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Wild Life

Swimming with Sharks

Sharks are generally slow-growing and slow-reproducing top predators.

"I watch Richard approach a shark in frenzied feeding, bits of torn fish clouding the water, and slip a knot confidently around its slicing tail without getting torn up in the process."

Sanjayan, Conservancy lead scientist

By Sanjayan

I am 70 feet below the surface, swimming in a slick of tuna oil, blood and bits of guts that ribbons for miles behind our boat as it drifts on the Coral Sea, halfway between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

I am waiting for sharks.

And the thought that goes through my mind is: “God, this is stupid.”

Am I the Shark Bait?

I am part of a Discovery Channel-sponsored expedition attempting to understand the long-range movement of several species of large sharks.

My only solace is that others are in the water with me — people who should know what they are doing: Celine Cousteau, a charismatic TV presenter and granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau; Mike De Gruy, a veteran marine filmmaker with toothy scars to prove it; and Richard Fitzpatrick, the leader of our group and a recognized shark expert and scientist-filmmaker.

Richard confides that he gave up eating fish years ago. Doesn't think it's good karma. I think about all the fish I've eaten, and the potential cosmic consequences of my actions.

Maybe that's why they've invited me along.

How to Catch a Shark

The plan, as Richard sees it, is to lasso the sharks and tow them back to the boat where they can be tagged with sophisticated tracking devices and then released — and followed remotely. 

We’ll do this by slipping a rope around their thrashing tails while they are occupied with biting chunks out of tuna heads tethered on the ocean floor.

The work is critical. As scientists, we know very little about sharks, especially where they hang out and where they travel seasonally.

And knowing where sharks go — where they breed, feed and find refuge — is of paramount importance to their conservation and management.

For instance, if a tiger shark leaves the relative security of the Great Barrier Reef’s no-fish zone and cruises for three months near, say Papua New Guinea or Indonesia, our ability to manage them must take the form of a global treaty as opposed to a national plan.

Unfortunately, they’re difficult to track. Up until now, our direct observations of sharks have been severely limited by the realm they live in. With only about an hour of useful dive time underwater, we have only glimpsed their lives in short bursts.

But if we don’t know their home range, we cannot protect sharks from unsustainable fishing — which is threatening sharks worldwide.

Eating at the Top = Trouble for Sharks

Globally, over 70 million tons of shark are caught and killed annually: sometimes for food, sometimes as by-catch and sometime just for their fins — a luxury commodity used in soup. 

Shark fin soup — sold at upscale Chinese restaurants at astronomical prices — is the result of perhaps the most wasteful of marine practices. The fins are chopped off (the dorsal fetches the highest price) and the writhing carcass is dropped overboard.

Like a plane that has lost its ability to steer, the shark spirals into the blue — a slow, topsy-turvy death.

Sharks are hitting bottom because humans are eating at the top of the marine food chain. Because sharks are generally slow-growing and slow-reproducing top predators, such mining (it’s hard to call it harvesting) of sharks is clearly unsustainable.

It is the equivalent of trying to feed my community in Missoula, Montana, on a diet of wolves and bears — we would soon run out. Eat at the top, and there won’t be much left to eat.

We've got to break that habit. We have to pair conservation with market solutions — in demand, sustainability, pricing and regulations. If conservationists don't move our efforts beyond charitable, we won't make a dent in the shark problem.

'I Now Have a Shark by the Tail'

Right now, our chumming is paying off. Sharks flash past us, zeroing in on the giant tuna heads Richard has tethered. 

I watch him approach a shark in frenzied feeding, bits of torn fish clouding the water, and slip a knot confidently around its slicing tail without getting torn up in the process. Rational explanations fail — it is as if he has a protective pact that keeps him safe. He motions me over and I slowly, cautiously approach to take a hold of the rope he is holding while he resumes his lassoing.

I now have a shark by the tail.

And it of course has me — threatening to drag me into the depths. I backpedal furiously to keep my position, while staying out of reach of its twisting mouth in what someone would later describe as a ballet but feels at the time like made-for-television wrestling.

Now a dozen more are swimming around me, eyeing me with glassy cat eyes, perhaps plotting a breakout for their caught leader.

I beat a hasty retreat to our boat, shark in tow.

“Don’t eat me,” I silently promise, “and I won’t eat you.”

Originally posted in August 2008. At that time, Sanjayan was the Lead Scientist for the Nature Conservancy. He is now executive vice president and senior scientist at Conservation International.

The opinions expressed in "Wild Life" are the author's. They should not be construed as the position of The Nature Conservancy.

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