Saturday, December 27, 2008

Another Senseless Death

This time, it was a pregnant female that was caught and killed in the shark nets installed near Scottsburgh beach today. A shark whose population is so threatened, it is raised in test tubes in Australia in a desperate attempt to save it from extinction. A shark that is rarely linked to incidents with humans (and more than half of those are provoked) whose main source of food is small fish and crustaceans. A shark who had made it through two sets of nets to the beach, and was then caught in the cloudy water returning to the sea. A shark that was brutally strangled and suffocated to death. A shark that never should have died.

And what’s worse, she was a pregnant female whose death marks the demise of dozens of unborn Raggedtooth Sharks. Running the gauntlet of hundreds of meters of nets installed up the coastline of South Africa, she had most likely made it the long journey up to Sodwana and back instinct guiding her to her birthing place before becoming entangled, not seeing the camaflouged black net in the murky water. Surprised, she must have fought to free herself, only worsening the nets’ hold as it tightened around her gills slowly choking the last breaths of air out of her. A beautifully elegant animal, she spent her last painful moments desperately alone probably never imagining a fate such as this, the remora affixed to her belly giving her no solace.

I found her a few hours later. Diving down, I knew there was a shark on the net – a dead shark. But no amount of dead sharks can prepare you emotionally for the sight. There she was, her head and gills engulfed in tightly meshed net, her timid eyes glazed over forced to accept her fate, her harmless mouth agape frozen in time as she struggled for her last breath of air. This magnificent shark, the kind that is so shy it won’t even allow a diver to come too close, murdered by ignorance and greed. My heart sank when I realized she was with carrying a precious cargo – as many mature females are at this time of year – a new generation of sharks slaughtered before entering the world. I stroked her graceful snout and wished her death was not in vain. That the world would wake up and stop the insanity. That the archaic nets would finally be removed – having caused the deaths of thousands of harmless sharks, dolphins, turtles, rays, and whales while serving a primarily psychological purpose. But while causing very real destruction to a very fragile place.

Then, I could only watch as men dragged her to the surface, joking and laughing as they tried to pull her into the boat, a very large shark, having spent years avoiding the nets of death, As if her death wasn’t brutal and senseless enough, they proceeded to dismember and destroy her in front of my eyes. She was just another fish to them. They gaffed her so hard the gaff broke in two, affixed thick ropes that sawed thru her gills, the water turning red with blood, and then, poked out her eyes only to stick their index fingers into her eye sockets. Her majestic beauty transformed into gore. The air filled with the pungent smell every shark conservationist dreads. The smell of fresh, dead shark.

More than 6,000 of her kind have been caught and killed in the last three decades joining the over 26,000 other harmless sharks that have been slaughtered. And many more will continue to die every year. Senselessly. Brutally. Needlessly.

Generations of animals – many threatened with extinction - who play a critical role in this planet’s health killed because of a media-induced, irrational fear.

When will this madness stop?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

CNN Blog - The world needed to see what I was witnessing

Expanded version of blog featured on

I broke the surface having just completed the last day of diving on some of the most incredible reefs I had ever seen. Floating in the deep blue waters, I looked around and surveyed the dozens of forest covered limestone islands that surrounded me. This was truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. I was in Raja Ampat off the western tip of Papua in Indonesia, one of the most remote and biologically diverse marine ecosystems on the planet. I was here filming the reefs and marine life in a newly established Marine Protected Area (MPA).

Cruising back to our camp, we noticed a small fishing boat anchored in a shallow lagoon within the protected area. Curious, we decided to investigate. As we drew near, we made a grizzly discovery. On the blood soaked deck, covered with buzzing flies, were dozens and dozens of shark fins that had recently been sliced off of small reef sharks. Looking into the water, an odd shape at the bottom caught our attention. Immediately we identified it as the body of a shark. It took all my willpower to control my feelings of anger and frustration. And then I recalled, where sharks should have been abundant on every protected reef, we had not seen sharks the entire week. Now it clear why. It was also immediately clear what I had to do.
The world needed to see what I was witnessing.

