Reluctantly, Grant Smith rolled backwards off the boat into the pea-green sea. Splosh! It was a particularly gloomy overcast day at Protea Banks. Hardly ideal conditions at the dive site, a Marine Protected Area 8km off the KwaZulu-Natal coast, legendary for its array of top predators.
Trevor Krull, the captain and Smith’s uncle, had ordered him to swim down to see if the water at the bottom was clearer. Down he went, through the murky green water, alone and barely able to make out his own fins. Then, perhaps an arm’s length below him, a massive hunk of grey glided by.
Smith stared into the Zambezi shark’s (Carcharhinus leucas) eye as she swam beneath him. Once she (size is a clue to sex; females tend to be bigger) had passed, he hurried down to the seafloor, hoping for the safety of clearer water. But, it was a murky, pea-green there too. He peered up to see the silhouettes of five bulky Zambezis spiralling towards him.
As a child, a fear of sharks kept him out of the sea, but now, at 42, Smith’s life revolves around the very creatures that gave him nightmares. A co-founder of the conservation and advocacy organisation, SharkLife, Smith dives daily with the predators that once haunted him.
He spends much of his time researching sharks, to better understand their behaviour and how they might be protected. And he encourages others to learn more about marine science including through SharkLife’s education centre, online courses and internships.
It’s been some journey, from shark phobia to shark philia.
Smith remembers at the age of 10 watching Jaws at a Durban beachfront cinema. “I’m never going back in the water,” he vowed after the show, the Steven Spielberg thriller about a monstrous great white shark hungry for human flesh.
And there were other childhood experiences that deepened his fear.
He tells of visiting his uncle as a boy and how Krull, at the time employed by the Natal (later KwaZulu-Natal) Sharks Board, would return from daily net inspections with dead sharks retrieved from the culling devices. “My sister and I used to jump on the back of the Sharks Board’s (Land) Cruiser and poke the shark’s eyes. That in combination with watching Jaws really turned sharks into villains for me.
“I was scared to death of sharks after watching that movie,” Smith said.
Jaws, based on a novel with the same name by author Peter Benchley, became a global hit after its 1975 release. The film is notorious for ratcheting up a terror of sharks totally out of touch with reality.
Benchley would later see the light and commit his life to shark conservation, work he continued until his death from lung disease, at 65, in 2006. But his shark activism was unable to stem the tide of fear his novel and the film released and sharks remain demons in the eyes of many — including for some time, Smith.
Like Benchley, he too became an advocate for shark conservation. It took a while though, and a career switch from IT to daily diving to transform his fear into fascination.
IT nerd gives London the bird
Back in 2004 Smith got a call from Krull. The nephew was working under London’s leaden skies in an IT management job. Would he, his uncle asked, care to chuck in the corporate world in favour of the big blue (and the sometimes pea-green) waters of KwaZulu-Natal and to work with an entirely different variety of men in grey suits?
Krull had established a shark diving tourism business, African Odyssea, and was looking for help to expand. The younger man needed little convincing and was soon leading local and international divers to see Zambezi sharks, ragged-tooth sharks and scalloped hammerheads.
Journey to defending sharks
Smith dived with sharks daily while working for his uncle and developed a deep compassion for these often vilified and misunderstood creatures.
He would return from dives to witness fishermen on the beach hacking the jaws out of individual sharks he had come to know intimately.
“The only good shark was a dead shark, was what most people thought at the time,” Smith said of the pervading attitude among fishermen towards sharks.
Appalled by the butchery, and driven to tackle shark trophy fishing near the dive sites they frequented, Smith and Krull established SharkLife as a non-profit organisation in 2005.
By then, Krull had a bellyful of what men do to sharks. In his work for the Sharks Board, he had been responsible for removing sharks caught in the nets and witnessed first-hand what he came to view as an unjust slaughter.
The board was formed in 1962 in the wake of “Black December”, a spell from December 1957 through to April the following year when at least nine shark attacks were recorded on the province’s coast. Its aim was to prevent attacks — which had spooked tourists, crippling the many businesses that depended on them — by putting drum lines and shark nets at bathing beaches. Eventually, nets or drum lines were installed at 38 beaches along KwaZulu-Natal’s 320km coast.
Drum lines use large baited hooks suspended from anchored floats (or drums) to catch large predators like sharks. Shark nets are less selective. Apart from sharks, the nets, called “curtains of death” by critics, catch and kill large marine animals including dolphins, turtles and even whales. The purpose of these nets is often misunderstood. They offer little by way of direct protection for bathers because rather than extending from the seafloor to the surface, they hang in mid-water. The real effectiveness comes as a culling device rather than a barrier.
From 1978 to 2009, an average of 1,465 species of large predatory sharks and 606 other species were caught each year through Sharks Board measures. Other species included critically endangered white-spotted wedgefish (Rhynchobatus djiddensis) and vulnerable loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta), leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) and Indo-Pacfic humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis). The Sharks Board’s website explains that their mitigation measures reduced shark numbers because fewer sharks mean less chance of attacks. In fairness to the board though, over the past 15 years or so, it has increasingly switched to drumlines, significantly reducing its bycatch of harmless, non-shark species.
At the time of SharkLife’s launch, shark conservation awareness was in its infancy in South Africa. The world’s ears first pricked up to the impact of fisheries on sharks and their close relatives, chimaeras and rays, in 1991 when the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission founded the Shark Specialist Group. “It was a difficult time to get traction and buy-in when we launched SharkLife in 2005 because it just wasn’t on people’s radars that sharks needed conserving,” recalled Smith.
