Here’s how a chain reaction works — Alex goes to see Blackfish, a documentary about Orcas in captivity, and can’t stop thinking about it; Alex rents Free Willy, a movie about a little boy who releases an Orca from captivity back into the ocean; Alex remembers that she never posted about the shark release she photographed. And that’s how we got here today, folks.
Did you know that more than 80% of sharks are threatened or near-threatened with extinction, and up to 73 million sharks a year are killed for their fins? This is serious — sharks are an apex predator, and removing them from the food chain will lead to a collapse of the ocean’s ecosystems. In Gili Trawangan, this is a home front battle — The Food and Agriculture Organization places Indonesia in the highest ranking of the 20 largest countries in the shark fin trade. Over 15 percent of the world’s sharks’ fins and manta ray gill plates come from Indonesia, according to Conservation International Indonesia. The same group did a survey in 2011 of the seas around Bali — in over 350 hours of survey diving, they found only three reef sharks.
Back in July I had the unique opportunity to come along on an experimental shark release by the recently formed Gili Shark Foundation. With the help of the one man Bali Sharks organization, two blacktip and two whitetip reef sharks were purchased from Bali fisherman who intended to sell the sharks at the fish market. As Bali has no protected area or shark sanctuary, the Gili Shark Foundation offered the Marine Protected Areas around Gili Trawangan as a safe haven for these sharks to be released into. Ideally, this will prevent the sharks from being released only to be caught again. The nearby Tanjung Luar fish market in Lombok is a bloody testament to the fact that sharks, manta rays, and large pelagics are being fished out of Indonesian waters at unsustainable levels.
The morning of the release, the release team waited anxiously for the sharks to show. As soon as they did, we moved quickly to get them onto the Big Bubble boat and out to their new homes. I couldn’t imagine the stress they were under and tried to send calming vibes into the styrofoam boxes they were being transported in.
The sharks were being released into the Manta Point dive site. Just there to document, I tried to stay out of the way as the sharks were tagged and their vital information recorded. I have been in close contact with sharks before, but this was a completely different sensation — these sharks were so vulnerable to us and it highlighted the strange reversal of who should really be fearing who. We were also nervous and excited which led to some giddy silliness.
The group was broken into teams, each responsible for an individual shark. We descended with the sharks in bags so that they could adjust to the temperature of the new environment, with the plan to release the sharks near the ocean floor where they typically swim.
Our group had diverse backgrounds in marine biology, diving, conservation, and aquarium work. That said, this release was a first and there was a lot of experimentation and trial and error involved.
The white tips were released without a hitch — they immediately swam off into the reef, as if they had been there all along. As their fins disappeared in the distance I wished them luck in their new lives around Gili. It seems to have worked — five weeks later, one of the tagged white tips was recorded swimming at the nearby dive site Shark Point!
The blacktips were more of a challenge. From my admittedly limited understanding, they are a more fragile species and are much more difficult to successfully transfer. One of them ingested a large amount of plastic when it panicked and tried to bite its way through the bag, and the other kind of suctioned itself to the bag in the process, depriving itself of oxygen until the handlers were able to free him.
The team worked tirelessly to get the sharks swimming freely again, and we stayed down working with them until our air tanks were completely empty. The mood was somber as we surfaced — we couldn’t be sure whether the blacktips had made it or not. We tried to look at the positive and remember that the sharks would surely die if sent to the fish market, but it was still upsetting to watch the animals in such a stressful situation.
There’s no way around it — this is a controversial approach to shark protection. While I had — and still have — my reservations about it, I am grateful for the opportunity that I had to be a part of this experience. Personally, I believe the most important goals should be legislation and enforcement to end shark fining as well as alternative income for fisherman. I share the concern others have about creating another financial incentive for fisherman to take sharks out of the ocean. And a Marine Protected Area has its restrictions — we don’t want to create a cycle where sharks are being continually caught, bought, and put into the ocean just to be fished out again. Reducing demand will always be more effective than trying to restrict supply — however it is a slower, less glamorous process.
We all have the same goal — to keep sharks safe in the long run. I am proud to be friends with movers and shakers with such a “let’s do this!” attitude — people who take a passion and put it into action. Not many people are prepared to do more than talk about issues that matter to them, and that is commendable.
As always, I want to emphasize that sharks are not the enemy, despite what Jaws may have told us. Sharks are an important part of our ocean eco-systems and are valuable for eco tourism, and they deserve a place on this planet. You can help by saying no to restaurants that serve shark fin soup, supporting legislation banning the shark fin trade, and donating to shark conservation groups.
Take a moment to watch this fantastic video put together by the Gili Shark Foundation showing the whole process!
Video by the Gili Shark Foundation
What do you think we can do to better protect sharks? I’d love to talk conservation with you in the comments!
Curious about my underwater photography setup? Check out my Obsessions page for information on my camera gear, editing programs and more.
I can higly recommend wathing “Sharkwater”.
That documentary made me rethink sharks and influenced me to try diving
Yup, I’ve seen it a few times! Happily now a lot of that information is out of date — tons of positive changes in policy and statistics have been made since that movie was released. And that is awesome!
Any update on those black tip sharks? I hope they made it. What a neat experience to witness and be a part of.
So far there is no update on any of the sharks. Some of the group went back out to the same dive site that afternoon and there was no sign of them. We hope that means they are off living happy shark lives somewhere else around the island…
Im deffinietly following your recommendation of not going to resteraunts that serve shark fin, Ive always known that was wrong. Your pictures of the freeing experience are gorgeous. Great job advocating this!
Thanks Jennifer! The sharks appreciate your support, I know 🙂
“We all have the same goal — to keep sharks safe in the long run.”