Flipping my video camera on, I documented the gruesome reality of what lay strewn before me: the fins, the blood, the flies, grisly contradictions to these magnificent surroundings. Loading my camera into my underwater housing, I threw on my snorkel gear and slipped into the water. Below me strewn across coral reef were a dozen, dead juvenile reef sharks rolling gently with the current. Descending down, my stomach turned as I saw the blood seeping from wounds where their fins had been. These beautiful sharks had been ruthlessly sliced and thrown overboard to drown, killed just for their fins.

After filming all I could stomach, I returned to the boat. Enraged, I wanted to do something. Certainly this reckless harvesting must be illegal. Our guide Andy then informed me that the fisherman had presented a legal shark fishing permit which for $30 granted him the right to fin sharks for 30 days. Quick math revealed 10 sharks per day times 30 days, or 300 sharks for $30. 10 cents a shark! This was the price for the life of each of the juvenile reef sharks below me on the reef. But what was the cost on the marine ecosystem and the local community that depended on it?

Something changed in me that day, something that would grow inside and drive me to dedicate my life to ending the short-sighted destruction of marine environments and first and foremost, by halting the shark fin trade.

Upon my return, I discovered that most people had no idea what was happening in the oceans and that most had never experienced what lay beneath the surface. I also learned that when given the opportunity to explore and interact with marine life or to experience it virtually through engaging underwater footage and stories, that they did start to care. A lot. And once they cared, they wanted to take action.

So much of what I have learned about the oceans, I have learned while diving and filming firsthand what the underwater realm is truly about. Much of what we watch, read and hear regarding marine life is only a shadow of the reality. For many people, the closest they come to this world is a seafood restaurant or sushi bar. To truly appreciate the ocean, there is no better way than to immerse yourself in it. And to truly know what is going on, you must witness it yourself.Take sharks for instance, one of my favorite subjects. We are taught to believe sharks are mindless killers, that even a drop of blood will send them into a feeding frenzy and that most species of sharks are "man-eaters". Prior to diving with sharks I wanted to believe this wasn't true but years of media conditioning and the "Jaws" phenomenon had left their mark. Hundreds of dives later with sharks, and I am certain the myths couldn't be further from the truth. I have drifted with schools of over 500 hammerhead sharks and watched as 100 reef sharks formed hunting packs at night. I have knelt within touching distance as a dozen bull sharks, some over 1000 lbs and 11 feet long, fed on fish. 

During the filming of our documentary Shark Angels (, three amazing women from the conservation field joined me and spent 4 days, without cages, diving with a dozen tiger sharks and 50 lemon sharks. Our goal was to demonstrate that even the "fiercest" of the sharks had no intentions of harming people. And in all these years and all these dives with sharks, I never witnessed a deliberate attempt by a shark to injure or kill. What I did witness, to my great joy, was countless divers have that "ah ha" moment when they realized the truth about these amazing creatures.

Sadly, during this same period, I have watched sharks disappear from the oceans. Where once sharks were plentiful on all the reefs of the world, they have effectively vanished from all but a few remaining sanctuaries. And even within these "sanctuaries" they are being systematically targeted and killed for their fins. Fins! Less than 3-5% of the sharks total mass, the other 95% either thrown back in the ocean or used as a cheap by-product. And of this 3-5%, only the small strands of cartilage will be used with the rest discarded as trash. These cartilage strands will be boiled and used as a flavorless thickener, like thin noodles, in a watery soup flavored by chicken stock. Shark Fin Soup.

Once popular on only special occasions among the ultra-elite in Asia, the recent economic boom in China coupled with intense marketing by the shark fin trade, has fueled an explosion in demand. And the result, over 100 million sharks are killed every year primarily for their fins. In the past 20 years, many of the great shark species populations have been reduced by over 90%. If nothing changes, sharks are heading on a one way road to extinction.

So what if we remove sharks? Slow to grow and slow to reproduce, sharks have perfectly evolved over 400 million years to keep our oceans in balance by removing the sick and managing populations. Remove the sharks and the populations of faster growing predatory fish they control explode and wipe out successive layers in the food chain. Ultimately the fish stocks collapse including the small fish that maintain the coral, algae takes hold and the reefs die. No reefs, no fish. What nature developed over 400 million years to keep our oceans healthy, man is wiping out in less than 50 years. Over 1 billion people depend upon the ocean for their livelihoods and survival. What will happen when over 1 billion people lose their jobs or go hungry? That is why sharks matter.

