Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks - Juliet Eilperin (2011)
Chapter 7. LIVING WITH SHARKS
We see white sharks as an asset and a value.
—Gregg Oelofse, head of environmental policy and strategy for Cape Town, South Africa
The more scientists understand about sharks—the modest threat they pose to us, and the grave threat we pose to them—the harder they have worked to carve out places in which these animals can survive unmolested. In many ways marine biology is at a pivotal moment, when we are discovering the richness of the ocean at the very time we are grasping how we’ve managed to deplete it over the last few centuries. Preserving what’s left, as well as rebuilding parts of it to a semblance of what it used to be, requires us to relinquish some of the power we have exercised in the past. It requires living with sharks.
There are places across the globe where sharks still thrive. And these are the places where humans must negotiate a different path with them, to ensure these animals still have stretches of sea to dominate. The very act of finding them is just the beginning.
Amid the undulating wave of sea grass, a glittering eye suddenly appears, reflecting the glare of our flashlights. This three-foot-long specimen of Hemiscyllium freycineti—better known as the Raja Ampat walking shark—shimmies across the seabed, using its pectoral fins to propel itself forward. But then Mark Erdmann—senior adviser for Conservation International Indonesia—reaches for it, and the flash now comes from its teeth as it hisses and struggles to escape the scientist’s unwelcome embrace.
Hemiscyllium freycineti has existed in this corner of the world for millennia, tucked away in a bay that’s allowed it to evolve separately from other sharks a matter of miles away. The Bird’s Head Seascape—an area on the northwest tip of the island of Papua named by Dutch cartographers in the nineteenth century for its distinctive shape—boasts a myriad of unusual creatures like this one, and it has recently become known as a sort of lost world, where most underwater trips regularly turn up species new to science. Within the Bird’s Head Seascape sits Raja Ampat, a series of 672 islands whose name—Four Kings—pays homage to its four biggest ones, Waigeo, Batanta, Salawati, and Misool. It is, in Erdmann’s words, “the crown jewel” of the region’s biodiversity.
Since Conservation International launched an expedition here in 2001—the first major scientific survey of the area in decades—researchers have cataloged 1,350 fish species in the Bird’s Head Seascape, along with 700 mollusks and more than 540 species of hard coral. (That’s ten times as many species of coral as in the entire Caribbean and means that nearly 70 percent of all known coral species on earth reside here.) Gerald Allen, an ichthyologist and Conservation International consultant, identified 335 different marine species in a single dive, setting a world record, and in one six-week period in 2006 Erdmann’s expedition discovered 50 new species.
Allen, who co-led the first CI expedition in 2001 after spending three years waging “a one-man campaign” to get conservation groups to pay attention to the area, describes that first trip as “everything that I dreamed of, and more. It was like stepping back in time two hundred years and being on one of the first expeditions to New Guinea.”
The fact that this far eastern spot in Indonesia has just emerged this decade as a sort of marine biologist’s Shangri-la is a function more of politics than of science. The Dutch colonized the region, along with the rest of Indonesia, in the eighteenth century, and European explorers began investigating it in earnest in the early nineteenth century. While scientists made a flurry of discoveries during the turn of the nineteenth century, these petered out as the Dutch tightened their hold over western New Guinea. When Indonesian authorities won back the area in 1962, they were just as reluctant to let foreigners in, which meant that exploration was at a standstill at the very time when the advent of scuba diving was allowing scientists to conduct studies at unprecedented depths. The sharks were here, but untouchable.
Across the globe, researchers are using new technologies to expand our knowledge of sharks in radical ways. Over the last decade these discoveries have changed our understanding of everything from how sharks feed, mate, and travel to what forms of them exist. And they have made once-remote places like Raja Ampat a living laboratory.
There are plenty of different kinds of fish in Raja Ampat, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to figure out which ones are new to science. Some researchers, like Gerry Allen, have an incredible capacity to ferret out this sort of information. Before working for Conservation International, Allen served for two decades as the curator of the Western Australian Museum, and he’s described more than four hundred species during his career. Many tourists to tropical isles have read his work without even knowing it: he’s the lead author of the alluringly titled Reef Fish Identification: Tropical Pacific, the book that sits in the common room of most diving resorts. Using a slate with waterproof pages underwater, he usually gazes at the fish swimming around him and scribbles down their scientific names without looking at his writing tablet. While most divers rely on these tablets to communicate among themselves, Allen often uses them for note taking. In some instances, however, he even forgoes the tablet and relies on his memory instead.
“Gerry Allen,” wonders Max Ammer, a Dutchman who runs a couple of eco-resorts in Raja Ampat. “He dives and then he takes a shower, sits down and then writes down every fish he has seen from his head. And he does this twice a day, and sometimes he can do that three times a day.”
About five years after Ammer settled in Raja Ampat, he convinced Allen to come and take a look at the region’s riches: this, in turn, helped inspire Conservation International to launch its first expedition there in 2001, with Allen at the helm. Erdmann made it to the region for the second and several of the successive expeditions, helping Allen chronicle what was there. While the scientists came back from each journey with an array of new species to show for it, the grueling schedule took its toll. Most of the time they focused on looking for species when it was light: in February 2006, Erdmann, Allen, and their colleagues were diving in Cenderawasih Bay as many as six times a day, leaving them exhausted by nightfall. One evening, however, Erdmann decided to enter the water to record nocturnal species that tend to hide during the day.
“I found an epaulette shark, pretty much right away,” Erdmann recalls as we traverse the Dampier Strait in his speedboat, surveying the Raja Ampat region. “It struck me as being quite different from the only known epaulette from the Bird’s Head region, so I pinned it down and swam with it back to the ship. By the time I got back, Gerry [Allen] was asleep, but I woke him to examine my find. Clearly not amused at being awoken, he dismissed my shark as Hemiscyllium freycineti, the Raja Ampat epaulette shark described by explorers in 1824, and told me to throw it back. I decided to keep it overnight, alive in a large cooler full of water, so that he could examine it while in a better mood in the morning.
“The next morning, he agreed that the shark did have an unusual spotting pattern, and decided we should at least photograph the animal for a permanent record. We sedated the shark with clove oil, returned her to the seafloor, and took photographs of her from every possible angle. As she awoke from sedation, I scribbled on my slate to Gerry, ‘Should we keep her?’ He hesitated but wrote back, ‘I think it’s just a Raja Ampat shark. Let it go.’ ”
It was only after the two men emerged from the water and started comparing their photographs to images of epaulette sharks on Allen’s computer that they realized the shark they had just set free belonged to a different species. “Basically, he made me release the only specimen we had,” Erdmann recalls. “It was sort of a bummer.”
Later that spring Erdmann and Allen returned to Raja Ampat for the fifth research expedition, this time to Triton Bay, another part of the region. One night during a dive Erdmann spotted another epaulette shark and went after the fish with a vengeance: “I went down and wrestled the damn thing out of the cave. This time we didn’t let it go. I put it in the ship freezer. I took a syringe and pumped it full of formaldehyde.”
Sure enough, the shark was a separate species from the Raja Ampat walking shark. But it also looked different from the shark Erdmann had captured and released a few months before. Now Erdmann had no choice but to return to Cenderawasih Bay.
