I am a surfer……and I love sharks.
For many these two passions would seem controversial and at odds, but as a shark conservationist and a surfer; for me these two things are inseparable.
My love for the ocean and understanding of the species that live there is what gives surfing a greater meaning and enriches the experience of being in the water, and it seems despite the fear and often volatile reactions towards sharks within the global surf community; a tide is turning and many other surfers are starting to feel this connection too.
Its no secret that as surfers we share some of the worlds best surf breaks with large marine animals such as sharks, and many surfers fear an encounter with these creatures – for most the imagined threat of a shark attack always looms in the back of the mind and can distract from that perfect ride.
However shark encounters are extremely rare; In 2016 there were a total of 107 shark bites reported globally. Eight of which were fatal.
It is not known for sure how many of these bites happened to surfers, but those that did, most likely occurred due to the fact of all ocean users; surfers are often those who spend the most time in the ocean in regions where sharks and good waves intermix.
Of course sharks are wild animals, in the ocean we are in their element; and despite the fact that sharks do not target humans as prey, (if they did there would be substantially more encounters and fatalities) accidents can occur and these are often tragic and traumatising for the individuals and families involved.
However most surfers/swimmers who have survived a shark encounter, do not blame the sharks and recognise that as terrestrial beings we are in their habitat.
In fact sharks have much more to fear from us than we ever have of them…..it is estimated in 2016 that between 63 million and 273 million sharks were killed globally.
They are caught in by-catch and in targeted fisheries all around the world for various trades, but most commonly sharks are caught for their meat and for their fins; a component of shark fin soup, this demand means sharks are disappearing fast; many are already threatened with extinction.
Scientists agree from the current global trend of decreasing shark species; that we stand to loose two thirds or more of all shark species in the next 20-30 years.
Sharks are apex predators and scavengers, as such they play a critical role in balancing marine ecosystems over 400 million years in the making and their decline is having catastrophic consequences across marine ecosystems.
Whilst we currently have no way of knowing exactly what that could mean, the scientific community are predicting very serious consequences that will effect us all.
It is this imbalance, the need for better education and new ways of communicating these issues, that prompted the creation of UK based shark NGO Fin Fighters in 2014 and our new international campaign #Surfers4sharks which was launched in March 2017.
#Surfers4sharks is working to spread awareness of shark conservation issues and grow an understanding for these species among surfers worldwide, We are developing Ambassador programs, Collations with awesome surf brands and events and establishing shark encounters/activities for surfers to experience these animals in their habitat.
One of our biggest projects within this is spreading the importance of responsible and safe surfing to avoid shark encounters, as surfers we need to take precautions and avoid surfing in places and at times that sharks are known to hunt, as much as possible; avoiding this is our responsibility.(https://www.surfers4sharks.org/safe-surfing)
Further to this we are developing relationships with companies and organisations that offer shark patrols or replant devices rather than promoting the use of nets or drum-lines which kill indiscriminately and damage ecosystems.
What we are already starting to see with the #Surfers4sharks project and through the pioneering work of Fin Fighters and other shark NGO’s; is a huge shift in public opinion of sharks, and as such its clear that surf-conservation is growing and enriching communities worldwide.
Armed with a little shark awareness and a better understanding of the species; more and more surfers are joining this movement and promoting the fact that as athletes and enthusiasts enjoying the ocean, it is important to have respect for sharks and marine ecosystems, because healthy oceans need sharks.
With the Fin Fighters #Surfers4sharks initiative we are proving that we can not only co-exist with sharks but that by riding with respect rather than fear, we can thrive.
We are looking for Surf Ambassadors and photo/film contributors; if you are interested we would love to hear from you.
Learn more at: www.surfers4sharks.org & www.finfighters.org
Fin Fighters: @finfighters