Curious creatures under persecution
July 26, 2021 · 8 min read
From having a deep fear of sharks to defending them.
Reluctant, Grant Smith tumbled backwards off the boat into the pea green sea, splosh! It was a particularly gloomy overcast day at Protea Banks dive site. The site, 8 km off South Africa’s east coast, is legendary for its array of top predators. The captain, his boss and uncle Trevor Krull, instructed Grant to swim down to see if the water at the bottom was clearer. Down he swam, through the murky green water, all alone, and barely able to make out his own fins. Then just an arms-length below him a massive hunk of grey swam by. He vividly recalls staring into the bull shark’s eye as she swam beneath him. Once she’d passed, in a flurry he motored down to what he hoped would be the safety of clearer water on the seafloor. But, it was murky pea green down there too. He peered up to see the silhouettes of bulky bulls sharks rapidly spiralling down towards him.
A fear of sharks kept Grant out of the sea for a portion of his childhood. Now, he dives daily with the big sharks that once haunted him and is the co-founder of a shark conservation organisation, Sharklife. The organisation researches sharks to help understand how to better protect them, advocates for them, and teaches locals and internationals about marine science and conservation through online courses, their education centre and internships.
London tech nerd becomes South African shark conservationist
To help expand his uncle Trevor’s shark diving tourism business, African Odyssea, Grant left his corporate London IT job and returned home to Durban, South Africa. Working for his uncle, Grant led local and international divers on deep dives to see bull sharks, ragged-tooth sharks and scalloped hammerheads. Trevor had witnessed the unjust slaughter of sharks first hand. Employed by the Natal Sharks Board it was Trevor’s responsibility to remove the sharks caught by the shark nets daily. Shark nets catch and kill large marine animals including dolphins, turtles and even whales, as well as sharks. Shark nets don’t offer complete protection from shark attacks as they don’t extend from the seafloor to the surface but rather hang in the mid-water, the idea is that they will kill many sharks meaning that there are fewer sharks and thus less chance of attacks. Grant remembers visiting his uncle as a kid “my sister and I used to jump on the back of the Sharks Board’s Cruiser [Land Cruiser — a 4x4 vehicle] and poke the shark’s eyes, that in combination with watching Jaws really turned sharks into villains for me.”
“I’m never going back in the water,” Grant, aged 10, had vowed after just watching Jaws at a beachfront cinema in Durban. Jaws a film about a monstrous great white shark hungry for human flesh became a hit globally after it was released in 1975. Later in life, the author of Jaws, Peter Benchley, realised the global fear of sharks he’d instilled and the killing spree of sharks that he had unintentionally incited. He went on to commit his life to shark conservation until he died of lung disease at age 65 in 2006. But his shark activism efforts never did neutralise the demonisation of sharks Jaws had ingrained into the minds of so many. “I was literally scared to death of sharks after watching that movie,” Grant said but like Peter, Grant too turned his life around to advocate for shark conservation.
The journey to defending sharks
Grant dived with sharks daily while working for his uncle’s dive operation. He would get back from dives and see fishermen on the beach hacking the jaws out of individual sharks he knew intimately from diving with them so often. Grant and Trevor were appalled and distressed at the fate of these curious creatures they knew so well. “A good shark was a dead shark, was what most people thought at the time,” Grant explains.
Motivated to tackle trophy fishing for sharks near the dive sites they frequented, Grant and Trevor established Sharklife in 2005. “There wasn’t shark conservation awareness even globally yet. It was a difficult time to get traction and buy-in because it just wasn’t on people’s radars that sharks needed conserving,” Grant says. Sharklife’s mission is to actively address the alarming exploitation of shark populations and ocean fisheries in South African waters.
A large male bull shark investigates Sharklife researchers during a field trip studying bull shark populations in Mozambique.
Stopping the systemic killing of sharks
Getting the shark nets removed from Rocky Bay beach, Durban, after they had been there for over 30 years, is Sharklife’s greatest achievement. “It was a slow process and took us five years to do. None of the authorities really wanted to touch the matter,” Grant pauses. “You can understand if they take the nets out and there is a shark incident, who is to blame?” Grant argued that the beach had a natural barrier of rocky outcrops around the bathing beach which greatly reduced the risk of shark bather interactions. The Sharks Board records showed that on average less than 1 great white, 1 bull shark and 3 tiger sharks were caught in the nets per year and that 80% of what the nets caught were harmless species that lived just outside the nearby Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area. Surveys Sharklife conducted 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. For these reasons, Sharklife was able to get the nets removed but SharkLife does more than just advocate for sharks they educate youth about them too.
Learning about sharks
Sharklife fosters an understanding and respect for sharks in South Africans especially local school children through their outreach ocean education centre but they also educate foreigners abroad. Their range of online shark awareness and research courses are freely available both locally and internationally, they do have extra courses available exclusively to members, membership costs a mere 2 USD a month. For hands-on shark science and conservation experience, SharkLife offers internships. Collaborating with scientists and higher education institutions Grant has enabled South African students to conduct research projects through SharkLife and learn about sharks and their behaviour first-hand.
Students learning about how sharks teeth replace themselves in a conveyer belt-like fashion.
With bull sharks circling down towards him
Grant learnt a lot about sharks behaviour on that overcast day in pea green water when bull sharks sensed his distress and circled down rapidly to investigate him. All he had was a buoy line — a reel of cord with a float attached, the float bobbed on the surface to indicate where he was to the boat captain. “I’m kneeling on the bottom and they [the bull 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,” Grant tells me. “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,” Grant recalls. He had to swim up slowly and take stops to allow the nitrogen that had accumulated in his body during the 30 meter plus dive to be released. Nitrogen accumulation results from breathing compressed air, if he swam up too fast 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 Grant 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,” Grants explains. Perhaps they aren’t killing machines but rather curious creatures? Maybe if you can keep calm and handle the situations you’ll keep coming out alright, like Grant who has been diving with sharks daily for over 15 years.
SharkLife partners with Wildcards!
Wildcards will launch cards to raise funds for SharkLife. Wildcards uses blockchain technology for wildlife conservation fundraising. Their team of passionate environmentalists and technologists from South Africa, created a unique conservation donation model which uses engagement mechanics inspired by gaming and radical economics. Their platform taps into a unique community of funders and allows them to support conversation, become a guardian of wild animals, as well as display and share their profiles, all in a social, gamified and transparent way. To find out more about how Wildcards works you can read Wildcards: an unprecedented means of funding conservation.
A female ragged-tooth shark glides by a Sharklife researcher who is collecting ID photos to help identify individual shark movement patterns.
Wildcards is ecstatic about connecting funders with conservation agencies having a real-world impact on the protection of wild animals and helping to rewild the world.
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