Shark Gods - Seeing Is Believing

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 34 No. 12, December 2014
Scuba instructor and Executive Director of ReefWatch Marine Conservation, Nayantara Jain pays eloquent homage to the ocean's apex predators while gently reminding the world that sharks are worth far more alive than dead.
This sublime underwater vista of a school of hammerhead sharks in the waters of the Galapagos, highlights the allure of shark tourism.
Photo: Sumer Verma.

I have been diving for more than 10 years now. As I deflate my buoyancy jacket at the surface of the ocean and fall gently into the infinite blue, the only thing I know for sure is that I never know what creature I might encounter. No matter how much you might train yourself to expect the unexpected, nothing quite prepares you for the moment your peripheral vision darkens and in swoops the tremendous blanket of a beast that is a manta ray. Nor are you ever ready for the heady moment that a shadow falls over you, the sun blocked out by the body of the largest fish in the sea - the whale shark. As it passes over you there is a moment, where your eyes meet his and you know that his consciousness has regarded yours. You have become a part of his experience just as he has transformed yours.

I have traveled half-way around the world to see thousands of hammerhead sharks swim freely in their oceanic realm. I have seen silky sharks cut through powerful ocean currents like they were on a Sunday stroll. I have seen whitetip reef sharks in a feeding frenzy, causing massive schools of tiny silversides to form shimmering bait balls - working for individual survival by losing themselves in an ever-morphing crowd. Despite these incredible moments, I find it difficult to quantify the sheer inspiration of encountering a majestic predator in its natural environment. When this predator swims freely next to you, with no barrier of a zoo, or window of a vehicle separating you, you feel true humility, you experience a powerful beauty and the realization dawns that there is a greater magnificence to this planet than you and your little problems.

Listed as near threatened, the whitetip reef shark is easily recognisable by its namesake white-tipped fin.
Photo: Sumer Verma.


To value this privilege monetarily, to talk of the economic benefits of shark tourism vs shark finning, is a devaluation of sorts for anyone who has experienced sharks in the blue. It is a tragic testament to the modern world that we must put a monetary value to a shark fin on a boat, the rest of the animal bleeding out slowly, drowning limbless to the ocean floor, and compare it to the monetary worth of a shark ruling its ocean ecosystem as an apex predator, there for us to encounter and marvel at before we can look at their preservation. Luckily for the sharks, however, in the eyes of the money-men, the latter's commercial value is in fact infinitely higher. Not to mention its natural and ecological value, which is priceless.

A single shark fin can fetch a fisherman approximately U.S. $300. Needless to say, this is an unsustainable income - a shark fin in hand is one less shark in the ocean, one step closer to there being none left. This extinction is amplified in the local context - several parts of India and the world are practically fished out when it comes to sharks. In contrast, the value of the same shark in the ocean only grows. Socio-economic studies are finding that divers and snorkellers across the world are willing to pay to encounter sharks in the wild. Sleepy, poor fishing villages are finding their livelihoods transformed. Donsol (Philippines), a destination for whale shark watching, is just one example of a success story - where earlier a fish catch fetched just about enough for subsistence, shark-driven tourism is now earning the former fisherman six times their previous income. Their children can now go to school and have jobs beyond being fishermen and mongers.

The numbers speak. Shark-ecotourism currently brings in $314 million (The International Journal for Conservation, May 2013) worldwide, and the industry is projected to double in the next 20 years.

The whale shark, truly the gentle giant of the ocean, is a slow moving filter feeder, and the largest living non-mammalian vertebrate on the planet! Donsol, in the Philippines, has become a premier destination for whale shark watching and erstwhile fisherman are now living better lives thanks to this shark tourism.
Photo: Digant Desai.


Large as that dollar amount is, the economic value does not stop there. Sharks provide another unexpected and recently recognized service to the planet.

They are some of the most ancient predators on this planet, having evolved 400 million years ago, and therefore, have incredible adaptations that make them extremely efficient hunters. In turn, they force their prey to adapt too. They weed out the aging and the weak among populations of prey fish and thus serve as agents of natural selection. They also help maintain the delicate balance of the marine ecosystem at all trophic levels - from their direct prey, down to the minuscule phyto and zooplankton. The plankton, drifters of the ocean, not only form the base of the marine food chain but also create 50 percent of all the oxygen we breathe on land. In other words, every second breath we take here on terra firma comes from these marine creatures whose survival is inextricably linked to that delicate balance that is so tenuously maintained by apex predators such as sharks.

If we were to stop taking the air we breathe for granted, if we were to economically evaluate that too, we would find that it costs us much more to fish out sharks and rays from the ocean than to leave them there. To eat sharks - especially for an ostentatious cultural display of wealth - and to fin them for that absurd purpose, is witless and an ecological folly we can no longer afford.

Every marine ecosystem, from kelp forests to the beautiful coral reefs that drive billions in tourism revenues, is made healthier, more resistant, and visibly more vibrant when sharks sit at the top of the food chain. Yet currently, approximately 38 million sharks (of the 100 million slaughtered annually) are killed specifically for the despicable shark fin soup trade. This is apart from the thousands caught as fishery by-catches, and the thousands more lost to habitat destruction. A quick calculation reveals that we take out 1,04,109 sharks per day - 4,338 per hour - for soup!

If you read at an average adult speed, 290 sharks were killed for shark fin soup in the time it took you just to read this article. Sharks will not survive unless we truly understand their value - economically, ecologically and in terms of the sheer privilege of encountering them in the ocean - and put an end to the barbaric custom of finning immediately. I hope that my experiences with hammerheads, silkies, guitar sharks, whale sharks, and rays will not become rare anecdotes of a bygone time.

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 6, December 2014.

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