With his wife, Arnaz—an experienced diver herself—in tow, Erdmann took a seven-hour boat ride to Cenderawasih Bay in the fall of 2006. They immediately found a couple of specimens and brought them back to Bali, where they live. The most reliable way to identify sharks is to count their vertebrae in an X-ray, so Erdmann schlepped the dead shark to a bunch of hospitals in town. Unsurprisingly, he was turned down. “They didn’t want to x-ray my shark,” he confides with amazement. Finally, he lucked out with a veterinary hospital, and they determined it was, in fact, distinct from either the Triton Bay shark or the one discovered more than a century ago. The fact that Cenderawasih Bay boasted an entirely different epaulette shark spoke to the region’s topography as well as the animal’s physical limitations: since it couldn’t swim long distances, it didn’t venture far out and interbreed with other sharks. Over time, it adapted to its narrow corner of the Bird’s Head Seascape, with its own unique features.
Erdmann was pleased to have identified the new shark species, especially since it had eluded him months earlier, but he did not see his discovery of two new shark species as more remarkable than other expedition finds, such as a new lionfish, damselfish, and dottyback. By September 2006 he was helping Conservation International’s press office come up with a press release and telling them about the different species they could tout in the media package. “I don’t think anyone paid a lot of attention to the shark at the time,” he recalls. “I told the press office about the video we had of the walking shark and they were like, ‘Walking shark?’ ” It was a fish made for marketing.
On September 26, 2006, the press office put out a release describing how the fourth and fifth modern expeditions to the Bird’s Head Seascape had uncovered more than four dozen new species. There are other sharks in the world that can crawl, like a certain bullhead shark, but that didn’t seem to matter. The next day, media outlets on every continent except Antarctica trumpeted the discovery of a small, sinuous creature that could propel itself forward on its fins: a walking shark. “I guess it just sort of captured people’s imagination,” Erdmann says now.
In a world of unrelenting bad press about the oceans—where commercial fish stocks may disappear altogether within a few decades, lovable whales find their blubber chock-full of PCBs, and colorful coral reefs are likely to find themselves bleached and acidified out of existence by the end of the century—the Bird’s Head Seascape offers a reassuring alternative. There are still regions of the world that boast an almost unimaginable array of marine creatures, which testify to the ocean’s fecundity and diversity. And unlike rich terrestrial ecosystems, which have been scrutinized and cataloged by humans for centuries, we still have only a rudimentary sense of these underwater worlds. These are the parts of the planet that still offer a chance for discovery.
Raja Ampat is not entirely pristine. Ammer, an avid diver whose Kri Island resort Erdmann uses as a launching pad for much of his work, remembers when he would go diving and the seas were teeming with all sorts of sharks, not just the endearing walking sharks and wobbegongs, slothful creatures that still lurk on the seafloor with their wide, flat heads and snaggletoothed mouths. Neither of these sharks boasts large fins, so they have little market value. Poachers have taken many of the other sharks that used to traverse these waters, such as most of the blacktip and whitetip sharks that drew European explorers here two hundred years ago.
But by and large, the region remains a corner of the world that has yet to be ruined. While shark finning is still legal in Indonesia, the local government in Raja Ampat is the one regency (a subdivision of the national government) that refuses to issue licenses for those interested in slicing off a shark’s most valuable parts and dumping the rest in the ocean. Huge mantas still swim here unmolested, tiny pygmy sea horses dot Raja Ampat’s sea fans, and many of its coral reefs appear to be resistant to the rising sea temperatures that are decimating reefs elsewhere.
So Erdmann and his colleagues have embarked on a second mission that involves less science and more politics: preserving the Bird’s Head Seascape before it collapses under the pressure of poachers, mining entrepreneurs, and all the other outsiders who are encroaching on this remote paradise. It’s a new way to market conservation, an approach with both opportunities and pitfalls.
Ammer has been practicing his own, somewhat authoritarian form of conservation in the region for years, in which he just tells other people what to do. Ammer sold Harley-Davidsons in Zwolle, Holland, before coming to Indonesia in 1990, initially to retrieve military vehicles, aircraft, and Coke bottles that were abandoned during World War II. After making a comfortable profit on these finds, he returned and settled in Raja Ampat in 1993, founding a succession of resorts. As one of the area’s biggest employers, he holds considerable sway over many locals. He ran into trouble while operating his first resort on Wai Island, because Yarefi villagers came to view him as God. They believed he matched the description of a “man who had the power of life and death,” in local legend. This mythical figure, according to folktales, originally had dark skin like other Papuans but then developed a disease that turned his skin white. According to the myth, this divine savior didn’t eat pork and eventually moved to Holland after being treated badly by the locals. Ammer matched this description in certain ways—he’s Dutch and light skinned, and as a Seventh-Day Adventist he doesn’t eat pork. Some villagers started actually worshipping him, which made the local chief jealous, and the controversy ultimately forced him to abandon Wai for Kri Island. But it helped give Ammer a sense of the influence he can wield over many Papuans.
In 1993, Ammer decided to teach a local fisherman named Nikson a lesson about the importance of protecting sea turtles. “He had two turtles in his boat,” Ammer remembers. “I said I’d buy them. As he was still counting his money, I grabbed the turtle and threw it out of the boat. Nikson went after the turtle, thinking it had slipped out of my hands. While he was doing that, I threw the other turtle out of the boat. He thought I was crazy. Now he works for me.”
Ammer doesn’t spend his time throwing turtles out of boats anymore, but he refuses to let anyone fish sharks in the waters under his control, and he urges locals to practice restraint out of self-interest. He understands the economic realities of the region—“In Raja Ampat there are very few ways to earn money. You can catch grouper, you can make salty fish, or you can catch shark”—but he also knows native tribes here don’t embrace the cyanide and bomb fishermen who have come here to decimate the reefs. There are two particularly destructive ways to fish on a reef: set off an underwater bomb that destroys everything in its path, or squirt cyanide through a syringe at the fish, which immobilizes them and makes them easy to scoop up. Both of these techniques translate into lasting damage.
“They listen to what I say, and what I say makes sense,” he says, adding that his tough-love lectures usually center on the fact that the most exploitative fishermen in Raja Ampat hail from faraway islands like Sulawesi. The fishermen from elsewhere operate like bandits, he argues, plundering one part of the ocean before moving on to their next target. Locals can’t afford to practice the same approach, he adds, because they lack the financial resources that would allow them to go off and poach on others’ turf, the way the men from Sulawesi can. “I tell them, ‘You see that boat? It’s not from here. Where they live, they’ve destroyed everything, and now that they’ve done that, they come here, and they’re going to destroy what’s here. When they do that, where are you going to go? You don’t have a boat.’ ”
Erdmann echoes some of the same themes in his message to locals, telling them they need to adopt a long-term vision when extracting resources from the sea, but frames it a little more diplomatically. He and other Conservation International officials envision a network of marine reserves in the region, where local fishermen will be allowed to continue operating but all other fishing activities would be off-limits. Scientists and environmentalists are increasingly turning to marine reserves as a way to preserve the last, best places, on the grounds that protecting critical areas of the ocean from commercial exploitation will allow these ecosystems to recover.
