After almost a month here at Oceans, I have learned that there is absolutely nothing about working with sharks that will ever get old. Whether its assisting small benthic sharks through a maze, observing predator-prey relationships, taking pictures, recording and entering data, getting wet, being cold, hauling the anchor, bait-roping, tying bait heads, bagging hundreds of pounds of fish heads, or crushing sardines with hands and feet.
With good reason, you may wonder what one might find attractive about being elbow deep in fish guts. Particularly with sardines, because they are so oily, it takes days to remove the smell from your hands, and your clothes are more likely to decompose than ever smell fresh again. For me, this smell is more inviting than any perfume. Its not that creating fish-gut soup is my favourite activity in itself (although, at this point, I’m pretty much an expert). The thing is, at Oceans, you learn that the smell of dead fish means chum, and chum means Great Whites.
The feeling I get every time I see a Great White is no different than the feeling of excitement, awe, and utter astonishment I felt when I first saw one: Peering over the edge of our boat ‘Cheetah’ into the murky blue-green ocean I saw a shadow deep in the water. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, but as I continued staring the shadow started to take shape. Large triangular wings protruded from the expertly shaded 3.5 meter long torpedo-shaped body. The powerful caudal tail moved only slightly as it propelled this marvel of evolution through the water with seemingly unprecedented efficiency. The shark cruised casually by the boat and eyed the bait-fish floating nearby. My jaw dropped. I had to shake my head and pinch myself. I’ve seen countless documentaries and pictures, but nothing compares to seeing this animal in real life. Its absolutely surreal - almost as if it doesn’t belong in this place or this time. It is a prehistoric leviathan, more effective than any of its ancient relatives and so well equipped that it has been able to defy nature’s merciless ways for millions of years. For me, seeing a great white is like staring into the past.
The shark was so amazing and so beautiful that I wanted to jump in the water and swim with it. Thankfully, my usually absent voice of reason chimed in and reminded me that this was still a powerful apex predator and it would probably not be too thrilled with being hugged by some starry-eyed human.
Since that first sighting, every time I see a Great White my appreciation and admiration grows. I am constantly witnessing new behaviours and new personalities. Different sharks show different levels of aggression, interest, and effort, and they all have different strategies for attacking the bait-head. Bait-roping is the strategy we use to bring the shark to the surface so that we can get photo identification and note defining characteristics. The idea is to pull the large fish head out of the water before the shark is able to bite it. Sharks come from different directions at different speeds making bait-roping one of the most intense jobs on the water. Imagine holding a rope attached to a fish that is floating in the water a few feet from the boat. The visibility in the water is less than two meters. You know there is a shark around, so you can’t take your eye off the bait. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, you see a nose, then mouth, then eyes of a Great White coming in from the left. You pull the fish out of the water just in time as the shark opens its mouth and lunges slowly. Two minutes later the shark comes from the right, a little faster this time, you pull the fish out just in time again. This isn’t so hard. The shark disappears for several minutes. Then, faster than you can react, a massive set of jaws with countless razor sharp teeth speeds in from directly below and crushes your bait. Momentum carries the monstrous shark halfway out of the water before it crashes back and starts to barrel roll, flailing its tail and splashing everyone on the boat. In a few seconds the shark is gone and you are left only with the pathetically frayed ends of your rope. Did I just get outsmarted by a fish? No, you were outsmarted by a Great White. Incredible.
I came to Oceans because I have always been simultaneously fascinated and terrified of sharks. After my time here, my fascination is through the roof, my respect is unparalleled, and my fear is non-existent. Many people have a negative image of sharks because they don’t understand them. The media likes to make sharks appear like dangerous killers because they’re top predators in a realm that is mysterious and foreign to us. Here at Oceans, we study what sharks eat, when they eat, where they go and when, what they do, how they behave, and how they think. After only a month, I feel closer to sharks than ever. I have a newfound understanding of their intricacies, personalities, and objectives. Its like with anything: the more you understand something, the less apprehension you have towards it. I now understand fully that the shark is a marvel of nature that should not be feared, but should be embraced and protected.