It’s a humbling experience when you come across something that puts your life a little bit more into perspective. Today, it was an up-close encounter with a nine foot lemon shark that gave me a sharp reminder of how fragile we actually are in an ocean that is truly immense.
So ‘Piti nui ma’o? Aita pe’a pe’a!’ translates (I hope) into: Two big sharks? No problem!
Although I don’t believe I was in any real danger and while I’m sure the sharks’ intentions were mainly curiosity, there is still the sense of awe and tinge of fear that strikes when two big lemons start circling a group of divers and then follow them for an hour-long dive. Initially, our plan for the dive today was to check out a new dive site at the fore reef and take photos of the vast array of parrotfishes that my advisor, Andy, had seen on his last dive out there. So this afternoon, after a delicious dock BBQ to celebrate Labor Day, we packed our gear into one of the boats and set off in the direction of the new site. The day was beautiful, sunny, and very hot. Once we reached the site, all six of us jumped in the water and made our descent to around forty feet in search of parrotfish. Almost right away our paths crossed with a black-tip reef shark, probably around four or five feet long. His interest in us was brief. Our presence, and likely the sound of our bubbles, was enough to send him cruising along the reef past us and then quickly out of sight.
We continued taking pictures of the various fishes and scoping out the reef, coming across other black-tips, large parrotfishes, and other reef animals. However, I noticed the situation changed when I felt the agitation in the black-tip reef sharks surrounding us. That’s when I looked up to see the lemon shark make herself known. She lazily cruised past us, slow enough that we could clearly see the size and girth of her body. As she circled us, she’d steadily come in and out of our field of vision. It was also then that I noticed a second lemon shark approach and then slowly circle us.
While everyone’s eyes were on the first lemon that arrived, I made sure to keep a lookout for the second. Not that any kind of aggression by the sharks were present, but I figured it’s probably best to have eyes on all large elasmobranchs in the area. (Elasmobranchs refer to the cartilaginous fishes including sharks, skates, and rays. It is actually a subclass to the Class Chondrichthyes, which include all cartilaginous fish.) However, the second lemon didn’t seem as interested in us, and after a brief glance he continued along the reef, disappearing into the vast blue water as swiftly as he appeared.
The first lemon held her interest. After a while of watching the shark, who was concurrently watching us, we continued our dive along the reef. At times I thought maybe she lost interest, but a couple minutes later I’d see her swim alongside us, though slightly off in the distance. Only a couple of times did she come pretty close, but again, I think it was a combination of curiosity along with the fact that lemon sharks are occasionally fed by the local dive operations in the area to attract tourists.
Those of you who know me are likely aware that this isn’t my first encounter with a big shark. An academic study-abroad trip to Fiji gave me the incredible opportunity to come up close and even more personal with a variety of sharks, including black-tips, grey reef sharks, nurse sharks, and the daunting bull sharks. In Fiji, the shark dives were conducted through a local dive operator, which also performed shark feedings in order to attract the local sharks and subsequently the scuba divers. The controversy with shark feedings remains a concern among marine conservationists. On one hand, shark feedings attract divers eager to see and interact with an incredible ocean animal. It gets people interested in sharks – hopefully interested in protecting them as well as in understanding their role as drivers of a healthy ocean.
On the other hand, shark feedings likely alter the behavior of local shark populations. To what extent is still uncertain, but an animal as intelligent as a shark (yes, sharks are quite smart) can remember and learn from their experiences and can attribute the sound of a boat engine to the reminder of food. Equating people with food is probably not something we want all the sharks to know…
My perspective? At the moment, I believe that shark populations are in danger. Humans currently kill over one hundred million sharks every single year. The majority of these sharks are killed for a single purpose – to make shark fin soup. Unfortunately for sharks, shark fin soup is considered an Asian delicacy and symbol of wealth. The only parts of the shark needed are the fins, so sharks are brought to the surface, their fins are removed with a knife, and their bodies, still alive, are tossed back into the water where they sink, starve, and drown. It’s horrific. It doesn’t make me happy to write about, but I believe that everybody needs to know that this is going on and be a part of the solution to end it. Scientists estimate that over 90% of all large sharks are gone from the ocean. What other kind of statistic do we need until people realize we actually have the capability of altering life in the ocean?
Once I get started on sharks, it’s hard for me to stop! They are such impeccable predators and it’s a shame that our fear of them has been yet another step to their decline. But things can always change, and things are currently changing now. Countries around the world are realizing the value of sharks, though largely due to the profits they reap from attracting tourists and divers. Palau, the Marshall Islands, the Maldives, Honduras, and others have implemented shark sanctuaries that ban all commercial and recreational shark fishing. Other places around the world, including Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, and recently California, have laws banning the sale and trade of all shark fin products. It’s all a step in a better direction for sharks. What we need is more awareness and education about them. So at the moment, I believe that these shark feedings are okay as long as the operators and divers understand the limits.
So there’s my perspective! While I felt safe in the water today with the lemon shark, I was also very aware of my own limitations. We are still visitors when we jump into the water and descend into the ocean realm. The earliest known shark scales were found around 420 million years ago – two million years before flowering plants evolved on land. Sharks have been the top predators of the ocean for longer than flowers have been on Earth! Wow, I think that that’s just something pretty remarkable.
So there’s some things I like to say about sharks. There’s so much more I could say about them, things I haven’t even touched the surface on – their remarkable senses, physiology, immunity to cancer… and more! But there’s always more to learn. I think that’s why I love science so much, there are always more questions to ask, and always more ways to be enthralled by life.