When Erdmann lays out his plan for winning over local Raja Ampat villagers, he slips into a form of environmental bureaucratese, describing how he’s trying to “create an enabling environment for conservation.” But his road map is straightforward: he’s aimed at winning over the people who live in eighty-eight remote villages throughout Raja Ampat. Conservation International is helping underwrite seven radio stations as part of a “community conservation radio network,” and they’ve convinced Radio Republik Indonesia, a station based in the nearest big city, Sorong, to air a two-hour environmental talk show each Friday night. The show, which is called Radio Gelar Senat Raja Ampat and mixes in local Papua languages with Indonesian, consistently scores high ratings with local songs and folklore about marine protected areas. CI has launched the conservation education vessel Kalabia (which means “walking shark” in the local language), and it’s financed a newspaper called Tabloid Raja Ampat. “It’s soft-sell conservation,” Erdmann offers.
On one level his plan seems quite doable: there are only 35,000 people living here, so the area is much less dense than other parts of Indonesia, with just 353 residents per acre. On the other hand, it took six years to convince the Indonesian minister of fisheries to announce the creation of seven marine protected areas spanning 3,475 square miles. Even with that accomplished, it took years for the government to put fishery management plans and effective patrols in place.
Initially, Erdmann explains as we head to meet with one of the local villagers who will help determine what happens to Raja Ampat, Conservation International and its allies were hoping the Indonesian government would offer sweeping protection to the region right after the first major expedition in 2001. But in the early stages the fanfare did not translate into new protections, so environmentalists decided they were better off building grassroots support for conservation efforts.
The future of marine protected areas here lies in the hands of men like Leonard Ayello. In his camouflage T-shirt, hooded sweatshirt, and Ginotti flip-flops, Ayello doesn’t exactly look like a village elder. But as the son of the Selpele village’s spiritual leader, he wields power.
Landownership in Raja Ampat is different from other places. The islands are owned by tribes (Ammer, for example, rents Kri Island from a local tribe), and by extension they own the reefs that extend from their land. Just because a tribe owns an island doesn’t mean its members live there: the villages of Selpele and Salio own Waigeo, which is uninhabited.
Sitting in the northwest corner of Raja Ampat, Waigeo is a site of forbidding beauty. Made of karst limestone—uplifted coral reefs that over time and exposure to the air and rain have melted into undulating peaks of varying heights—the rock formations look like beehives, or haystacks, rising out of the water. With just narrow strips of sand to serve as beaches and unforgiving soil, the islands offer little opportunity for even subsistence farming. But the waters surrounding Waigeo provide refuge for an array of creatures, including blacktip sharks, sea turtles, and a vast number of fish.
American conservation groups see Waigeo as a key part of their plan to preserve Raja Ampat, but to make it into a reserve, they need to convince the residents of Selpele and Salio to give their blessing. And to do that, they have been courting people like Ayello and his father.
Ayello, like many Selpele and Salio villagers, has spent part of his life working for Atlas South Sea Pearl. Cultured pearl operations are one of the region’s biggest sources of income; as the company’s general manager in Raja Ampat at the time, Markus Pieper, tells me over tea one morning, “We’re the only industry here.” The company employs 220 workers in three different sites: most are locals, looking after the 700,000 oysters that are growing at any one time. Ayello is one of the few headed for college, but he decided to work for Pieper once more in the summer of 2007 to save up some money.
At first Ayello is reluctant to talk, but at Pieper’s urging he explains why his village wants compensation for the sort of protection environmentalists are hoping to bestow on the region. The young man speaks quietly, but his tone is defiant. “The area is all owned by us,” he says, speaking in Indonesian. “Why wouldn’t we utilize it on a regular basis? It’s still ours, and we want to receive benefits from it.”
But Ayello also respects the logic of men like Ammer who suggest that locals are being ripped off. “We feel like the resources there are being used by outsiders, and we’re not receiving the benefits,” he says. From that perspective a deal with groups like Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy—which will presumably bring in patrol boats and with them jobs for locals as patrol boat officers—makes sense. Selpele leaders are “behind the idea,” Ayello says. But it’s not sewn up, he adds. “Some are still undecided and feel they need a fuller explanation.”
While Pieper supports Erdmann’s work and gets along well with village leaders like Ayello, he wonders privately if they will be able to show the restraint necessary to keep Raja Ampat as unpolluted and bountiful as it is today. Chinese companies constantly lobby to mine for nickel on Waigeo: such operations would suffocate nearby reefs by covering them in silt. But they’re offering to share nearly a third of the profits with local tribes, and Pieper is unsure of whether the villagers will reject the prospect of such a payout.
“They take everything,” he says, recalling how he watches his employees take mangoes from the trees before they’re ripe. “It’s a mentality of ‘If we don’t get it now, someone else will.’ At the end of the day, they look at the profits and rupiah in front of them today.”
But the seven local communities around Raja Ampat—including Ayello’s village—have decided to place a long-term bet on creating marine reserves. While Chinese mining operations initially opened up in seven separate locations around Waigeo, the massive amounts of red earth that ran off from the mines into the sea smothered the reef and sparked an outbreak of skin rashes among village children. The governor of West Papua and the head of Indonesia’s naval installation in nearby Sorong cracked down and halted all mining operations in the area. And Raja Ampat’s villages opted to protect their waters from exploitation.
In December 2006, they made traditional declarations to set aside 2.22 million acres of the waters under their control in seven marine protected areas. Six months later the Raja Ampat government added its legal muscle, issuing a decree that connected the network of preserves. At this point, the area had a total of 2.23 million acres under protection. Then, after months of lobbying by the local communities around Waigeo, which welcomed the community patrols and efforts to crack down on bomb and cyanide fishing in the area, the Raja Ampat government signed a new law that dramatically expanded two of the seven reserves. As a result, 2.95 million acres of Raja Ampat’s waters are now protected.
Ayello and his neighbors, the Selpele and Salio people, went even further than Erdmann had expected by declaring the entire reserve under their control off-limits to any sort of fin fishing whatsoever. They asked for just two things in exchange: the right to take three coveted invertebrate species from one-fifth of the reserve every two years, and the opportunity to serve as paid community patrols in the area. The first time they opened up the area again, in October 2009, their collective take of sea cucumbers, spiny lobsters, and top shell brought in nearly $15,000. And more than fifty men from the two villages, including Ayello, serve in the patrol force, a gig that provides them with not only a salary but food and lodging during each two-week posting at the protected area’s field station. Saving sharks and their prey is paying dividends that Ayello couldn’t even envision a few years ago.
Financing these conservation efforts—from the patrol boats to the meals laid out at Waigeo’s marine protected area’s field station—takes money. While the Selpele and Salio people may eventually be able to finance these initiatives themselves, Conservation International needs to foot the bill for the immediate future. And the vagaries of the global economy—a stock market crash in one country, the devaluation of another nation’s currency—can have a huge impact on a nonprofit that depends on the largesse of others.
Raising money is central to Conservation International’s mission: for its Bird’s Head Seascape project alone, it has gotten financial commitments from the Packard Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore, and the Walton family (of Walmart fame). These wealthy Americans view Raja Ampat as worthy of their personal attention: Rob Walton, one of Sam Walton’s sons, has toured the area along with other major donors and CI’s president, Peter Seligmann. But Seligmann and his colleagues have realized that they need to explore less traditional ways of raising money if they want to protect the area over the long term, and that’s how they decided to sell the right to name one of Indonesian Papua’s new species to the highest bidder.