In the developed world we live in societies where our consumption behavior is disconnected from its impact on the environment. With regard to fish, most of us don't know and don't care to know where our fish comes from, how it is caught or raised, what by-catch is associated with it, and what waste products it produces. As a result, the ocean are being effectively strip-mined, utilizing some of the most destructive and wasteful fishing practices imaginable. And the result, sharks along with all other large species of fish have been largely fished out of most of the seas with hardly any notice or public outcry. And now, we are fishing our way down, removing successive layers in the food chain.

I have just returned from filming again Raja Ampat, several years after that first encounter with shark finning. As part of my documentary on the global shark fin trade, I spent a week following and filming shark fishermen in the region. When you consider that Raja Ampat is one of the most ecologically diverse and pristine marine ecosystems left on earth, the situation couldn't have been more depressing. Where just a few years ago long-line fishermen were pulling out a dozen or so 1.5 meter long reef sharks in a single day, they were now catching almost nothing except a handful of baby sharks over the period of a week.

Having wiped out the sharks in Southern Raja Ampat, most of the shark fishermen had moved on to find new shark fishing grounds. The shark fishermen that remain were now using miles of bottom drift nets instead of lines. These nets scrape off the coral reefs and catch everything in their path including baby sharks, reef fish, turtles, rays and manta rays. The situation had clearly hit rock bottom for sharks and the outlook for the rest of the ecosystem is not good.

After a week of documenting desperate fishermen plunder their dwindling resources, I spent the latter part of my visit filming in the Marine Protected Area surrounding Misool Eco Resort, the very same area I had first encountered the shark finning in. Where only a few years ago no sharks were seen, on many dives I now observed young reef sharks patrolling the walls and reefs, and in the resort bay, up to a dozen juvenile black tip reef sharks hunting in the shallows. The local villages that once fished these waters were now employed at the resort and as rangers. They were partners in the protection of their reefs. Their jobs and the entire marine protected area were funded through dive eco-tourism. A far more sustainable way to profit from the oceans.

This really struck home with me. The unique combination of marine protection, community involvement and sustainable tourism can turn the tide on a seemingly impossible situation, a beacon of hope for our oceans in peril. Even in a short period of time, the transformation can be significant. In addition to stopping certain behaviors, if we just change 'how' we do things and consider the impact of our actions on the environment, we can make a big difference. And the more people that consciously choose to become part of the solution, the more global in scale this impact will be.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Day as "Shark Bait" ?!?

Every time we get the message out there, we are one step closer to saving our sharks. So we always welcome [positive] press.

A follow up to the Planet in Peril piece that featured both Shawn filming and Alison on camera, Nightline decided to do a piece on White Sharks – and the Shark Angels. Sadly, only Alison and I were together – as Kim was busy gearing up for the 2009 Sea Shepherd whaling campaign – though we missed her very much.

You can watch the footage and read about the experience here:

Unfortunately, due to low visibility and howling winds, Nick Watts walked away still afraid of white sharks, as his cage diving experience was not the calm and beautiful one many of us have had where you realize, these sharks are not Jaws. Instead, sharks were appearing right in front of him out of no snapping at bait and hitting the cage where while he got thrown around in the “washing machine” aka cage due to the rough seas, but it was still nice to hear him acknowledge sharks are critical to this planet.

And I love this statement: “And the cage diving? Did it change my mind? Well, I'm probably more scared of sharks now than I ever was. But boy am I impressed by them. I'm on board with the Shark Angels: Let's save the stuff of my nightmares.”

Monday, December 15, 2008

More Tigers Killed... By Fear

There is blood on my hands again. And this time, it is thanks to an archaic fishing technique called Shark Nets.

In this day and age, with all we know about sharks – including their dwindling numbers, their critical role in our ecosystem, their behavior, and the infinitesimal risk they pose to us – it is absolutely appalling that shark nets exist. Shark Nets are a crime against our oceans and our sharks, and they absolutely must be removed.

