I can trace my love of sharks back to a weirdly specific moment. When I was seven years old, my dad and I went on a sailing trip to Menorca. To keep me entertained on the long journey there, he gave me a pack of Sharks Top Trumps (a card game for those that have never played).
The perfect combination of the small photos and fact files on the card coupled with seeing the azure crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean for the first time sparked my imagination. I was obsessed with these cards, the way the sharks looked, the diversity of them, and learning facts like tiger sharks can give birth to up to 80 pups! Much to my dad’s bemusement, I would play with the cards everywhere we went, on the jetty, under the mosquito-ridden night light, when my dad was just trying to have a quiet pint at the bar; I was hooked!
One shark, in particular, captivated me the most. I was fascinated by the curiosity held in the eye of the blue shark (Prionace glauca). I also was astonished to learn they are the most widespread of all the sharks, found in every ocean; true ocean wanderers.
They were also apparently right there in the Mediterranean under the little laser pico (sailing boat) I was capsizing regularly. Imagining this shark gracefully and curiously meandering its way in the depths below, to me, it seemed, embodying adventure, sparked a vivid dream I still remember to this day, I dreamt I was a blue shark roaming the oceans amongst them.
Now let’s fast-forward ten years when this dream finally became a reality. And the reality surpassed all of my expectations.
The first time I swam with sharks was when I was eighteen, when I volunteered on a cage diving boat in South Africa, taking tourists out to see the great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias).
Like most people, initially, I was filled with trepidation, nerves, and excitement. I did not know what to expect coming face to face with such a large predatory animal, lurking in the murky cold water. And I had also grown up with the sensationalist media portrayal of sharks as “man-eaters” and, of course, had watched films like Jaws.
Despite my fascination with sharks, all of these things had fundamentally taught me sharks were something to be feared and at best an oddity to be marvelled at; in the same way we watch horror films, we want to experience something scary but at a safe distance. This misconception was soon to be shattered and my life changed.
Immediately upon taking the plunge into the chilly 9 °C water off of South Africa’s Western Cape, in a remote fishing town called Gansbaai, meaning “Bay of Geese”, an absolutely huge 4 m female great white launched past the metal bars of the cage. She was massive and this was an extremely visceral experience. But beyond the unbelievable size and power of this creature, only metres away, once the initial excitement subsided, it was replaced by a deep sense of awe and respect for this majestic animal.
She glided through the water with delicateness and grace, she was poetry in motion, and I was transfixed.
In stark contrast to the media portrayal of these bloodthirsty, unthinking, cold and efficient killing machines, with a dark lifeless and beady eye, here was a predator moving with serene grace and sentience. In fact, sharks actually have a pupil and eye fairly similar to ours, and you could see this eye moving and taking in the surroundings with intelligence and curiosity. As quick as this had all happened, her dorsal fin coiled like a spring, and with one effortless beat of her tail, she was gone, back into the green haze of water beyond.
I was left with a newfound sense of respect, wonder, and confusion. In one sense I could see raw, monstrous power edged with many sharp rows of teeth, the perfect killing machine. But I also saw this creature for what it really was. A sublime and beautiful apex predator, completely fine-tuned over 450 million years and perfectly adapted to be in delicate balance within the marine ecosystem it thrives in.
Whilst studying them, I became aware of how important sharks are. They are vital to the health of our oceans. They eat the weak, sick and elderly animals, and control the populations of other species lower in the food chain, ultimately promoting biodiversity and keeping our marine ecosystems such as seagrass and kelp beds, coral reefs, and seal rookeries healthy and intact. This is known as top-down control, whereby apex predators such as sharks control the populations of species at lower trophic levels to keep an ecosystem finely balanced in dynamic harmony.
In addition to all this, I also became aware of what is at stake if our sharks disappear.
In the last year of my degree I investigated the decline in white shark sightings in Gansbaai, South Africa and discovered a seriously worrying trend. Over the last few years, the sharks have all but disappeared from the region, and this could well be because their numbers are depleting.
This disappearance may also be correlating with increases in seal numbers, decreases in African penguins and myriad species of fish, as well as a potentially worrying removal of the kelp forests, which the whole temperate marine community relies on for its habitat. In fact, the great white sharks themselves potentially use the kelp forest to lie in wait and ambush their prey.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, though - 150 million sharks are killed a year worldwide, mostly for their fins or as bycatch.
Recent research estimates, across all shark species, there has been a 70% decline in shark numbers since 1980. This includes my favourite shark, the blue shark. They are actually the most heavily fished shark in the world, with 20 million of them killed a year. And surprisingly to me, they are heavily caught even in the UK, as bycatch, and in European waters.
In Spain, they are considered a delicacy and sold as tintorera meat, in your everyday supermarket. Although globally blue sharks are considered near threatened, they are critically endangered in the North Atlantic and all but extinct in the Mediterranean, due to overfishing.
I would never have thought since discovering and being fascinated by how amazing sharks were eighteen years ago, as a boy learning to sail and falling out of boats in the Mediterranean Sea, that these creatures would be in such drastic need of our help.
But what can we do to help them? I believe in the power of communication and changing peoples’ attitudes via appeals to their emotions.
I am now studying wildlife filmmaking at the National Film & Television School, and I am hoping to change people’s minds about sharks and the natural world in general, through filmmaking and by telling the stories of passionate advocates devoting their lives to protecting nature. And this is what I have hoped to convey in my first student film Painted Blue, about wildlife artist and conservationist David Miller, who is seeking to change peoples’ attitudes towards sharks through his paintings.
I fervently believe if enough people can be reached and shown the truth about sharks, that they are fascinating, vital yet vulnerable creatures, then we stand a chance of saving them before it is too late.
Only in the last few years have I learnt that it is actually possible to swim with the blue sharks in the UK, going out with companies like Celtic Deep in Pembrokeshire and Blue Shark Snorkel in Cornwall.
After searching for sharks in South Africa, it has been truly special for me to discover I could achieve my childhood dream of swimming with blue sharks, right here at home. And it is a truly magical experience. These sharks are an exquisite shade of iridescent blue, as their name suggests, but its mesmeric quality has to be seen to be believed.
What’s more, these sharks are like inquisitive puppy dogs as they gently swim amongst the divers and nudge cameras with their snouts in an almost comical fashion. The experience has moved people to tears. As David Miller puts it, “A childlike sense of joy” comes over you.
Perhaps it is by promoting experiences like these and as we learn more about sharks that we can succeed in making people think differently about these much-maligned, misunderstood, and underappreciated sharks. Perhaps then, once enough of these perspectives have been altered, then we still might be able to save our sharks.
(Photo Credit: @bellarosebunce)
Written by Robin Fisher
I am a wildlife and surf photographer originally from Norfolk but moved to Cornwall to study a degree in Zoology at the University of Exeter, Penryn campus.
I then published a research paper about the disappearance of white sharks in South Africa and am passionate about science communication and storytelling.
Likewise, I especially love stories about the ocean and the underwater world and am now studying directing/producing science and natural history at the National Film & Television School, hoping to one day make marine conservation films with an impact!