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Skin Diving with Sharks

"The good news is that both coral reefs and shark populations can recover when we give them a break from fishing pressure."

Rod Salm
Nature Conservancy Marine Science Advisor, Indo-Pacific Division  

By Rod Salm 

As a young man growing up in Mozambique, I built a spear gun and went camping and skin diving as often as I could. I would leave the city in my 12-foot boat and explore the offshore islands. I discovered a promontory bordering Maputu Elephant Reserve and set up camp for summer break. There were no rules – just my kind of place. It was the 1960’s.

I made a hut from the wreck of an old fishing boat, tree trunks and bamboo, and used wooden cargo pallets to make shelves and a “banquet” table. All I brought with me was about 5 gallons of wine, 10 gallons of water, matches and my spear gun.

My friends and I fed ourselves from the ocean—fish, oysters, mussels, spiny lobsters. It was very sharky and every time we entered the sea they buzzed and surrounded us. We shot only the fish we needed and aimed carefully to kill them outright so they didn’t struggle and excite the sharks.

Once a visiting friend got impatient and shot a large jack high in the muscle. The sharks were instantly drawn in. I dived straight at the sharks with my spear gun ahead to chase them away, but there were too many. A tiger shark came unseen from inshore and went for the fish just behind me. My friend pulled the fish away; the shark missed, but hit the back of my legs, lifting me out of the water.

At first I was terrified, thinking I had been bitten. But there was no blood and no pain—and no more enthusiasm to protect my friends’ catch. The sharks circled back around and overwhelmed us. A few bites later, the fish was gone and all we had was the head and spine.

We saw so many sharks in those days. Sometimes we were back to back in the water with our fish catch fighting off the sharks until we could get back to shore. To us, the sharks were a nuisance, though we did get seriously rattled sometimes.

Although I started as an avid skin diver and adventurer, I have become an ardent conservationist. My first exposure to conservation was in 1971 on a natural history tour ship called the Lindblad Explorer working in the Indian Ocean. My job was to start their “fish watching” program.

I met Roger Tory Peterson, Sir Peter Scott and other leading scientists and conservationists. I visited truly pristine reefs and saw with my own eyes how plentiful these un-fished reefs were, and how inquisitive and unafraid the fish were.

Fish of all kinds and sizes swam right up to me because they didn’t know to fear people—they had never been hunted. Later that summer, I decided I was never going to spear fish again—and never have. While crossing the Drake Passage from Tierra del Fuego to the Antarctic Peninsula, I had a private ceremony with myself, my spear gun and a bottle of rum, and I buried my spear gun at sea just north of the Antarctic Convergence.

Nowadays I don’t think twice about sharks when I get in the water. And it’s not because the sharkiest places I’ve been don’t have many sharks anymore. It is, sadly, a rare surprise to see a shark in the water today. I’m unafraid now because we have learned so much about sharks. Our fear of sharks as awesome predators is overblown. Sharks aren’t out to eat every person they see. Our fear of them, trophy hunting and the huge demand for shark fin soup has led to dramatic declines in shark populations around the world. As sharks decline, fish populations and coral reefs become unhealthy too.

The good news is that both coral reefs and shark populations can recover when we give them a break from fishing pressure. Even Palmyra Atoll, which today is seen as a haven for sharks, was once open for shark finning, and the population there was decimated. When that was stopped, the sharks returned.

Today, shark populations are rebounding in marine reserves including in heavily fished areas like the Raja Ampat Islands and Komodo National Park in Indonesia, and Tubbataha Reef in the Philippines, among many others. Huge areas of the Pacific have been set aside for conservation of sharks and all marine life, including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Reserve, the Coral Sea, the U.S. Marine National Monument Program in the Pacific Islands, Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Phoenix Islands and the Palau Shark Sanctuary, soon to be followed by a shark sanctuary encompassing the vast reaches of the Federated States of Micronesia. That’s bad news for devotees of shark fin soup, but good news for sharks, fish, coral reefs, divers, fishermen and the rest of us around the world.
 

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