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Sharks, Galapagos and a Peaceful Coexistence

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Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

As an ocean scientist, undoubtedly, the most frequent question I am asked is about sharks. Is it safe to go into the ocean?

Based on how sharks have been portrayed in movies, television and in the news, a great number of people believe that humans are considered a snack sensation in the ocean. In reality, people are not good shark food. No juicy blubber or rich omega-3 oils, essentially just a bag-o-bones and water.

Statistically speaking, you are more at risk when driving to work or toasting a piece of bread (fatal toaster accidents are more common than shark "attacks"). Most so-called shark attacks are not acts of intentional hunting; they are cases of mistaken identity or a response to a perceived threat or competition. In the historical record, even brief non-contact encounters or sightings have been called attacks. That does not mean that the tragedy for those who are injured or fatally wounded by sharks should be minimized. And creating tools, such as Hamish Jolly's intriguing wetsuits, which might help to minimize deleterious shark incidents, is certainly a good thing.

Shark Encounters
In all my years of diving, snorkeling and swimming in the ocean, including having twice lived underwater in the Aquarius Reef Base habitat for up to two weeks and diving six to nine hours a day, I have never been seriously threatened by sharks.

I've seen sharks, been approached by sharks and have been circled by a group of large, beefy hammerheads. Moments of apprehension quickly give way to fascination and a deep appreciation for their silent and powerful grace (no, they do not growl as has been suggested in several bad B-movies).

The Amazing Galapagos
I am currently in the Galapagos Islands as science advisor to Celebrity Xpedition, a small cruise ship. Here in the Galapagos, sharks are a wonder to behold. The Galapagos Park Service naturalists speak reverently about sharks and people here have taken action to protect them. With the passengers aboard we are actively on the lookout for sharks. It is one of the day's highlights if we are lucky enough to snorkel beside a whitetip reef shark or watch as a Galapagos shark swims slowly around the ship.

In addition to whitetips, we see skittish blacktip sharks and, if one is really lucky, a big fat hammerhead. Also known to cruise the Archipelago are the less frequently seen silky, tiger, bull, whale and mako sharks.

Sea lions here have been known to make a game of pulling the tail of a whitetip shark resting in a cave. I imagine it is an undersea version of "chicken" and not a practice I recommend. Sometimes we see Galapagos sharks feeding on fish alongside sea lions, pelicans and diving blue-footed boobies. It goes squarely against the ingrained notion that sharks are relentless hunters, feeding on anything and everything at hand. Sea lions are on the menu for the larger pelagic sharks, but, in coastal waters, they tend to co-exist without bloodshed.

Nature at Its Best
The Galapagos Islands allow one to experience nature like nowhere else on earth. The wildlife as well as the landscape is well protected and respected. Except for the inhabited towns, the islands are kept principally pristine (other than the vagaries of human introduced invasive species or the impacts of climate change). A licensed Galapagos Park naturalist must accompany all visitors, and animals have the right-of-way.

Watching and swimming with sharks in the Galapagos, where they are not attracted by bait or legally fished, helps us to understand and appreciate their true nature and important role as top predators in the ocean ecosystem. It also allows us to comprehend how humans and sharks, as well as other animals, can coexist with respect and remarkable interaction.

El Niño
As I sit here writing, we wait to see if a strong El Niño will occur this year as many scientists have forecasted. Years of experience and several days of snorkeling suggest that the water is warmer than usual for this time of the year. Strong El Niños in the Galapagos shut down upwelling thereby curtailing ocean productivity. Sea lions, marine iguanas, the iconic blue-footed booby and even sharks can suffer from the lack of food and many may die. It is not possible at this time to determine if climate change has or will strengthen El Niños, but, for now, we have our fingers crossed that the approaching one will be weaker than predicted. And we continue to go out on in search of the ever-majestic shark.

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