If that were true! Unfortunately the Asians do not seem to share the values of marine conservation. Japan is actively whaling, and both Japan and China are huge consumers of Shark Fin Soup.
I am unsure if the anti finning messages are getting out to Asia, but I hope they are. Diving parks can be profitable (like Cozumel) so that is a good message as well. Unfortunately the dive community is small.
Global issues like this are tough. What to do about a culture of 1.35 billion people who have little regard for sharks, or marine life, not to mention their own air!
Hey Ron, I apologize if I was unclear in my writing. I meant that all conservation groups (and myself) have the same goal, though there may be various ideas about how to achieve it. You should check out the Shark Savers website, they have a lot of great campaigns across Asia featuring local celebrities stating they are against shark fin soup. It’s very inspiring!
Aside from the fact that it’s kickass these guys are trying to do something for shark conservation, can we just get a little bit of squee going for bebe sharks!?! AHHH too cute! I hope these guys all make it.
In Roatan, we have a huge Shark Legacy program and conservation is big here. My divemaster program even included a “Shark Diver” specialty… we did lectures with a shark biologist and 4 shark dives. I learned a TON and have come to respect these creatures so much more. However, there are still locals with other ideas. I called the marine park on a fisherman who hauled an 8ft nurse shark out and up onto our dock to take ‘look how awesome I am’ photos – the marine park showed up with the policia nacional in under 20 minutes, and thanks to some bystander photos as well, the guy is in jail 🙂 Not on my dock, buddy!!!
Wow! I have never seen an 8 foot nurse shark. How tragic that there is now one less out there to see 🙁 But that is fantastic that your police response was so swift and strong. A major problem in Indonesia is enforcing the Marine Protected Areas.
What a cool thing to be a part of! A lot of people in HK still sell shark fins, although people are starting to become more aware of conservation efforts.
Shark fin soup is still sold in New York City, too! It really is everywhere. I do think that the general public is becoming more aware of the plight of sharks. I feel hopeful!
Wow, if I were asked if shark fin were easily available in the US I would have assumed no (assuming it would be illegal). I don’t get quite why but conservation efforts always seem to lag behind when it comes to anything below the surface.
What a special thing that you were part of! I agree that protecting animals is so important for the ‘big picture’, even if those animals are scary.
A change in legislation or culture is definitely not a quick change, but helping where you can is commendable. Well done!
Thanks for your support, Heather! I agree sometimes the issues that need us the most are the scariest and messiest.
I’m glad to see you posting on a conservation issue. I feel there’s not enough of this in the travel blogging world.
I actually work with Rob Stewart, the director of Sharkwater & while you feel the film is out of date (& i hope it is!), you may want to check out his latest which I also worked on, Revolution. It uses the shark finning issue as a jumping off point for exploring the biggest environmental threats we face today. It’s avail on DVD:
Thanks for giving a shout-out to the sharkies!
Hey Becky, what a cool connection! I will definitely have to check out Revolution. Of course I think Sharkwater is still a great movie and important to watch — however when I watched it with a friend I found myself talking over it the whole time mentioning changes in legislation that have taken place since it was released. And they are all changes for the better — yay!
Thank you, again, for highlighting such important issues! We are so often in ignorant bliss about such things…
Happy to do my little part! We all need to be loudspeakers for the issues we believe in.
Great project. It must have felt very special to be part of this release.
It’s always great to be a part of something a little bigger than yourself. Thanks Tammy!
I love this! As someone who was formerly terrified of sharks but after diving came to love them, I fully support anything that brings awareness to the issue of finning.
Aw, I’m happy to hear you’ve got some love for the sharks too! We definitely share that background of abject terror (and totally logical fear of sharks in swimming pools!)
Really great write up on the experience and you didn’t skirt over any issues. I did have a few thoughts while reading your blog. From an economic standpoint if Finning was illegal across the World there would be no need to offer the fishermen the alternative of buying their catch. Sharks would still get caught as bycatch and there would probably become a black market for the fins. Time will tell.
While I was on the boat Delphine (Gili Eco Trust) asked what I would have done different and off the top of my head made the comment, “Well I’m not a Diver, maybe just open the bags & let them swim away.” This is probably why there is even a Shark Nursery on Bali in the first place.
Another idea to simplify the process is eliminating the tags. We proved the rescue / restoration process can be successful. Seeing a tagged sharks is a mute point, and the sharks are going to be enjoyed by the divers regardless.
Once again thanks for sharing your thoughts, I’m glad you experienced it.
Just rescued (64 & 65th) sharks a few weeks ago, so hoping we can have more successful releases going forward.
Hey Paul, thanks for chiming in and congratulations on your 65th shark! One thing that I disagree with you on is the elimination of the tagging process. I would think in the grand scheme of the capture, holding, and long transfer the few moments it takes to tag them can’t add too exponentially to the stress they’ve already gone through, though it can yield information for tracking the programs’ successes. Can’t see how it does any harm, but can definitely see how it does a lot of helping.
Hi Alex, lovely write up about the project showing a different perspective to those already written (including the one we did for Shark Guardian). It is fantastic to get more responses about the release – like you, we have our reservations, but to be that close and give those sharks a new chance? Wonderful.
Thanks for reading, Liz! And for all the work you do, of course!
This might be one of my favorites of your posts! Thanks for your thoughtful take on approaches to shark conservation. As a sidenote, I’m currently on Nusa Lembongan and went to one of the biweekly talks on local marine life and conservation hosted by the Aquatic Alliance. If you don’t know the organization – and if you haven’t dived here – both seem right up your ally! The site is http://www.aquaticalliance.org if you’re interested 🙂
Hey Katie! I’ve actually written a few posts on Nusa Lembongan — love it there! The Aquatic Alliance is great, they came over to Gili to do some of their presentations for us, brilliant stuff!