with fine truffles or expensive caviar. According to some reports, a bowl of shark fin soup can sell for as much as $100. Sharks are slow to reproduce and at this rate, I fear my granddaughters will no longer see sharks in the oceans in their lifetime.
At the same time, more and more people are becoming aware of the problem and help. There are numerous organizations such as Wild Aid, Shark Savers, the Pew Charitable Trust and others working to dispel the fear proliferated on programs such as Shark Hunters or Shark Week and instead are dedicated to promoting shark conservation. Educational institutions like HIMB around the world are studying sharks in an effort to better understand them and hopefully, aid in not only their survival but possibly at some point their regeneration. Various states in the US and countries around the world are protecting sharks with bans on any type of shark fishing, finning or any type of commerce in their waters. We need all of this and more if we are to assure their long terms survival.
My Tiny Ripple
I recently started the Robinson Ocean Studies Fund at the University of Hawaii and am now assisting two graduate students at HIMB pursue their degrees. My hope in doing so and speaking out is to add dedicated and educated voices to support shark conservation, coral reef diseases, deep sea exploration, educational outreach and many, many other critical issues. I did this because someone else mentioned it might be a way to help and it seemed like a great idea.
I think most people want to help in some way. But we all get busy with our lives and become overwhelmed with the “big” problems facing the world. For me, the key is to try to find one thing I can do daily, however small, to help. Do one small thing for a neighbor, do one thing for a child, open a door or give five minutes to listen to someone who needs an ear, offer help a stranger, somehow help our earth, maybe speak out for something you believe in – for me today it’s shark conservation.
What I have witnessed is if we each would just do one small thing, we will be amazed how a tiny ripple can spread outward. Who knows where it will lead. A tiny ripple inspired me to start a fund, write a blog, show a film, talk to lots of folks. And if your sweet spot is the ocean like mine, give a shout and I’ll introduce you to some amazing folks doing incredible work who can use a little help from old and new friends. And if not, that’s okay. Find your own ocean and do the best you can one tiny thing at a time.
I’ll have more to tell about A Tiny Ripple soon. Stay tuned.