Living at the beach in Florida, sharks are a common topic of conversation. Florida is after all the location of the second largest shark population in the world under Australia and ahead of Hawaii. Surfers come in contact with the “men in gray suits” regularly and are much less worried about their presence than the average person. They will chat it up about shark sightings as easily as they talk about the weather, but to those unfamiliar, sharks can be very scary thanks to the media hype around the few bites and of course, Jaws.
A couple weeks ago the Ocearch shark tracker was brought to my attention and coincidentally a day later, one of the very large white sharks being tracked (Genie) was visiting my beach. People were all excited (and frightened) and so in came the flood of Facebook posts to stay out of the water. Now, of course, I am not saying send your kids into the ocean when there is a 16 foot shark in the surf, but creating a culture of fear around sharks isn’t the way to go either. So, in an effort to help people understand sharks, and particularly white sharks better, I asked one of my very best friends in the world (who happens to also be a shark authority) to help educate all of us on the mysterious psychology of sharks.
Ryan is a waterman in the truest sense. Beyond being able to hold his breath for a ridiculously long time, he has an innate understanding of the ocean and all its creatures. We have been exploring the ocean, above and below, together since we were kids. When we were 12 we went on our first shark dive together in the Bahamas. We were in 2,500 ft of water out at Deer Island Buoy and they had chummed the water to attract sharks. Our dads then said ok jump in- so we did! We descended about 30 ft. down a line and watched about 6 black tip reef sharks circle us. After a little while we gathered up enough courage to let go and venture from the rope. Not 5 minutes later, a shark swam really fast right at us and then dove deep just under us, and boy we never swam so fast back to the rope- not that it was going to protect us, but somehow holding on to something attached to the boat gave us a sense of security. And so Ryan’s lifelong relationship with sharks began.
His love of saltwater led him to a degree in marine biology and a creative adventurous career exploring the worlds oceans. Most of all, Ryan is one of the most inspiring and positive people I have ever known and has been a great inspiration and big brother to me since we were 2 years old. Whether sliding on waves and snow, camping, hiking, traveling, playing music, or making films and designs, Ryan epitomizes how a strong sense of wonder inspires a life connected to nature and filled with laughter, love, and adventure. So enough of me: here is what he has to say about sharks. I hope it inspires you to give sharks a second thought.
Recently it seems that sharks, specifically the Great White variety, have been in the press more often; and surprisingly it hasn’t been all bad press for a change. Sure there will always be reports of incidents with surfers coming in from all over the world, why wouldn’t there be? Surfing is more popular than ever and thanks to protective legislation White Shark populations are on the rise internationally. For me it’s shocking that encounters with these incredible animals aren’t more common. And I don’t mean “shark attacks”, I actually can’t stand that term because it implies malicious intent. No, what I’m referring to is passive interaction.
White Sharks a have a proportionately larger brain than all other shark species and it is proven that there is a direct correlation between brain-to-body weight ratio and an animal’s curiosity. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend weeks in the water with White Sharks, and without a protective cage. What I’ve found is that even though these massive fish are equipped for war, most are actually quite shy and suspicious of their surroundings. When I approach a shark too aggressively it will swim away, this goes for all species; but when you present yourself as neither a threat nor a meal it is possible to just “hang out” with them.
The way these guys hunt is by ambush, they stay far away then rush in for a bite and then back off to wait for their prey to lose strength. This way there is less chance of the shark getting injured during the event. If you see a shark, generally the danger is gone because the element of surprise is lost. When a surfer is bitten it is always a mistake by the shark, they have eaten the same thing for millions of years and to change now would be like a human suddenly deciding to start eating styrofoam cheeseburgers. The problem is that even if the shark recognizes it’s error in time the human usually doesn’t fair so well, although many do survive to tell their tale after some stitching up. But how could that be possible when these beasts can and will chop a huge Elephant Seal in half?
Picture this, once while spearfishing for tuna, a 16 foot Great White was hanging around our group. I wasn’t worried but we kept an eye on her. Suddenly, she came rushing up at my big red inflatable buoy and at the last second she hit the brakes, opened her mouth and started to softly bite on it… the buoy never popped! She just wanted to know what it was, and like the family dog, it has no hands to feel with so it must use it’s mouth.
So back to the good press… with modern science like satellite tagging and genetic mapping we are learning volumes daily about Great White Sharks. Where do they go, who are their relatives, what are they eating? All things that fill in the gaps of our limited understanding of these amazing creatures. A great example of this is a shark by the name of Mary Lee that was tagged off the Northeast coast of the US by the Ocearch reseach group. She has been pinging daily for the last several months between North Carolina and Florida and sometimes just a matter of yards from the surf line. Even CNN reported how cool it was to know where this shark was moving and that it was likely following the migration of the Bluefin Tuna. Instead of beach closures and pandemonium, boaters are de-winterizing early and heading out the inlets to try and get a glimpse of this now famous finned phenom. It seems that the public opinion of these spectacular fish is changing from fear to fascination and it’s about time if you ask me. The irony is that in 1997 while finishing my Marine Biology degree at UNC-Wilmington, I proposed a White Shark population census study off the Mid-Atlantic coastline; my professor told me it was an A paper but he had to give me a C- because, “everyone knows there’s no White Sharks off our coast”!
Owner, www.InSeaWorldwide.com, FII Freediving/Waterman Survival Instructor, Photo Editor-SPEARING Magazine
Seeds to Sprout:
About the Author: Ryan has explored the underwater world since the age of twelve and has committed his life to documenting the beauty of the oceans and the people that subsist on her bounty. He is a freediving instructor, editor of Spearing Magazine, resides in Wrightsville Beach, NC and his credit list includes the likes of National Geographic Television and Outside Magazine. For more of his work, check out www.InSeaWorldwide.com
Track the sharks Genie and Mary Lee for yourself at Ocearch