Sharks are Great on TV, Better in Real LifeJuly 29, 2019
As SeaWorld Orlando was preparing to launch their “Mako” rollercoaster, they reached out to the GHRI, which maintains one of the longest running mako shark satellite tagging programs in the world. With SeaWorld’s support, the GHRI has greatly expanded our knowledge of this apex predator, tracking them in the Atlantic Ocean as far north as Newfoundland, as far south as Brazil, and as far east as the Azores. But most notably, since researchers are able to follow where these fish move, we were able to definitively see when one of our tagged fish was caught and taken back to port.
With over 100 satellite tagged mako sharks swimming around the western North Atlantic Ocean, over 30% of these sharks were caught and killed. This fishing mortality rate is 10 times higher than what was previously thought and well beyond a sustainable extraction rate. These data prompted fisheries managers to downgrade shortfin mako sharks to overfished, with overfishing occurring; add them to the Endangered Species List; and set new limits for commercial and recreational harvest.
This work by GHRI and SeaWorld has resulted in much needed protections for a highly targeted and highly valuable shark species. While mako sharks are a big focus of the GHRI, the group has also studied tiger sharks, oceanic whitetip sharks, hammerhead sharks, silky sharks and, the public’s favorite, the white shark.
Most recently, the GHRI led a team of researchers that successfully decoded the white shark genome. Since sharks have low incidences of cancer and remarkable wound healing ability, traits that have led to their success as a species for over 450 million years, understanding their genetic make-up could have huge implications on human health. This work is ongoing.
As prolific and diverse the GHRI shark work is, the organization is only studying a few of the over 400 species of sharks that currently inhabit our oceans. And many more are in need of better understanding and increased protection.
The first step towards increasing protection for these animals, is raising awareness of their importance to our planet. As most people know, apex predators like sharks have a very important ecological role in regulating the entire ecosystem below them. Plus, as our white shark study has proven, sharks may also have direct benefits to human health. There is much we still do not know about our oceans and its inhabitants so it is doubly important to conserve these resources before irreparable damage is done.
People conserve what they understand and care about. Animals on land have a huge advantage over sea animals in this area since people have direct access to them, while sea life is difficult to access and their environment is foreign to humans. Hollywood does an additional disservice to sharks by portraying them on screen as ferocious man-eaters. However, given the huge numbers of people that enter the ocean each day, plus our interactions diving with them in the open ocean, that is not the case.
As exciting as it can be to see footage of sharks on television, there is no experience quite like getting face to face with these magnificent animals in real life. As we conduct our research, we dive with sharks to study, document and film them. Additionally, seeing these animals up close in their natural environment is vital to the authenticity of my artwork. I encourage everyone to get in the water with sharks to see first-hand how incredible these animals are.
I am fortunate that my career has allowed me to dive with many species of sharks all over the world but most people do not get the opportunity to do this. Parks like SeaWorld and Discovery Cove allow the public to get up close and personal to animals that the majority of people will never see in the wild, including sharks.
The shark dive at Discovery Cove is a favorite of mine that can be done by any level of experienced swimmer. This program offers opportunities to interact with common sharks like the Pacific blacktip, whitetip reef and nurse sharks to more unique species like the zebra shark, epaulette shark and spotted wobbegong sharks. Guests can see first-hand how diverse these species are and that sharks are not a big threat to humans.
As the world celebrates sharks this week, it is important to remember that sharks are not ferocious man-eaters, there are many more species out there besides the white shark, and sharks are vital to our ocean ecosystem, and potentially, human health.
And if you ever have the opportunity, get in the water with them at Discovery Cove!