By Suzanne Case
In a remote, peaceful, palm-fringed Hawaiian bay I’ve loved all my life, I came to know a white-tipped reef shark. It often rested beneath a black lava ledge. I called it my friend. I looked for it each time I visited, snorkeling across the bay and peering carefully, my heart quickening and delighting when I saw it, feeling the thrill of tension in my body at its beauty and wildness.
One day three years ago my sister casually said, “Oh by the way, they got your shark.” Like a madwoman I grabbed a kayak and raced out. Sure enough, a pallid shark hung limp off a cliff on a ghastly hook. I was sickened, and outraged.
But just last week I snuck off to the bay for four blissful days. I swam to the ledge half-heartedly, but then I saw it -- a white tip reef shark! My friend -- or a new one -- was back!
The next day my 11-year-old niece Melia joined me on a paddleboard to check it out. Suddenly a gray shape curved slowly back and forth into view near the surface, beautifully graceful in the clear water, against the white sand bottom.
“There it is!” I shouted. “Okay!” said Melia -- and she slid off the paddleboard into the water!
The shark swam around in front of the board, as Melia watched it underwater from five feet away, unconcerned. When my sister called anxiously from the rocks above, “Okay she can get back on the board now!” I grabbed Melia’s arm and pulled her up. The shark turned and swam back in front of us, and then off into the bay.
“I thought it was your friend?” Melia said.
“Well … yes,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean the shark knows that. It’s still wild. You still have to be respectful, and cautious.”
We paddled back to shore, ecstatic. My young niece swam with a beautiful shark! And my friend the shark has a new friend, my niece. How breathtaking!
Sharks need more friends. A recent study showed there are 90% fewer sharks in waters people frequent. We need sharks to have healthy oceans. Sharks need our protection and respect. I’m pleased that Hawai’i passed the first U.S. total ban on shark fins in 2011. And there are people working around the world to protect sharks. I encourage each of us to support shark research and shark protection around the world.
Suzanne Case is the the Conservancy's executive director for Hawai'i and Palmyra.