We spend our lives fighting to save sharks and their thoughtless and purposeless deaths are incredibly disheartening – especially in a country known for shark conservation. In the last month, I know of and have been witness in some cases to 10 such deaths – all tiger sharks – here in Aliwal Shoal, South Africa.

It was the last death that spurred me into desperate action, as I simply couldn’t sit by anymore and watch as our precious Tiger Sharks were being pulled in one by one, day after day, strangled to death. While the team on the ground here (a powerful group of passionate advocates that will remain nameless at this point) had already launched an anti-net campaign, I was, at this point, busy staying in the background and gathering intelligence – interviewing fisherman and dive operators, swimming the nets daily, even visiting Natal Sharks Board headquarters. Already, I knew enough to make my stomach turn – but little did I know, it would get much worse.

The day prior, I had received information that two Tigers – both almost 3 meters – had been caught and killed in the Nets and the death toll was at 8. Since I have been diving in Aliwal for two months and had only seen a single Tiger Shark, my blood boiled to think the nets had killed 800% more sharks than I had seen in that same period. My informant also saw Natal Sharks Board intentionally hide the Tiger Sharks underneath life vests on their boat hoping to avoid any further bad press.

You see, Natal Sharks Board has to hide the truth of the nets, keeping the deaths away from public eye to ensure that popular opinion supporting the nets won’t sway when people witness the true, grisly outcome of the nets - dead dolphins, turtles, and sharks that hardly seem threatening. Just pathetically sad and heart wrenching. Not the stuff our nightmares are made of, the deeply seeded fear Natal Sharks Board draws upon to justify their existence.

They are so desperate to keep their nasty secret, Natal Sharks Board operates in the shadows, removing their kill early in the morning before anyone can see and hiding victims on their boats far from prying eyes, quickly whisking the casualties away to headquarters. Worse, they even abandon their dead catch at sea – to avoid having to report the growing death toll. – only days prior a dead, 3 meter tiger shark with gill net wounds had been found by a fisherman on the Shoal after another fisherman witnessed a large object being thrown from a Sharks’ Board boat. The Sharks’ Board deceit is not without reason – as I am quite certain if the casual observer began learning about all of the destruction in an already fragile environment, Natal Sharks Board would lose ground fast.

And we were about to prove that, firsthand, when I received a call that another Tiger Shark was trapped in the Nets. I raced to the beach hoping to get out there and rescue the shark. By the time I arrived, another passionate shark lover and team member, Steve Benjamin, had attempted to rescue the shark by cutting her out of the net, but she was already dead. He also had called Sharks Board as is the protocol– who arrived at the same time I did. However, the Sharks Board boat refused to take the shark onto their boat regardless of protocol or constant pleas from Steve to take the Shark. Steve, confused, was not going to leave the shark at sea, so he told me to get ready - he had to bring the shark ashore then re-launch to return to work. Steve is a skipper for Blue Wilderness, run by Mark and Gail Addison – some of the best friends the sharks of South Africa have.

Paul grabbed his camera, as I raced down to the beach to help Steve land. As soon as he approached I saw the two-meter beautiful Tiger Shark lying stiffly on the side of the boat and the anger welled up inside me. Here was a shark no older than a year or two killed by ignorance at a time when her population was already greatly threatened.

Waves broke over me as I tried to wrestle the shark to the beach while holding back the tears welling up inside. I couldn’t help but recall my days at Tiger Beach surrounded by Begonia and Mini-T – sharks just like her. Her rough, lifeless skin scraped my arms and legs raw as I strained to keep her from floating out to sea. No one would help me. While she was a small tiger, she was still quite heavy and I battled to dig my feet deep into the sand with the pouring rain only complicating matters. Mother Nature was weeping no doubt. Finally, another kind Blue Wilderness team member showed up, and together, with a winch, we dragged the shark to higher ground.

There she lay on the sand, a perfect Tiger Shark specimen, her eyes sunken, blood running from her orifices. My fingers traced the tell-tale marks seared into her head – gill nets had strangled her and suffocated to death. Opening her mouth, I saw her small teeth were no bigger than my fingernails and I knew she was too young to have learned the avoidance techniques many older sharks have learned. Ironically, over 40% of sharks are caught on the reverse sides of the nets meaning they have avoided them on the way in, as the nets are not truly effective barriers. And, many of the sharks caught are juveniles – barely old enough to be a threat to squid, let alone bathers on the beach.

