Three ocean artists – a painter, a sculptor, and a photographer – recently set out together on a journey to the crystal clear waters of the Bahamas, teaming with sharks. Their mission: to share the beauty of sharks with the world in hopes of convincing leaders in the Bahamas and Florida to protect this last shark stronghold; doing so would help to secure the health of our oceans and our own existence on the planet. While global shark populations have been severely depleted by fisheries targeting sharks for the fins, the sharks in the Bahamas have been largely spared…but for how long? Descending the downline toward the sandy bottom some 70 feet below, I couldn’t believe my eyes! The seafloor was alive with the silhouettes of large sharks, spiraling like a tropical storm, with sharks converging then drifting out from the center. Approaching the seafloor, my eye caught the distinctive blunt nose, speckled stripe pattern, and impressive girth that could only belong to a tiger shark swimming through a melee of reef and lemon sharks.
I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as my eyes darted from shark to shark, trying to identify the shapes and positions of other tigers. A quick count revealed eight large tiger sharks, ranging from 8 to 14 feet in length, mixing with two dozen reef sharks and a half dozen lemon sharks. It was game on! It’s nearly impossible to describe how humbling and inspiring it is to experience a close and intimate encounter with these apex predators. The first time you enter the water and dive with these sharks, your mind battles, still brainwashed by the media from decades of propaganda that has taught us to fear and even hate sharks. We have been programmed to believe they are mindless man-eaters, looking for every opportunity to devour whatever’s in sight. But once a person has spent time in the company of these impressive animals, it becomes abundantly apparent that everything the media has tried to convince us about sharks is all wrong. These are intelligent creatures, purposeful and graceful in every movement. They keep our oceans healthy and in balance as they have done for hundreds of millions years. When we enter their realm and approach them with respect and care, there is little reason to fear them. I touched down with a thud on the sandy bottom, stirring up an undesirable cloud of silt that I hoped would quickly settle. I didn’t want to be surprised by one of these sharks coming in! Glancing to my left I noticed Dr. Guy Harvey, his eyes alert, his body in motion, and his camera rolling as he danced with the sharks. To my right, Wyland looked like a boxer in the ring, his hands gripping a large HD video camera with larger strobe lights – he engaged with and faced down one tiger after another. Looking around, where was Jim Abernethy, our expedition leader and renowned shark matador? The flash of camera strobes caught my attention near the bait station.
Staring intently, I could just make out the barely-visible silhouette of Jim engulfed in a swarm of sharks. He was turning and rolling in perfect harmony with the sharks, all the while capturing beautiful images and calling out instructions to his guests. Jim is one with the sharks, and the exhilaration and sacredness of this moment captivated us all. In that moment, the importance of this expedition revealed itself. The Bahamas is considered one of the last remaining shark strongholds in the world. What is needed now is the governance to make this natural sanctuary officially protected under Bahamian law. The insatiable demand for shark fin soup in Asia has led to a global shark-finning epidemic. Throughout the world’s oceans, industrial fishing fleets have annihilated shark populations, reeking wreaking havoc on coastal and open ocean ecosystems. The sharks of the Bahamas have largely been spared because the Bahamas enacted a longlining ban in 1993, following a longline incident in Walkers Cay that devastated a local reef shark population.
As a result of this ban, Bahamian sharks have not been subject to the leading cause of global shark declines, direct commercial harvesting, and by-catch by longline fisheries. Subsequently, the robust shark populations, combined with increasing popularity of sharks with divers, have enabled the Bahamas to become a world leader in shark diving tourism. Arguably, nowhere else in the world can divers consistently interact with such a large number and diversity of sharks as found in the crystal clear waters of the Bahamas. Sadly, this may all change in the near future. China has recently made significant, billion-dollar investments in the Bahamas, and Chinese immigration into the country is on the rise. In other island nations, the combination of these factors has often led to severe exploitation of local shark populations by traders to satisfy demand for shark fins back in China.
