The pool has dried up, and the fish is in trouble.
South African Proverb
Fish indeed are in trouble and so are elasmobranchs—the fancy scientific word for sharks. According to SaveAnimalsFacingExtinction.org, 11,417 sharks are killed every hour. Shark finning (clipping the fin off a small shark for shark fin soup, then dumping the fatally handicapped animal back into the water) continues daily.
For two weeks in July, 2016, I joined the South Africa Shark Conservancy (SASC) in Hermanus, South Africa, to assist in their research in catching, tagging, and releasing small sharks that populate the shallow shores of the Walker Bay Nature Reserve. The data gathered in Walker Bay feeds into an international databank. Scientists worldwide can access this shared information.
This expedition was sponsored by Earthwatch Institute, headquartered in Boston, MA. For forty-five years, Earthwatch has connected citizen scientists with leading researchers around the world to join in hands-on studies designed to improve the health of the planet. I’d trained as a biologist as an undergraduate and graduate school and missed hands on ecology.
Working with three ‘Shark Women’—SASC founder Meaghen (Meg) McCord, scientist Katie Gledhill, and Tamzyn Zweig—our volunteer team (me and Jeanne Suttie, an 8th grade teacher from Long Island, New York) fished for the smaller sharks to measure, tag, and release.
We spent one stormy day at the Shark Conservancy of South Africa watching footage of an underwater camera or processing shark fin pieces into sample vials for genetic data. We catalogued the results of our 29 June 2016 GoPro recording session outside the New Harbor. Excitement: a soupfin shark appeared on this video after several hours of tedious watching and recording results. I’d never fished in my life before but in and around Walker Bay, I caught three sharks: one soupfin shark and two pyjama shark, tagged them, clipped a miniscule fin sample for genetic studies.
“Hurry, hurry, all this will still be here,” said shopkeeper Lorraine of the Lembu Gallery when the Whale Crier’s horn sounded. She shooed me out to the cliffs where I sighted three southern right whales spouting in the protected waters of the Nature Reserve.
A protected marine sanctuary, Walker Bay offers a whale watcher’s heaven where one can follow the southern right whales as they birth their offspring and mate. Humpback whales from Antarctica make an appearance here as well (we witnessed them waving their signature tail flip at us). Whale watching season occurs during the southern hemisphere winter, July through October. Hermanus, a small tourist town, even has its own Whale Crier who alerts everyone with his circle horn when whales enter the bay.
We tripped over to Ganns Baai, a hotbed of the Great Whites. In what seemed a natural sequence of events, I joined a boatload of millennials (and one fifty-year-old) in white shark cage diving. About 15 minutes off shore, we met with seven large (six to nine feet in length) white sharks swimming around our boat. The sharks were not that scary, but plunging into the 60-degree waters in the submerged metal cage was. Even with a double wide wet suit, the water temperature sapped my breath.
Great Whites are a protected species, cannot be fed, but this tourist venue chummed the waters (dumping chopped up fish/bait around the boat) and teased the sharks toward the cage. Maybe not so “ethical.”
Overall, the Earthwatch expedition allowed me to contribute to the knowledge of this world in purposeful way by aiding these scientists in their quest for knowledge about all sharks, big and small.