Erdmann hatched the idea himself after he saw the enormous press coverage the two walking sharks generated in the fall of 2006. By convention, the people who write the first scientific paper describing a species get to name it, so he and Allen have the power to either dub the walking sharks with the name of their choice or put that right up for sale. As long as it complies with the rules set out by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature—that it’s in Latin and includes the genus name in conjunction with the new species name—it can pass muster. To Erdmann, the act of naming the sharks is a sort of mathematical problem, where the challenge lies in turning “public excitement about the walking shark into conservation dollars.”
The idea of auctioning off a species’ scientific name is not without precedent. In late 2004 the Wildlife Conservation Society scientist Robert Wallace found a foot-tall brown and orange monkey weighing about two pounds in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park. Locals had known about the monkey for years, but researchers suddenly happened upon it and sketched out a few details about its behavior. Wallace wanted the Madidi National Park to benefit from the Internet auction, so he and the other authors writing the academic paper describing the species gave the naming rights to Bolivia’s SERNAP (National Protected Area Service) and FUNDESNAP (Fundación para el Desarrollo del Sistema Nacional de Áreas Protegidas), government and nonprofit groups committed to protecting the area.
The online auction, which took place between February 24 and March 3, 2005, generated a significant degree of Hollywood buzz. The talk show host Ellen DeGeneres declared she wanted to get in on the bidding, urging the viewers of The Ellen DeGeneres Show to make nonrefundable donations to “Ellen’s Monkey Naming Pool.” Other celebrities, such as Orlando Bloom and the late Heath Ledger, also donated items for the auction.
In the end DeGeneres and her viewers didn’t emerge victorious: it was GoldenPalace.com, an online casino, that plunked down $650,000 for the privilege of buying a small Latin American monkey as its mascot. In a press release following the auction, the Wildlife Conservation Society touted the fact it had raised $650,000 to help protect the park, which includes lowland forests and alpine glaciers in an area the size of New Jersey, but declined to name the winning bidder. Eventually, GoldenPalace.com trumpeted its purchase.
Wallace and his colleagues dutifully named the species Callicebus aureipalatii—aureipalatii means “golden palace” in Latin; to the casino’s regret, the “.com” could not be Latinized—and the $650,000 park trust fund has added eight guards to deter poaching. The casino’s CEO, Richard Rowe, rejoiced at his company’s purchase, which far exceeded the $28,000 it had paid in 2004 for a ten-year-old, partially eaten cheese sandwich said to include an image of the Virgin Mary. “This species will bear our name for as long as it exists,” he said in the statement. “Hundreds, even thousands of years from now, the GoldenPalace.com Monkey will live to carry our name through the ages.” And just so people remember, the casino has set up an official Web site, www.goldenpalacemonkey.com, where curiosity seekers can listen to the monkey’s cry as they learn about the species and buy GoldenPalace.com Monkey T-shirts, tracksuits, and thongs.
Erdmann sees the Wildlife Conservation Society auction as his role model. “Golden casino aside, $650,000 for conservation is a lot of money,” he points out as we’re scaling a ladder leading to the dock off Ammer’s Kri Eco Resort. Then again, Erdmann doesn’t want to name a walking shark after a casino. And some scientists and government officials are even more skeptical, declaring it yet another sign of how much merchandizing has encroached upon scholarly pursuits. In their view, it’s one more assault on academic integrity, like Exxon Mobil’s $100 million donation to help Stanford University study global warming. As environmental groups and individual scientists seek new ways of funding their work in an era of dwindling public resources, some ask whether they’re ignoring the inevitable conflict-of-interest questions that arise from such arrangements. Does it bestow legitimacy on certain corporations, especially those with compromised environmental credentials, if they’re allowed to endow conservation initiatives? Should rich people be allowed to name a species just because they have dollars to donate?
These practices have also raised some alarms among officials at the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, the venerable group that has arbitrated disputes over scientific names since 1895. The commission’s former executive secretary, Andrew Polaszek, a chatty wasp specialist who has named more than a hundred species himself, started polling his organization’s twenty-seven commissioners in 2007 to see what they thought of the new trend. Their opinions were all over the map, from praising the idea to decrying it as undermining taxonomy’s scientific credibility, and the commission has yet to take an official position on the matter. For his part, Polaszek sees both sides of the argument.
“If new species start to acquire a commercial value that’s pretty hefty, then there’s suddenly an incentive for people to ‘discover,’ and I use that word in quotes, new species. And the ramifications of that are enormous,” he explains.
On the other hand, Polaszek allowed, there could be advantages to auctioning off species’ names—especially if these auctions were conducted under the auspices of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. “It could be a good thing, depending on how it’s controlled. And we’re just control freaks,” he adds, laughing.
But some scientists are less amused. During dinner one night, a prominent marine biologist and conservationist—after telling me he doesn’t want to be identified—says Conservation International’s strategy should be seen in the context of streetwalking.
“It’s the distinction between a courtesan and a prostitute,” he says. “A courtesan gets a man to fall in love with her, and they enter into a mutually beneficial relationship that has financial benefits for her. A prostitute has a more straightforward ‘rack rate,’ if you will.”
“And in this case, Conservation International is the courtesan?” I ask tentatively.
“In this case,” the marine biologist replies grimly, “Conservation International is the prostitute.”
That assessment is too harsh by any measure. It is the group’s scientific research that drives its fund-raising, rather than the other way around. Moreover, the staff at Conservation International is too smart to be caught in an act of hypocrisy, providing green cover to some environmentally offensive corporation. Rather than placing the Raja Ampat species up for bidding on the Internet, the organization enlisted Prince Albert of Monaco to host the Blue Auction in his country’s world-renowned Oceanographic Museum, with just two hundred invited guests attending the black-tie affair.
As Erdmann sees it, auctioning off a species’ title for conservation purposes is not any different from the old system of patronyms, which dates back to when Linnaeus first invented the modern system of taxonomic classification in the eighteenth century. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, explorers would frequently name the flora and fauna they found after whoever funded the trip—usually a king, duke, or other royal. “Now you’re going to name something after people who are paying after the fact, but they are paying for the conservation of those species,” he says. “Same difference.”
In the end, the Blue Auction raised $2,015,000, half a million of which came from a spirited round of bidding over Raja Ampat’s walking shark. (An American named Janie Gale bought it and named it Hemiscyllium galei, in honor of her husband, Jeff.) This money has translated into direct benefits for Raja Ampat’s villagers: a vessel called the MV Monaco now patrols the area around Wayag twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The region is once again a nursery for baby blacktip reef sharks, and shark finning has disappeared. For Conservation International’s chairman and CEO, Peter Seligmann, the auction proceeds amounted to “an enormous shot in the arm for the community that lives in Raja Ampat” and a testimony to the environmental riches CI’s scientists have identified in the region’s murky waters. “When you go beneath the surface, it’s indescribable,” Seligmann says. “They’re the discoverers.”
