masters of the deep: a week with great white sharks

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One of the world’s most powerful predators, she is a shadow in the deep.

Her sense of smell is so acute, she can detect a single drop of blood within 100 feet.

Not only can she detect the electric pulse of a beating heart, but she has exceptional hearing and possesses special organs along her body that can sense the direction and movement of objects around her.

She is a creature evolved to thrive, evolved to perfection in her world…

And she is critically endangered.

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Weighing up to 7000 lbs and measuring up to over 6 metres, she is the Great White Shark.

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There is no word better to describe an encounter than simply awe, but she has been villainized by media and mercilessly hunted for her fins.

73 billion sharks are killed each year. It is a massacre and a grand tragedy, for in the week I had the privilege to observe her kind, I felt I was in the presence of kings.

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The sheer power and agility of these animals demands respect – they are masters of their domain, after all, evolution and survival have commanded it – but they are tragically misunderstood.

They are not man-eating beasts, nor do their fins possess magical abilities to heal. The opposite, in fact, is quite true. The water pollution has contaminated the food chain with heavy metals, and as a top predator, the mercury concentration in their tissue is high – so high, in fact, it is unsafe for human consumption.

As for man-eating, one is more likely to succumb due to improper use of a toaster than a “shark attack”. Even in the rare event that the latter is the case, there are behavioural traits that beg to be understood:

Great Whites are intelligent, curious animals. Where we have hands to pick up an object we don’t yet understand, they have only their mouths. It just so happens they have a lot of teeth, too, and very powerful jaws.

While on the boat observing the sharks while others enjoyed the view from the cage, as exciting as it was to see the young feisty ones perform breaches trying to catch the bait, it was even more fascinating to watch the delicacy with which some of the larger sharks attempted to “sample” the decoy. They would glide up and try for nibble – just to see what it was.

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We see the Hollywood-style breaches and open jaws. We hear about fishermen who manage to wrangle these “beasts”, but we don’t often get to see them in their ordinary lives.

I spent a day at sea out of Gansbaai, South Africa, during my week of volunteering with the marine conservation trust. In the company of a shark-specializing marine biologist and seasoned skipper, we tracked a 4 metre male for over 5 hours. It was like a game of hide and seek where we learned how to use the equipment and distract ourselves from looming seasickness in the big swells.

Though their migratory patterns can cover vast distances, their day-to-day routines are generally fairly predictable within a given season, and this particular shark was no exception. He spent hours patrolling the reef, presumably for large fish, and with an eye up for passing seals.

There was an attempted predation some 500m off our port-side bow and a brief visit from the sea patrol confirming that we weren’t poachers, and just the steady beep of the hydrometre, confirming that we were still in range of our fish-friend, recording his depth, GPS location, and surrounding temperature.

Every piece of data collected contributes to understanding the movement and behaviour of these animals, and to have a better glimpse into their real lives. Perhaps with greater understanding, we can garner greater respect as well and appreciate the worth of these animals while they’re still alive.

To see some shark tracking in progress worldwide, check out: http://sharks-ocearch.verite.com/
Or visit http://www.ocearch.com to learn more or see how you can help.

You can also support marine research, penguin conservation or have a volunteer experience of your own with Marine Dynamics here: http://www.sharkwatchsa.com

It is an experience you will never forget.

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5 responses to “masters of the deep: a week with great white sharks

  1. I knew you have to meet Rob Stewart !
    Did you actually swim too ??
    It will be awesome up see you when you return !
    Safe travels , love , norah

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