SharkLife’s mission was to tackle the alarming exploitation of shark populations and ocean fisheries in South African waters.
Sharks are exceptionally vulnerable to overfishing. Often at the top or close to the top of the food chain, sharks play a vital role in regulating the populations of their prey. Removing sharks from ecosystems has serious and often unpredictable consequences. Typically sharks are slow-growing, only able to reproduce late in their lives, and have few babies. For these reasons, overfished shark populations can’t bounce back quickly when the fishing pressure is removed. Some scientists think if science-based fishing limits were stuck to strictly, sustainable shark fishing would be possible, but Smith doubts whether the necessary research could be completed in time to inform limits and effective policy. Across all oceans, tens of millions of sharks are caught and traded each year. Many populations are overfished — to the point where the global catch peaked in 2003, and a quarter of shark species have an elevated risk of extinction.
SharkLife counts getting the shark nets removed from Rocky Bay, about 60km south of Durban, in 2014, as its greatest achievement.
At the time, nets had been at Rocky Bay for more than 30 years and there was considerable inertia to changing this.
“It was a slow process and took us five years to do. None of the authorities really wanted to touch the matter,” said Smith. “You can understand if they take the nets out and there is a shark incident, who is to blame?”
SharkLife successfully argued that a natural barrier of rocky outcrops around the bathing beach at Rocky Bay greatly reduced the risk of sharks and bathers meeting. Sharks Board records showed that in an average year less than one great white, one Zambezi shark and three tiger sharks were caught in the nets and that harmless species from nearby Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area made up 80% of the catch.
Surveys by SharkLife at Rocky Bay beach indicated that 82% of beachgoers would still go to the beach if the nets were removed, while 70% would still go to the beach if there was an attack. These findings helped secure the removal of the nets.
Get ‘em while they’re young
SharkLife does more than advocate for sharks. They educate young people, helping to foster an understanding and respect for sharks in South Africans, especially among local school children through their outreach ocean education centre at Sodwana Bay, on the northern KwaZulu-Natal coast.
They also train local and international university and college students. For hands-on shark science and conservation experience, SharkLife offers internships. And by collaborating with scientists and universities, South African students have been able to do research projects through SharkLife and learn about shark behaviour first-hand.
It also has a range of online shark awareness and research courses that are freely available both locally and internationally.
Innovative funding solutions
Like most not-for-profits, SharkLife struggles with funding. Before Covid, ecotourism projects helped keep the organisation afloat, but SharkLife has had to adapt. Membership fees help cover costs but the organisation has branched out into accepting cryptocurrency donations through a new fundraising platform, Wildcards. A blockchain-based fundraising organisation, it lets funders support SharkLife by becoming the guardians to virtual animal cards of species SharkLife helps conserve in real life. Every month, guardians make subscription donations to SharkLife while they are the guardians of their virtual animal cards. SharkLife will use these donations to continue research and education and to give people first-hand shark behaviour and science experience.
Smith learnt a lot about shark behaviour on that overcast day at the Protea Banks. More than 30m down in the pea-green water the Zambezi sharks sensed his distress. They circled down rapidly for a closer look. All he had was a buoy line — a reel of cord attached to a float bobbing on the surface to let the boat captain know his position.
“I’m kneeling on the bottom and they [the Zambezi sharks] start swimming towards me. I wave my buoy line at them, I manage to touch one of them on the tail and just like that, they all flee,” Smith recalls.
Bubbles of death
“On the way back up to the surface, it was quite terrifying. I couldn’t just swim straight up to the top; I had to swim slowly and take safety stops,” Smith said.
This was necessary to allow the nitrogen that accumulates in the body during plus 30m dives to be released. Nitrogen accumulation results from breathing compressed air. If Smith had swum up too quickly nitrogen bubbles would form in his blood and could wreak all kinds of havoc with his body, from joint pain to paralysis and even death.
Physically unscathed, Smith made it back on board. He reckons it was a valuable learning experience. “Sharks aren’t just going to bite you and you’ve got a good chance of pushing them away. The experience really taught me a lot about how you can control situations with sharks,” he said.
Rather than the killing machines we know from Jaws and our own, too vivid, imaginations, might sharks simply be curious creatures?
And maybe, if we can learn to keep our fears in check when they come circling, we will all be alright — man and shark.
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are an important tool in shark and ray conservation. MPAs are closed or partly closed to fishing, protecting sharks and other marine life and promoting the biodiversity that our oceans depend upon. But there are not enough MPAs and many are too small to protect certain wide-ranging species.
Conservationists worldwide have been calling for the proclamation of more MPAs and to extend existing ones while making more resources available for their protection.
South Africa has 41 MPAs but these protected areas make up only 5% of our coastline. That’s a pity because studies have shown that MPAs have a great positive impact, not only on the marine life found in the area but also on surrounding communities and the economy of the area.
To raise awareness about the importance of marine protected areas, the first ever Marine Protected Areas photographic competition — to put people in the picture about the value of conserving our ocean environment — is under way in South Africa. DM/OBP
This story forms part of a biodiversity reporting project supported by the Earth Journalism Network. Roving Reporters Ocean Watch correspondent Rio Button is a marine biologist, commercial diver and surfer. She has a Masters of Science degree in Conservation Biology from the University of Cape Town. She is also the chief conservation officer at Wildcards.
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