Having waters teeming with sharks, however, is not an economic asset if they’re the sort that can launch deadly attacks. Gregg Oelofse, head of environmental policy and strategy for Cape Town, didn’t see sharks as a major part of his portfolio when he started his job in 1999. But Oelofse is an ardent surfer, and he and one of his colleagues at work started picking up word through their surfing and social circles that more great whites were showing up just off the city’s shores. One day while he was surfing with three friends in 2001, Oelofse saw it for himself. The group was surfing at a break called the Wedge off the city’s harbor wall. A white shark appeared out of nowhere next to one of his friends and then swam at the surface around Oelofse and three friends, about forty-five feet away. As they scrambled to paddle back to the beach, the shark came in front of them, then circled around back before disappearing. “It was really not pleasant,” Oelofse says now, in a dry voice.
On November 15, 2004, Oelofse assigned an intern in his office to stand up on the mountain above Muizenberg Beach, in order to do an assessment of how many sharks were in the water. That same day a seventy-seven-year-old grandmother, Tyna Webb, was killed by a great white off a nearby beach, Fish Hoek. All that was left of Webb—who had swum daily at dawn there for nearly two decades—was her red swimming cap, and people began to panic. The incident was one of four fatal attacks in less than two years, and one of fifteen attacks that took place off Cape Town’s beaches in the space of four years. Suddenly Oelofse needed to come up with a shark policy.
He convened a task force of experts to examine every possible shark control measure the city could adopt. South Africa has been the world’s pioneer in shark nets, first erecting this type of barrier in 1904 around a beach in Durban. Cape Town officials looked at establishing the kinds of mesh nets that ring much of the KwaZulu-Natal coastline to the north, which have protected the area’s beaches since a spate of attacks between late 1957 and 1958 that became known as Black December. The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board—originally dubbed the Natal Anti-shark Measures Board—is charged with reducing the number of attacks on visitors to the area’s popular beaches, and netting has helped achieve its goal. Between 1978 and 2008 these barriers caught close to 33,700 sharks, and the number of incidents involving sharks dropped by 91 percent since the nets were first installed in the 1950s. But this indiscriminate sweeping up of sea life comes at an environmental cost: only 12.5 percent of those nearly 33,700 sharks were released alive, and a number of more beloved marine animals have become entangled and perished in the nets. Every year since 2004, according to the board’s chief scientist, Sheldon Dudley, the nets have caught an average of 237 rays, 58 turtles, 53 dolphins, and 5 whales. (It’s also worth noting that about a third of the sharks caught in the nets are actually trapped as they’re heading out to sea—in other words, the barriers don’t prevent every shark from entering the swimming and surfing area.)
For years, the men and women who maintain and manage the nets have tried to fulfill the board’s legal obligations while minimizing the nets’ environmental impacts. They have been swapping out some of the nets for drum lines, where baited hooks are strung along lines attached to drums that rest on the seafloor, and have explored other forms of deterrence. This approach dramatically reduces the number of animals that are accidentally caught: drum lines replaced half of the nets along the Hibiscus Coast in February 2007, and in the space of two years nonshark bycatch fell by 50 percent. The board also removes the nets during the annual sardine run and warns swimmers and surfers that they face a heightened risk during that time. Still, Dudley knows there’s no chance of radically changing the region’s shark control policy. Given the board’s mission, he says, “there would be resistance to removal of all forms of protection.”
Even if Cape Town officials wanted to set netting or drum lines, however, the area’s rough seas and the fact that white sharks don’t spend all year close to shore make it a less than ideal location for such measures. The 2005 task force rejected outright culling of the area’s shark population as well, on the grounds it was inhumane and ineffective and would violate the white shark’s protected status under South African law. This is one of the most startling aspects of Cape Town’s shark control policy: it is based on the idea that the white sharks have as much of a right to live in the region as people do. “What we were trying to say up front to people is we don’t consider it as a problem animal. We don’t even want to use that word,” Oelofse says. “We see white sharks as an asset and a value.”
Oelofse was trained as a conservation biologist, but sounds more like a psychiatrist when he describes his office’s campaign to manage the threats great whites pose to residents and tourists who enter the water. Lean and angular, he reclines in his chair as he explains that he is facing a psychological challenge, not just one of public safety. “A lot of what we’re trying to drive is a value system,” he elaborates, sitting in his cramped, nondescript office in downtown Cape Town. Oelofse and his colleagues must convince people that these animals are an asset, rather than a curse, but they also need to have people take individual responsibility for the very act of entering the water. When it comes to surfing, swimming, and kayaking, he says, “people must realize that taking on those activities is a personal choice, and no matter what we do, there will always be risks.”
Part of the problem is that people often have difficulty processing certain kinds of risks, particularly ones associated with activities they don’t do on a regular basis. Studies have shown we’re very good at calculating the chances of things that we see as quite possible: elderly people know how likely they are to break a hip, while trained equestrians have a good sense of the chance that they’ll be thrown from a horse they’re riding. It’s much easier to contemplate the dangers you can estimate with some degree of accuracy, rather than a murky unknown. Humans accept the risks associated with plenty of mundane and unusual activities—one’s daily commute could end in a car accident, while skiing or skydiving can produce a broken leg—because they think they can predict how likely it is.
One of the best examples of this phenomenon occurs among the spearfishing community, the only group of humans that competes directly with sharks for prey. Janette and Jacques du Toit make their living by targeting game and reef fish off the coasts of South Africa and Mozambique, and they’re well aware of the danger they face in the water. They’ve had friends attacked by sharks—a spear fisherman was even killed by a white shark off Cape Town in July 2005—and both of them have faced these predators firsthand. In 2007 a ragged-tooth shark came straight at Janette while she was fishing—when she pushed it away with her spear, it spun around and came at her again. She pushed the animal away a second time, and it slapped her with its tail as it left her. Du Toit escaped without a significant injury. A year later she spotted an eight-foot tiger shark while fishing off the Eastern Cape: she managed to shoot the fish she was after, but when she went to pull it up, the shark “just went berserk, and I thought, ‘Okay, you take it.’ I just thought, ‘I’m not even going to argue.’ ”
Both Jacques and Janette describe spearfishing as a mind game where practitioners must constantly calibrate their behavior in order to ensure their self-preservation. A twenty-year veteran of the trade, Jacques recognizes what it means to share space with sharks. “You’re part of the food chain when you jump in there. That’s what makes it so exciting,” he says. “You never know what you could encounter.” While he tends to adopt a more aggressive stance toward sharks than his wife, du Toit makes just as many underwater assessments as she does and considers swimming with sharks “a calculated risk.” He knows diving in dirty water is more dangerous because it’s harder to detect what sharks might be swimming there, and if he does encounter one, he looks for any unpredictable or jerky movements. In an odd way, he is applying rationality to the most irrational of situations.