A recent request for a shark fin export permit by Sunco Wholesale Seafood in the Bahamas suggests that the Bahamas may soon follow suit. If this were to happen, the sharks will rapidly be fished out, the shark tourism industry will collapse, and the thriving Bahamian marine ecosystem will suffer immeasurably. However, in the face of this clear and present threat, an alternative has been proposed to declare the entire Bahamian exclusive economic zone (EEZ) a shark sanctuary that would establish the Bahamas among the leaders in global shark conservation. The PEW Environment Group and Bahamas National Trust, with the support of local NGOs, prominent businesses, leading scientists, and thousands of passionate individuals, have spearheaded the shark sanctuary initiative. Armed with sound environmental research and compelling economic data, these organizations have presented a definitive case that long-term conservation of sharks, versus short-term exploitation, is far better for Bahamians from both an ecological and economic perspective. Sharks as the apex predator play a critical role in maintaining balanced reef ecology upon which important Bahamian fisheries are dependent. Healthy reefs, teaming with reef fish and sharks also support a thriving dive tourism industry. Tour operators, hotels, restaurants, retail businesses, and transportation providers all stand to gain from the protection of sharks. Bahamians are now realizing this fact and a groundswell of support is building within local communities.
Inspired by this incredible opportunity, our team came together in the Bahamas in a bold move to garner global support for the shark sanctuary. Dr. Guy Harvey, marine artist and biologist, has become an icon in the sport fishing industry for his paintings, science and conservation endeavors. Wyland, marine sculptor, painter, and conservationist, has brought the beauty of the oceans to the world through his building-sized, ocean murals and sculptures. And expedition leader, nature photographer, and author Jim Abernethy is best known for his abilities to bring divers into the world of sharks – sans cages. Jim lives at sea year-round, spending more time up close to large sharks than anyone else on the planet. George Schellenger and I were invited to join this impressive trio on their expedition as the documentary team who would bring this important story to the world. Sitting in the salon of the Shear Water Resort on the last evening of the expedition, we watched in silence as the ocean artists went to work, creating the images that represented their individual impressions from this journey. As they talked, laughed, and related their experiences from the trip, powerful images began to take form on canvas and screen. Dr. Guy Harvey spoke up first, “I call this one ‘First Pass’.”
The sketch depicted a turtle barely escaping an attempt by a tiger shark to feed on it. Dr. Harvey has become renowned for his paintings depicting game fish predator-prey interactions. Now, the sharks, and particularly the tiger sharks of the Bahamas, had made a profound impact on him. His drawings contain an important message – that as the apex predator, sharks play a critical role in the ecosystem, and must be respected and cherished for the awesome predators that they are. Wyland was next, and utilizing a combination of pencil, felt pen, and brush stroke, he created an image of a solitary tiger shark, gracefully gliding through the shallow Bahamian waters. In describing the image, he shared how the beauty of the tiger sharks had captivated and inspired him to create this painting, an image that depicted the true nature of these animals – intelligent, cautious, and worthy of our appreciation. We then asked Jim to share with us the photographs he had been processing. Jim humbly declined, stating his images had no place at the table with these great artists.
We insisted and Jim ultimately conceded. Rotating his laptop to face us, he flipped through several images. The room fell silent as the stunning images touched each of us personally. Jim had captured the artists and guests, each in that special moment of interaction with the sharks – that moment when the sharks ceased to be abstract creatures or feared predators, but rather individuals with personalities. Jim had captured that moment when the bond is formed between man and nature, a silent bond, an intimate connection that compels one to think deeper and take a stand to conserve these vulnerable creatures. The truth is, the images that Dr Harvey, Wyland, and Jim created on that final night spoke to something we all shared – a deep passion and respect for nature and all that it has to offer.
Though most will never have the unique opportunity to experience these sharks in their own habitat, the powerful images these artists created and the stories of their journey will create a window into the value of sharks and their critical role in the ocean ecosystems. And perhaps through the eyes of the artists, we will see the beauty of the ocean and all of its creatures in a new light. Ultimately, these artists hope to inspire others to take the steps required to preserve them for generations to come. -Shawn Heinrichs www.bluespheremdia.com What can you do? If you live in the Bahamas: Voice –Voice your support for a Bahamian shark sanctuary to your community and elected officials. If you live outside the Bahamas: Sign – Sign the online petition to protect sharks in the Bahamas. http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/549/487/335/ Write – Write to Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission voicing your support for increased protective legislation for all species of sharks. Vote – Vote to elect government officials who are conservation-minded.