If you think marine biologists get blasé about the remote places we’ve been and the wonderful animals we’ve seen, think again. I’ve visited countless uninhabited islands and spent hours underwater with incredible creatures such as turtles, manta rays and giant groupers — and I love talking about them. But even among the pros, just like the public, sharks are a special cause for fascination and discussion.
These days, sharks have been decimated worldwide and annihilated in many places. You could dive for weeks on end in the Caribbean or the Asian Islands and not see one. A good sighting would be a glimpse of little reef shark racing off into the blue, terrified. (Of course, we could join the shark-feeding tourism extravaganzas, but marine biologists tend to rank these efforts alongside zoos — good fun, good even for public education, but not the real thing.)
Regardless, a good view of a shark instills immediate respect. They take your breath away, especially up close. These are the ocean’s great predators, honed by millions of years of evolution: perfect in their way. Their steel-eyed gaze gives you a sense of cold rationality as they cruise, almost effortlessly past you. But these “apex predators” aren’t just awe-inspiring; they are an integral part of a functioning ocean.
My shark sightings have been mostly in the remote reefs of the Seychelles and the Chagos Archipelago. The Chagos used to be thick with sharks in the 70s — scientists on expeditions then worked with armed guards, an extra buddy to keep an eye out and a large stick to hand if the sharks got too inquisitive. By the time I got there in the ’90s, though, you only saw one or two sharks per dive, and they weren’t so inquisitive. But that’s good compared to most coral reefs where you might just see one shark every 10, 50 or 100 dives. Even in the remote reefs of the central Indian Ocean, sharks have been “mined” to miniscule populations.