The lucky ones….
Only the lucky ones get out alive… This clichéd saying that everyone would have heard at least once in their life, most likely in a dramatic film, can also be applied to the lives of most sharks worldwide. As I sit here in Indonesia, the country responsible for killing the highest number of sharks annually, I look out over the beautiful Balinese Ocean in front of me, a significant contrast to my grim expression.
I have been in love with sharks since I was five years old. Whilst other kids were fascinated by lizards, dogs, cats etc, little me was laying on the floor drawing hundreds upon hundreds of pictures of every shark I knew. This love turned into a healthy obsession, when snorkelling with my family on the Great Barrier Reef and whilst playing in the shallows of a lagoon, a small juvenile black tip reef shark chased me at high speed back to the shore line. The animal who had chased me on that day had captured my heart and soul and ignited a growing flame within me that would lead to a life of complete fascination and devotion to sharks and ultimately the natural environment.
Sitting on the balcony of the hotel I am staying at here in Serangan, Bali, In the near distance I can see the floating pontoon of “shark island”. Shark island is a floating nursery designed by the Balisharks organisation and is currently home for 22 juvenile black tip reef sharks, 12 juvenile white tip reef sharks, and a bamboo cat shark, all sharks that have been rescued from a torturous, inhumane and unnecessary death. Out here on this floating island is where I spend most of my time each day in Bali, floating silently among the sharks, knowing that these are truly the lucky ones. Balisharks was conceived after Hawaiian surfer and ocean lover Paul Friese decided to take action. After travelling to Bali many times and seeing the devastation that is the shark finning industry, Paul formed the Balisharks organisation. The only project of its kind worldwide, Bali Sharks Conservation Nursery in Serangan, Bali, Indonesia is an alternative to young sharks being killed for food. The same fishermen that used to kill sharks for fins are now saving sharks. Paul and his team have released over 155 sharks successfully in marine protected areas within Indonesian waters. No other organisation in the world has successfully saved this many sharks.
Since graduating school I have dedicated most of my years to assisting in research in all aspects of marine science, however, when an opportunity arises to research sharks, due to my deep passion I become a force to be reckoned with and will do everything and anything to be able to be involved with them. After finding the Balisharks organisation by chance online, I emailed Paul and we arranged for me to come and research the sharks and help with the program. I couldn’t have booked a plane ticket any faster. My dream of researching sharks and helping save these animals had tied into one reality, a thought that left me with excited insomnia the night before I flew out of Australia.
I have been working with these sharks now for a full month, spending approximately four hours a day out on the nursery pontoon; swimming with them, conducting research on them, observing their behaviour, feeding them and just being close to them in general. From spending so much of my time with these animals everyday, I have quickly become accustomed to their behavioural patterns, their displays of individual characteristics and I feel I understand and connect with them on a level that not many people would have experienced before. Nothing can successfully replicate the feeling of surrendering yourself to the lack of gravity provided by sea water, and floating silently and thoughtlessly while 12 sharks are swimming around you in a harmonious curiosity. A lot of people always ask if the sharks have become domesticated due to living in a nursery for a long period of time prior release.
The netted areas in which the sharks are kept are large enough to accommodate a significant number of sharks and the shape of these nets in relation to the varying depths of certain areas, very much simulates their natural reef habitat. From observing the sharks everyday, I can confirm that for the most part these sharks are displaying normal behaviour typical to their natural habitats and to the certain characteristics of that species. Of course there are the few exceptions. Whenever I am about to enter the white tip nursery, the sharks will gather at the base of the ladder in anticipation. As I have grown to know these sharks so well over this time, they in turn have gotten to know me very well. Stepping down the ladder and into the water I remember that although I am observing these sharks all day , they are observing me also, analysing my shape, my movements, the bubbles rising from the mouth piece of my snorkel, the sound of my breathing etc. As I drift through their temporary home, they move around me with their eyes glued to me as they gracefully glide through the water. A few of the larger white-tips even come in close to me, centimetres from my body and will not leave me alone until I give them each a gentle stroke between their dorsal and caudal fins. After this little morning ritual, they go back to their natural behaviour, swimming back and forth, changing their direction of course at times and levels of depth, and sometimes coming to rest on the bottom, propped on their pectoral fins with their head raised and mouths taking in water which is raked through their gills. A common characteristic of the white tip, considering they are nocturnal and will usually rest during the day and feed at night. Although the sharks do not completely forget I am within their area, they have become used to my still, undisturbing presence enough for me to be able to observe and research them. Hopping in the water with the black tip reef sharks is a different story all together.