Why had another shark been killed here?

I spun around and saw, as I usually do, only the occasional fisherman, person walking on the beach or boater. This area was a launch site for boaters and dive operators – and not a beach that swimmers and bathers used. Yet a net was installed here anyway, keeping the sand and driftwood safe, I suppose.

I spent the next hour fighting with the Sharks Board as I begged for them to take their shark. The shark they killed. They refused. Someone at headquarters had unwittingly instructed them not to touch the shark – though this public display was the exact thing they try and avoid. Seizing the opportunity, I began educating the large crowd that formed about tiger sharks, the nets, and how this the poor little shark had died. As soon as beach goers happened upon the beautiful shark, there was disgust, outrage, frustration and sadness. Never fear. This was the first time they were able to see the results of the nets – seemingly sterile and non-threatening, or so the Sharks Board would have you believe. And instantly, each reached a common consensus: the nets must go. Only one lone fisherman opposed, screaming that this was my fault (many people, and typically fisherman, ignorantly accuse shark divers of killing sharks by interacting with them with bait and thus, making them more apt to attack people) and that the beach needed protection from me and these sharks. “When was the last shark attack on this beach?” I screamed back, furious. He could answer because to date, and well before the nets, there have been NO shark attacks here. Not a single one – bait or no bait.

It wasn’t until the other fisherman arrived, landing their boats after a day at sea that my sadness and anger turned to desperation. They marched up to the shark and started coldly inspecting her fins and jaws – kicking her belly. I knew what they were going to do and I started yelling “You are not taking this shark. Not her fins and not her jaws. You will not touch her.” There were many of them and I began fearing the worst. This magnificent creature was ruthlessly murdered, Sharks Board refused to take any responsibility, and now, the opportunistic fisherman were going to cut her up to take her valuable fins and jaws. “Are you really going to let them do this? The blood is on your conscious.” I screamed at the Sharks Board crew while trying to drag her to safety and fend off the fisherman.

Someone at headquarters finally wised up and realized that what was happening was not doing them any favors and gave the order to remove the shark – just in time. This was the first time they had experienced such a blatant display of anti-nets sentiment to my knowledge, and it took a foreigner and a some passionate, and bold folks from a Tiger Shark dive operation, Blue Wilderness, to do it. This was long overdue – and it was time for someone to stand up against the nets in a real way.

Ironically, I was later informed that the rumors were flying : not only had I reportedly killed the shark to get publicity but that I was also under investigation by Marine Coastal Management for killing a protected animal. And, that I (not to mention the whole team) have been labeled as a vigilante and I better watch my back.

The politics of sharks in South Africa - not unlike everywhere else - are completely disheartening – nor will I fall victim to fear mongering and intimidation. Sadly, many of the rumors originated from individuals who are supposed to care about sharks – reportedly other Dive Operators and Shark NGO’s based here in South Africa. I guess they care more about getting into the limelight than making sure no more sharks are killed.

But, we are above politics and care about one thing - and it isn't our egos. So best find a new source of income, Natal Sharks Board, because the people of South Africa and the world are going to choose live sharks over dead ones.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Back Where It All Began

We just pulled up to West End Bahamas on the Shear Water with Jim. Later today we move up to Tiger Beach where our Shark Angels team first came together. This is like a homecoming for me...I can't wait. Julie, Kim and Alison I will be thinking of you when our lady (Emma) hopefully shows up. I am sure the Tigers will miss you as much as you miss them.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Welcome to Shark Angels

This is a great day for the Shark Angels! The new site went live today and I am so proud of the entire team for everything they have done to get us here. Special thanks goes out to Julie and Paul Wildman for making this website happen! And as an added bonus, our very own Angel Alison was featured on CNN's Planet In Peril in a major segment on shark conservation. 

Today the movement takes a step forward and starts to build momentum. I can't wait till we have 10's of thousands of new angels in our ranks!