“Cool, man—shark city!” bellowed Ugo while chumming the waters 30 feet away. We listened to him from the boat deck high above while hanging on to the long bow-line. As if out of nowhere, a bunch of black-tipped reef sharks appeared and began a feeding frenzy. The dozen or so five- to seven-foot sharks attacked the raw chicken offal with full force, and their teeth tore into the chum, creating a crazy confusion of large darting fish bodies, blood and bubbles.
We had been told we were safe at that distance and not to be scared. Ugo had instructed us just to stay calm and close to each other, clutch the rope firmly and make no abrupt movements while watching the spectacle. It was easier said than done. Through our goggles, we saw the sharks’ fast surging bodies and sometimes one of them passed by us, as if to deliver a message to not interrupt in the food fest. We obliged, and I just hoped that they could not sense our rush of adrenaline.
Granted, Ugo had done this before and had never had an accident, and he had been careful to advise anybody with small cuts or open wounds not to join the group. He would also keep an extra eye out for any larger and more aggressive sharks such as the rarer lemon and tiger or even the great whites. This was all meant to give us some reassurance, I guess.
After the offal was consumed, the reef sharks disappeared as fast as they came, and we climbed quickly back aboard the skiff, most of us shaken up by the whole experience. It was an ordeal that forever changed my attitude about sharks—my respect for these powerful predators was now immense.
This shark encounter happened on an exploratory sea kayak expedition in remote French Polynesia about 10 years ago. Me, my co-guide, Frank Murphy, and some of our most adventurous clients had just circumnavigated the inside of Rangirora, one of the largest and most remote atolls in the world. This 200-kilometer oval-shaped reef chain is a part of the Tuamotu Archipelago, about 355 kilometers northeast of Tahiti. It is home to 2,500 people spread out on a thin circular reef who are making a living from tourism, pearl farming in the inner lagoon and fishing the rich Pacific waters.
I was introduced to Ugo by Frank, who is the scientific director at the University of California Marine Research Station in Moorea. Ugo hailed from Rangirora and was the reigning Polynesian free diving and spear fishing champion. To us mortals, Ugo was half human, half fish. He was straight out of central casting for a Polynesian warrior character, with intricate Maori tattoo patterns covering his huge muscular back and shoulders. He also had an infectious smile and an eternal inner calm. His office attire was a pair of flip-flops and bleached surfer shorts.
When Ugo spoke, he used a wide arsenal of American teenage surfer slang and jargon—like “Hey Bros,” “Okie- Dokie,” and “Whats up, fellas?”—all with a slight French Polynesian accent. When asked why, he just laughed it off.
The mystery was solved when we heard that Ugo’s father, a wealthy pearl grower, had decided to send his teenage boy to the University of California Berkeley to get the best of U.S. education. What the father did not realize was the temptation for a Polynesian boy to go surfing in the Pacific waves instead of attending lectures. After two years without any grade reports, the impatient father ordered him back to the islands—and perhaps for the better. Today, Ugo has found his true calling and happiness guiding in the trade winds on the reefs of remote Polynesia.
Our first shark encounter with Ugo was when he wanted to show us how powerful even a small black-tipped reef shark is. He threaded a thick fisherman’s rope through the eye sockets of a Mahi- Mahi head and threw the fresh bait into the inner lagoon waters to lure a reef shark forward. He then asked one of us to stand in the shallow water and, hold the rope tight, and just wait. Like a lightning bolt, a shark appeared from below and closed its large jaws in a vice-grip around the bleeding fish head. As a result, the rope tightened and the force threw the rope holder off his feet with a powerful and frightening jerk. If the shark was small enough, Ugo would grab it with his bare hands and lift the strong thrashing fish up away from his body (careful not be chafed by the rough sandpaper of shark skin).
Sure, sharks can be frightening and have traditionally been regarded as a threat. However, contrary to popular belief, only a few sharks are actually dangerous to humans. Out of more than 470 species of shark, only four have been involved in a significant number of fatal, unprovoked attacks on humans: the great white, oceanic white-tip, tiger, and bull sharks.
The ironic fact is that we humans are more of a threat to sharks than they are to us. Researchers have estimated that an average of 100 million sharks are killed by people every year due to commercial and recreational fishing. Annual shark harvest yields are estimated at about 1.5 million metric tons.
Sharks are often killed in the most brutal ways just to satisfy the shark market in Asia, where shark fin soup is a status symbol that’s erroneously considered healthy and full of nutrients. Fishermen capture live sharks, remove the fin with a hot metal blade, and dump the finless, live animal back into the water. The resulting immobile shark soon dies from suffocation, bleeding or predators. Shark fin poachers illegally de-fin millions of animals each year, and few governments enforce laws that protect them.
Sharks and their cousins, the rays, have roamed our oceans since before the time of dinosaurs, but their long reign at the top of the ocean food chain is in jeopardy. Overfishing has resulted in major declines in shark populations worldwide—some shark species have been depleted by more than 90 percent over the past 30 years ,with population declines of 70 percent not unusual. Today, one quarter of all known species of sharks and rays are threatened by extinction. The IUCN currently classifies 25 shark species as critically endangered.
On Natural Habitat trips to the Galapagos Island Park and Marine Reserve, we often observe sharks when we snorkel or kayak close to shore. Unfortunately, illegal shark finning has been a problem for years in the Galapagos, with the Asian processing ships receiving fins straight from the poachers who fish in international waters just outside the park boundaries. Increased patrolling by the Ecuadorian navy and hefty jail sentences have finally started to deter some of the local poachers.
However, on a global scale, there is good news for sharks on the horizon. Governments and conservation organizations are finally waking up to realize the pivotal role that sharks play in maintaining the health of ocean ecosystems. Efforts are being made to establish large sanctuaries for marine ecosystems that provide the right mix of environmental, cultural and economic benefits. Today, a total of 17 shark sanctuaries have been created around the world, mostly in the Pacific Ocean. Collectively, these protected areas spread across 20 million square kilometers—an area larger than South America.
As Ugo would have grinned: “Cool, man!”