But the average human reaction to the prospect of a shark attack is anything but rational. Alison Kock, a born-and-bred Cape Town native who works for the Save Our Seas Foundation in addition to pursuing her own academic research, sensed the backlash as soon as Webb lost her life in 2004. “I almost didn’t want to tell people what I was working on, because people were so anti-sharks,” she says. The following year Kock decided to put her fears aside and hold sessions with local residents to discuss possible responses to the shark threat, but found herself fielding questions on everything from outright shark hunts to the idea of attaching a helium balloon to every shark’s tail so that beach visitors could see the animals from shore. “It felt like a witch hunt, people were so scared. When I got home one night, I told my boyfriend at the time that I wouldn’t be surprised seeing people running around town with pitchforks.” After one incident in August 2006 the city’s major paper, the Cape Argus, ran a front-page story on the subject every day for three weeks. An article in a South African scientific journal put it best: “Even though shark attacks are a minor cause of mortality for humans, this phenomenon receives an inordinate amount of media cover and interest, probably due to humans’ psychological abhorrence of being eaten alive.”1
The public pressure on the Cape Town task force was enormous. The group reviewed and tossed out all the traditional methods of shark control—exclusion nets that are so finely meshed they keep out all marine animals, physical barriers that create a similar exclusion zone—as impractical. The more innovative methods of shark control, such as erecting some sort of electrical barrier or employing sonar detection, were too expensive and still unproven. City officials were “left with nothing,” in Oelofse’s words. Which is why they turned to shark spotting.
At nine in the morning, high above Cape Town’s Muizenberg Beach, Ethel Tshandu is standing on alert. Muizenberg Beach, a spot one surfing veteran calls “the biggest nursery of surfing in South Africa,” is a place that attracts an array of people—swimmers and kayakers, along with aspiring and experienced surfers. And it also lures great whites.
Standing about five feet tall, Tshandu doesn’t look imposing, but with her binoculars, polarized sunglasses, and black Windbreaker she’s fully outfitted to do her job: shark spotting. Filling out her official data book as she stands watch in a small hut with a corrugated tin roof, the former restaurant cook is all business. She has just noted there are nine surfers, two kayak paddlers, and six bathers in the water, which only boasts 5 percent visibility at the moment. She has instructed her counterpart standing on the beach far below to raise a black flag for everyone to see, so they can know that it’s difficult to determine whether any of the great white sharks that frequent False Bay are in their midst. But she is still scanning the sea, methodically working her way from left to right across one horizontal swath after another, to see if she can detect the sharks’ black shadows in the water.
For all her precision—Tshandu’s careful recording of wind temperature, her refusal to take phone calls from friends while she’s at work—the young woman knows her job requires an enormous leap of faith. The men and women who are tugging on their wet suits and heading out to sea are banking on the fact that a single person, perched on a mountain up above them, will keep them safe from a predator whose very survival depends on its ability to commit surprise attacks from below.
“Before I start work every day, I prefer praying and saying, ‘God, I put this in your hands,’ ” she explains. “Sometimes you do get nervous. What if something happens to someone? But I just put it in God’s hands.”
The shark spotting Tshandu practices started not as a government program but as an informal system surfers employed for self-preservation. When you drive up to Muizenberg Beach, which is also known as Muizenberg Corner or Surfers’ Corner, a couple of men are constantly strolling back and forth along the sidewalk eyeing the cars parked in front of them. Known as car guards, the men expect a few coins in exchange for making sure your car remains safe; most people pay them rather than risk any sort of damage to their vehicle. For years surfers had paid the car guards while they went to sea, even leaving their keys behind with them. From time to time they paid them to look out for sharks as well, and in October 2004 Greg Bertish, the owner of a local surfing and travel business, decided to establish a formal shark-spotting operation. Bertish raised money from both corporate and local sponsors, bought some equipment, and made sure the guards got first-aid training.
Now half a dozen beaches surrounding Cape Town all have the same warning system. Every day, regardless of weather conditions, from morning until night, one person stands watch above while another remains on the beach, ensuring the proper flag is flying to signal the current conditions. A green flag means no sharks are in sight and visibility is good; a black flag means while no sharks have been detected, visibility is poor; and a red flag means a shark has been sighted within the last two hours. If a monitor detects a shark in the water, he or she triggers a siren that blasts on the beach below, letting people know they need to come to shore immediately. When the alarm sounds, people move. The whole program, which monitors four beaches seven days a week year-round and another six during peak visiting times, costs the city of Cape Town just under $125,000 a year. In addition to giving beach visitors greater peace of mind, it has provided jobs to more than a dozen underprivileged young people in the area.
Between 2005 and 2008, spotters reported 530 white shark sightings off the city’s most popular beaches. This is not even a comprehensive count of the number of great whites that move into and out of False Bay, since scientists have detected many more movements through both aerial spotting and acoustic tagging of individual sharks. Peter Chadwick, who directs the World Wildlife Fund’s Honda Marine Parks Program in South Africa, has seen the animals during his scientific missions: “The great whites are swimming amongst the bathers and the surfers. We see it from the air and everyone’s blissfully unaware, and quite happy.”
In 2005, Kock placed acoustic tags on seventy-eight great whites circling Seal Island near the city’s shores. Monitors registered a hit every time a tagged shark swam by them, making it easy to determine where the sharks spent their time during different parts of the year. Yet when Kock started downloading the data from the monitors, she couldn’t quite believe it when they revealed they had registered such an immense number of hits. “It was a complete mind blow that over 50 percent of the animals tagged at Seal Island were coming inshore, and they were staying inshore for months,” she says. At the very time that people are going to the beaches off Cape Town, the great whites are headed there as well. It’s the unintended consequence of the conservation measures South Africa has adopted over the past couple of decades. South Africa was the first nation in the world to protect great whites, in 1991, and its protection of Cape fur seals has helped the sharks as well, by providing the animals with additional prey. As the sharks thrive, their numbers are growing.
Kock’s and Chadwick’s data also underscore a simple point: if great whites deliberately hunted humans, they would be having a field day every summer off the Western Cape, consuming the many surfers, swimmers, and kayakers in their midst. They don’t, but the chances of an accidental shark attack still loom large.
The South African branch of the Save Our Seas Foundation has launched a critically acclaimed advertising campaign detailing the statistics that put shark attacks in perspective—how 652 people died in chair-related accidents in a single year compared with the 4 killed by sharks. It has made Oelofse’s job slightly easier, but it is only a start, because when it comes to the public perception of sharks, individuals do not always engage in such coolheaded calculations. (As Oelofse puts it, “When you walk into a room, you’re not scared by a chair.”)
Knowing that this is the case, Oelofse has a simple mission: keep the sharks and the people apart from each other, to the extent possible. So far the shark-spotting program has done exactly that: for several years it ensured there was not a single deadly attack off Cape Town. But Oelofse has no illusions about the success the project has enjoyed up to this point: the moment a great white takes a beachgoer’s life, the public’s trust in the shark spotters could evaporate. “We could have two shark attacks in three days next week, and the whole thing could spin back again,” he admits. “To the extent we can keep people and the sharks apart, the better for everyone concerned, including the animals themselves. Things could go badly quickly. It’s very dependent on what happens in the water.”
For decades a cadre of researchers have tried to develop an effective shark repellent, convinced that they were within reach of this holy grail. During World War II, both the American and the British governments had secret programs aimed at developing an elixir that would prevent sharks in tropical waters from savaging the unfortunate pilots and naval personnel who ended up stranded there. (This effort inspired one of the most memorable lines a politician has ever uttered on the subject, when Prime Minister Winston Churchill told the House of Commons, “The British Government is entirely opposed to sharks.”) In 1942 the U.S. Office of Strategic Services kicked off a research drive that produced Shark Chaser, a chemical repellent that used copper acetate as a deterrent and included an inky dye that resembled what a squid would spray. The powder, encased in a packet and engineered to smell like rotting shark, was attached to life jackets and included in life-raft provisions; troops were told to open the packet and dissolve it in the water if they found themselves in shark-infested waters. While Shark Chaser produced mixed results at best—experiments showed it worked only in certain instances, and servicemen continued to fall victim to sharks in the Pacific—it provided some degree of psychological comfort to the troops headed to sea.
