By Vanessa Mignon
As I look at the dozens of shark fins breaking the surface, I cannot help thinking about my mum’s face if she could see what I am about to do. Here I am, in the Bahamas, getting ready to jump in the middle of sharks!
I gear up, thinking about the crew’s advice; when you get in the water, go straight to the bottom. There is no cage and no protection, just my camera and the hope that I am too skinny to be even considered as finger food! My heart is full of excitement and anticipation.
We spend the day at Tiger Beach, a spot well known amongst divers around the world. If we are to see a tiger, this is the spot! I am surrounded by lemon sharks, but there is no tiger in sight. I look around in anticipation. I stare at the shapes approaching in the distance, hoping that it will be a tiger, but nothing yet. So I start taking pictures of the lemons sharks that are surrounding me. There are so many of them and they are swimming so close that I am able to take pictures from every angle. I don’t even have time to look at my pictures, each shark seems more photogenic than the previous one. My finger can’t stop pressing the camera trigger; it’s so thrilling! And then my heart stops. There it is, a tiger shark! My first tiger shark! Out of nowhere, it snuck in while I was busy taking pictures. It is beautiful. A strong powerful body, streamlined to perfection over millions of years of evolution. As it swims by, I look at it in awe, and try to take in every single detail: the bulky head, the long body, the characteristic stripes, and the long tale. Just gorgeous. And then I realize: I just came face to face with a tiger shark! Back home in Australia, and in many other countries, tiger sharks are perceived as dangerous man eaters. And yet, I still have both arms and both legs. I didn’t feel any threat or any danger. If anything that shark didn’t appear to be interested in hanging around me for too long.
As the days go by, I become more aware of the sharks around me. I notice that a few of them have hooks attached to them and other injuries. I even see one with a thick rope coming out of its mouth. It is a sad thing to see. Unfortunately those injuries are only a small facet of an upsetting reality: sharks around the world are in danger. Sharks everywhere are in trouble.
During the trip I have the opportunity to learn from the crew and ocean conservationists travelling with us. I am shocked by what I hear. Sharks are targeted around the world for their valuable fins which are used to make shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy, which apparently can cost up to USD100 a bowl. It is estimated that between 26 and 73 million sharks are killed every year for shark fin soup. This number is shocking in itself, but the way they are slaughtered makes me feel sick. Since the shark meat has little value, the fisherman will often only slice the fins off and throw back the full body of the shark in the water. The shark, still alive, sinks to the bottom. It cannot swim, it cannot breath, and it is left to an agonizing and slow death. Apart from being cruel, this practice is unsustainable. And then, as if this wasn’t bad enough, there are the additional threats of bycatch from commercial fisheries, and injuries from fishing gear.
As I spend my last days surrounded by the sharks, I can’t help feeling some pain and anger. Those graceful animals have allowed me in their environment and given me so many beautiful memories. But at the same time that I am swimming with them here in the Bahamas, many of them are being slaughtered somewhere else in the world. It just doesn’t feel right.
Once back home, I do some more research on the internet and what I find is concerning. Shark populations are declining. According to a study conducted by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Shark Specialist Group in 2009, a third of open ocean sharks are threatened with extinction in the next few decades. Sharks are very vulnerable to overfishing because they are slow to mature sexually and they have few young. Therefore, they are not able to recover quickly from population losses.
People’s fears, ignorance and lack of interest are some of shark’s worse enemies. People often don’t realize that sharks are essential in the oceans. As apex predators, they keep other fish populations under control and play a crucial role in the overall health of the ocean. Remove them and the ecosystem becomes unbalanced.
Fortunately, as people are becoming more aware of the shark finning problem, efforts are being made around the world to ensure better protection of the sharks. Furthermore, several countries are now recognizing that sharks are more valuable alive than dead from a tourism point of view. Palau established the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2009, the Bahamas just signed a law prohibiting all commercial sharks fishing, and a law banning the possession and trade of sharks fins recently took effect in Hawaii.
A lot of work is required to change some nations’ deep-seated traditions, educate people and raise awareness. Thankfully there are dedicated organizations and people out there working hard and devoting their lives to the protection of the ocean and its creatures. I have been very fortunate to meet some of those people. Their passion and vision have inspired me to also do my part, however small, by writing about my experience with sharks and how, in the clear water of the Bahamas, a friendly tiger shark touched my heart.
Please check out this video of mine documenting some lovely, peaceful encounters with sharks: https://vimeo.com/93447438