Completely different in every way to the white tips these sharks are timid, shy, fast and must keep swimming constantly to maintain waterflow through their gills. The smallest movement in the water with these sharks results in a complete transfer of energy as the shark closest to me will jolt away and the rest will follow suit in reaction. These sharks seem
to follow more circulatory patterns within their nursery, so when I am in the water with them I have found the best way to observe their behaviour is to be in the very middle of the area where they rarely cut across.
It is here for hours I will sit still and as the sharks become calm and collected, I take mental notes of everything they do, which once out of the water will be written in my trusty notebook which is now full of notes and observations of both species of requiem sharks. My main area of study of these sharks is an experiment I am working on now. I am observing the behavioural responses of these two species of sharks to coloured stimuli placed within their areas. As I am still in the process of trial and error in relation to experimental design, I will not indulge you with many details right now, although some of the results I have been obtaining have been quite interesting nevertheless. Keep in mind that even though I have maintained a close relationship with the sharks and they have somewhat modified their behaviour towards me personally, the majority have been successfully released into the wild showing no adverse affects or behavioral changes that could compromise their survival, after all they have been living on predatorial instincts for over 400 million years.
So why sharks? Because without sharks, the natural ocean ecosystem as we know it will cease to exist. This is a theory that Balisharks is in the process of confirming. For years now, Paul has been releasing these rehabilitated sharks successfully in the Gilli Islands ( bordering Bali and Lombok). When he first started releasing the sharks in the nominated area, he noticed that the ecosystem was completely unbalanced. There was a trophic cascade that was occurring due to the lack of sharks in the area. After releasing a number of sharks in this area each year, Paul noticed that every time he came back the ecosystem had started rebuilding itself. The coral began to flourish, the biodiversity had become high, and the water was much clearer. The reef was starting to balance itself out due to the reintroduction of sharks as the apex predator. This is direct evidence indicating that sharks are vital to maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem. Now days the reefs surrounding the Gili islands are flourishing like never before, and snorkelling and diving tourism has sky rocketed.
We are scheduled to release two black tips off Gili trawangan next week, and I will be able to experience the satisfaction of placing such an important animal of our oceans back into its natural habitat where it belongs. Here the sharks will swim free, with all their fins, without the worry of fisherman catching and killing them.
For the hour I have spent writing this, approximately 11 000 sharks have been slaughtered. Picture a world map of the oceans and picture eleven thousand small crosses drawn on it every hour. This is a devastating reality, and it is happening right now. The evidence is clear that if we do not stop this senseless genocide of such an important species, then one day we will have nothing to show for it. The ocean we are destroying will eventually destroy us considering it is one of our main providers of life. We must educate people about sharks, and their importance in the oceans. We must teach people that they are not the mindless killers portrayed in movies and in the media. We must do what we can to protect them in anyway we can, or we will suffer the consequences of a shark extinct world.
Sharks have become a part of me, and they have become my family and I am going to dedicated my life to ensuring the protection of them. I hope that one day when I have children they will be able to swim them and experience their beauty as I have been lucky enough to do each day. If you are wondering why you never see sharks in the ocean, there is a good chance that most of them are dead. It took the passion of one Hawaiian surfer and his team to save almost 200 sharks. There are thousands of campaigns and petitions world wide fighting to protect sharks. We all have the power to install change, this ancient instinct within all of us to protect what is ours, our home; Mother Earth. What will YOU do with this power?
To read more about Balisharks or sponsor a shark head to www.balisharks.com