Still, U.S. federal scientists knew they had not solved the puzzle of how to keep sharks away from humans. In 1958 the Office of Naval Research’s Sidney Galler convened a panel of nearly three dozen experts in an effort to devise a more effective repellent.2 In 1972 one of the nation’s most preeminent researchers, Eugenie Clark, determined that the Moses sole, a fish species that lives in the Red Sea, secreted a natural shark repellent. Sonny Gruber, the marine biologist who took me shark diving in Bimini, worked with a team of Israeli and Egyptian scientists in an effort to replicate this milky liquid but found there was a catch: it worked only when they injected it directly into the shark’s mouth. So much for the Moses sole solution.
The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board has experimented with a range of deterrents over the years, including electrical ones. Since sharks have such sophisticated electroreceptors, the theory goes, a pulsing electric charge surrounding a diver could keep them away. This research has produced the Shark Protective Oceanic Device, or Shark POD, which divers can wear while underwater. In two series of tests conducted on great white sharks off the Western Cape of South Africa, scientists concluded that the probability of an attack within a five-minute period declined from 70 percent to 8 percent when the unit was powered on, and within a ten-minute period the chances dropped from 90 percent to 16 percent. Since the experiments simulated a worst-case scenario—the researchers were offering bait to the white sharks at the very moment they are in their most aggressive predatory state, during their annual pilgrimage to the area in search of Cape fur seals—the chances of facing an attack while wearing a Shark POD are even less likely.3 However, the Shark POD has its limits: it can’t protect an entire bathing area, the unit is not mass-produced, and it’s not as if every recreational swimmer is going to take a dip wearing a bulky electrical unit.
A few inventors based in Oak Ridge, New Jersey, have been experimenting with a range of potential repellents since 2001, the so-called Summer of the Shark. Eric Stroud serves as managing partner of Shark Defense Technologies, and he and his colleagues have been trying out their material on Gruber’s lemon sharks for years. They discovered by accident that magnets made of neodymium, iron, and boron can rouse sharks from a catatonic state known as tonic immobility and prompt them to flee, but the magnet works only if it’s ten inches away from the shark in question. The firm won $25,000 from the World Wildlife Fund’s annual International Smart Gear Competition in order to develop magnets that could keep oceangoing sharks from being caught on fishing lines aimed at attracting swordfish and tuna, and they are also exploring the possibility of embedding metals in nets that could repel the sharks instead of having them entangled in the nets and killed.
This work holds considerable promise, though it’s yet to be fully realized. A group of scientists have already tested whether electropositive metals could repulse juvenile sandbar sharks in a lab, the first step in proving that electrical hooks could deter sharks from going after unintended bait. The researchers, led by Richard Brill at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, determined these types of metals did put off groups of sandbar sharks attempting to feed and altered the swimming patterns of those that were not seeking a meal.4 Some of these effects were not always long-lived, however, and a team of researchers—which includes Stroud—are still trying to determine what size, shape, and exact metal composite would work best as a deterrent.
Shark Defense has already developed a prototype of a circle hook that could potentially work. The hook, which has a gleaming metal composite wrapped around it, almost looks too gorgeous to sit out at sea on an industrial fishing line. But if it works, the industry could face pressure from environmental activists and regulators to incorporate it into their gear. And these rare earth metals, worn as an anklet, could also help humans avoid shark strikes.
In many ways, the inventors at Shark Defense are using the sharks’ own biology to protect them from harm. They are working on a chemical repellent based on the scent of rotting sharks, a closely guarded, slightly sweet-smelling combination of a dozen compounds known as A2. Patrick Rice, a partner in the company and its senior marine biologist, explains they’ve mixed a more effective version of the repellent, which does not have to be injected directly into a shark’s mouth. The fact that this scent repels all types of sharks suggests it stems from a primitive instinct that evolved before sharks radiated into an array of species. At the same time, the scent attracts the very bony fish that sharks seek out as prey. “It’s sending a chemical signal to sharks: get out of here,” Rice says. “It’s sending another chemical signal to bony fish: the predators are gone.” They’ve already packaged the repellent in a number of forms: as a pressurized aerosol spray and as a “pop-pouch,” both of which can spurt out underwater at a moment’s notice, and as a hard waxy gel that can be injected into bait and seep into the water over time. The latter method would work best for fishing vessels, giving anglers an incentive to keep sharks alive. And while Rice is an unabashed booster of the repellent’s powers—“It fires out, and the sharks are gone!”—even he knows these safeguards have their limits. “Just like anything else, nothing’s 100 percent effective. If a shark’s in a frenzied state, if they’re hungry enough, they’ll start eatin’.”
We are often unwilling to acknowledge that experiencing nature carries a risk as well, one that might be a little harder to calculate. Every wild ecosystem operates on a cycle of life and death, and it’s naive to assume that one can enter it without, on occasion, falling prey to those forces.
Average citizens in the United States, and most other industrialized countries, have resisted this message for decades. Instead, they tend to blame people in power for not protecting them adequately. In a fascinating piece of electoral number crunching, the Princeton University politics professors Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels found that voters tend to punish incumbent politicians for natural disasters, including floods, droughts, and shark attacks. “As long as responsibility for the event itself (or more commonly, for its amelioration) can somehow be attributed to the government in a story persuasive within the folk culture, the electorate will take out its frustrations on the incumbents and vote for out-parties,” Achen and Bartels write. “Thus, voters in pain are not necessarily irrational, but they are ignorant about both science and politics, and that makes them gullible when ambitious demagogues seek to profit from their misery … In most cases, incumbents will pay at the polls for bad times, even in situations where objective observers can find little rational basis to suppose that those incumbents have had any part in producing the voters’ pain.”5
To test this hypothesis, Achen and Bartels analyzed the impact of America’s seminal shark attack incident—the killings off the Jersey shore in 1916. The attacks took place just a few months before the 1916 presidential election and generated a spate of negative press for President Woodrow Wilson at the time, including an editorial cartoon in which a black fin titled “defeat” slashed through America’s Northeast. Wilson, the former governor of New Jersey, was alarmed enough to call a cabinet meeting in the wake of the attacks, but his advisers were at a loss to offer any preventive policy response. Wilson did command the Coast Guard to patrol and survey the beaches where the attacks had taken place, but at that point the damage was done.
Wilson managed to hold on to the White House in the fall, but he lost New Jersey. More important, he suffered a noticeable dip in the four beach counties—Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic, and Cape May. Achen and Bartels estimate “the negative effect on Wilson’s vote in the beach counties is a little more than 3 percentage points … The shark attacks indeed seem to have had an impact—about one-fourth the effect that the Great Depression had on Herbert Hoover’s vote in New Jersey 16 years later.” He did even worse in two of the townships hardest hit by the shark attacks—with an eleven-point decline in Beach Haven and a nine-point drop in Spring Lake, far more than the negligible changes in the Wilson vote in these townships’ broader counties and in the state. As the professors explain:
Shark attacks are natural disasters in the purest sense of the term, and they have no governmental solution. Yet the voters punished anyway.
Of course, it is possible that the voters did not blame the government for the attacks themselves, but did blame it for not helping them with their economic distress. In that case, retrospection might not be blind. No doubt voters told themselves something like that at the time. Yet in the case of the sharks, it is not clear what the government could have done to help the local economy. The truth could not be covered up. The vacationers could not be compelled to come to the beach, nor could the sharks be forced to stay away.6
With every fresh shark strike, politicians often scramble to show voters they are taking concrete action to protect them. Virginia’s former Republican governor George Allen formed a shark task force in the wake of the 2001 attacks, in large part to ensure that his state’s tourism industry would not suffer a serious downturn. In the end, however, the task force failed to spur any significant changes in state policy. The group did offer commonsense advice in a public report, warning beachgoers who fear being attacked that they should avoid swimming at times when sharks may be feeding: late afternoon, evening, and early morning. But Virginia Institute of Marine Science emeritus professor Jack Musick, the task force’s lone scientist, says public officials have to accept the limits of their influence as well. “What the hell are you going to do?” he asks.
Most politicians, and their aides, have a very low tolerance threshold when it comes to sharks. Since I was covering the 2008 presidential campaign for The Washington Post at the same time I was writing this book, the idea that I was scribbling about sea monsters in between rallies provided considerable amusement to some of the political junkies riding along with me on John McCain’s Straight Talk Express. On April 25 a shark, most likely a great white, killed sixty-six-year-old Dave Martin off San Diego’s Tide Beach in a single bite. It was the first recorded attack in Southern California since 1959, and it came on the heels of a report on the most shark-infested beaches in North America. Steve Schmidt, one of McCain’s top strategists, e-mailed a news article about the attack to me, and within minutes Mark Salter, another senior McCain adviser, added his own, gently mocking note: “As u can see, this is v distressing to both schmidt and me. Pls reconsider publishing your testimonial to the virtues of these vicious creatures.” When the news hit less than a week later that a U.S. surfer in Mexico had fallen prey to yet another shark, Salter kept firing off messages. “Jeez, we settled the West abt 130 years ago. Every place in America should be purged of vicious predators. what kind of country are we?” he wrote in one. Then, in a separate missive, “Holy shit, Juliet. These beasts must go. It’s us v. them. Better hurry up and publish. This time next year, they’re going to be as rare as a wooly mammoth.” While they were joking on one level, their banter also carried a clear message: Why would anyone give a thought to keeping these creatures around?
Just as McCain’s aides were firing off these e-mails, some surfers down in Mexico decided to take measures into their own hands. Eager for vengeance, they waded into the water where their compatriot had been killed. And they began murdering sharks.
Fascinated by Schmidt and Salter’s preoccupation with sharks, I decided it was worth polling the man they worked for, McCain, on the issue. As one of our bus rides came to a close, and his press secretary, Brooke Buchanan, was doing her best to shoo reporters off the bus, I piped up that the next ride should be entirely devoted to a discussion of shark policy, but in the meantime I wanted to know where the senator stood on the question of sharks.
He looked at me, and the other journalists gathered around me, smiling. Pausing for a moment, he declared his allegiance in the Campaign Shark Wars. “I gotta be pro-shark,” McCain said, with a little shrug. “They’re important to the whole chain.”
Ever the politician, McCain quickly sought to split the difference between the two sides. “But I don’t want them eating people,” he added. “I’m pro-shark, with the important caveat that I don’t want them eating people.”
Buchanan—the lone shark supporter among McCain’s campaign staff, who happened to be sitting next to Salter at the time—raised her fists in victory. The candidate had spoken.
On South Africa’s Eastern Cape, the men and women face the same quandary that McCain fumbled to articulate on the campaign trail: how to tolerate an uncontainable threat for the sake of an abstract ideal. Everyone’s got a job to do: Oelofse and Dudley, who want to keep tourists as well as sharks coming to their region in the summertime; the du Toits, who accept the fact that they will cross paths with sharks in the course of their underwater workday; and Tshandu, who composes songs in her head as she stands watch from the mountain above Muizenberg Beach. More than most people in this world, they have learned how to negotiate daily life with the ocean’s fiercest predator.
As the car guards make their rounds at Muizenberg Beach, the two veteran surfers pulling on their wet suits in the parking lot take a little comfort that a shark spotter is looking out for them. They know the risks they face, and they’re realistic about what they can do to protect themselves. Peter Stride, who has been surfing for nearly half a century, begrudgingly gets out of the water each time the shark alarm sounds. But he’s philosophical about what fate might await him in the Atlantic, harboring just one wish should he meet a great white in the water: “If a shark wants to bite me, please heave off and leave me dead.” And with that he laughs and heads for the waves crashing behind him.
On January 13, 2010, Oelofse’s worst-case scenario transpired. A thirty-seven-year-old tourist from Zimbabwe, Lloyd Skinner, swam by himself off Fish Hoek beach. Though shark spotters were positioned at their usual stations—one on the beach and one at a hut overlooking the water—they could not prevent the lethal attack by a great white shark that took Skinner’s life. The entire incident, which involved three separate strikes, lasted roughly three minutes. Within moments the news had gone viral as a nearby resident tweeted about the incident. “Holy shit, we just saw a GIGANTIC shark eat what looked like a person right in front of our house in fishhoek. Unbelievable,” wrote a Twitter account user called skabenga.
A confluence of factors contributed to Skinner’s demise. He had separated himself from about a dozen other swimmers in the water, making him more vulnerable to an attack. He happened to swim near a school of fish, which attracted the great white to his vicinity. And worst of all, it appears the shark mistook Skinner for a seal, launching a deliberate strike from deep beneath the sea’s surface. “All indications are that this attack was predatory in nature,” Oelofse and two colleagues wrote in a review after the fact. “The shark’s behaviour as described by eyewitnesses and as seen in photographs displayed classic signs of feeding behaviour i.e. thrashing at the surface using its tail to facilitate chewing action.” The shark spotter stationed on the beach saw the third pass the shark made at Skinner and immediately radioed his counterpart stationed at the mountain lookout. That spotter, who was looking at an area of water north of Skinner, never witnessed the incident, though he did see the blood in the water once he turned his attention to Skinner’s location.
In the end, the reviewers concluded the shark-spotting program hadn’t failed. They had raised the black flag to indicate that shark-spotting conditions were poor: the choppy water and intermittent cloud cover made it hard to notice fins breaking the ocean surface. Just as important, the fact that the shark struck from below meant it would have been all but impossible to warn Skinner ahead of time that he was at risk. Still, Oelofse knows that explanation might not be enough to satisfy a skittish public that had expected the shark spotters to protect them from harm. “This time round the reaction has been much tougher than usual as it happened at a beach where our shark spotting programme is,” he wrote in an e-mail shortly after the attack. “However, the questions remain the same—the public wants to know why, which, of course, we can’t answer as we don’t know.”
In the end, Skinner’s death underscores a harsh reality: there is no way to eliminate the threat the most dangerous sharks pose to us. The best we can hope for is to lessen the odds. If we don’t recognize that, there is no possible way we will learn to live with them.