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Grand Cayman, The Cayman Islands, Summer 2017. Myself and the research team at the Department of Environment are heading out for another day of data collection for my master’s thesis. Another day of transect surveys estimating invasive lionfish densities. Another day at sea, in awe of life beneath the waves.
Today however, we are expecting company: Caribbean reef sharks. Perhaps not the most ‘exciting’ shark species to many, but this will be only the second shark species I have ever seen firsthand. So off we go.
Before we continue with the story, a bit of background is needed. In the Cayman Islands, predatory species such as sharks and groupers have learned to associate the spears used to cull lionfish with a ‘free meal’. So any sharks on the survey sites are likely to be as interested in us as we are in them…
Upon arriving at the dive site, all seems normal. No Sharks. Yet. We are undisturbed on the first of the four transects. I start reeling in the transect when I hear my dive buddy banging on his tank. Maybe the tape is tangled? Perhaps I am going too quickly? These were my first thoughts as I turned around. He was pointing into the blue.
I turned my eyes to see a shape heading towards us. Slowly. Our company had arrived. The reef shark was maybe 2.5 m in length, and for a top ocean predator, was far more graceful in the water than I could ever hope to be. The shark circled the reef in silent superiority. I hovered, transect tape still unreeled over the reef, transfixed by this magnificent creature, wondering how this dive could get any better. It did. Two more reef sharks followed the first, circling the reef, waiting patiently.
Remembering why I was in the water in the first place, I reeled in the tape and moved onto the second transect, under the close watch of our new research assistants, the sharks. We found no lionfish on the second transect, so were uninterrupted by our fishy friends who remained on the perimeter, still circling, as though to remind us who was really in charge here. Not us.
Halfway through the final transect, I located a lionfish under a coral overhang, and summoned my dive buddy, who had the spear and was responsible for culling the lionfish. He came over, followed closely, and quickly by the reef sharks. They waited.
The sharks were just as aware of the lionfish as I was, yet I knew they would do nothing until the lionfish had been speared. Unfortunately, the lionfish got away and we continued on. A few meters later, the five of us (Myself, my buddy and reef sharks 1-3) came across a second lionfish, again under an overhang.
My buddy descended with his spear and disappeared under the overhang. A couple of seconds later, I heard the spear release and strike the lionfish. I was not the only one who heard this. In what seemed like a microsecond, three shapes darted past me heading straight for the overhang, one headbutting me in the urgency for a free ‘fast food’ lionfish meal. I didn’t even have time to warn my buddy, not that he was likely to miss the sight of three reef sharks darting towards him.
What felt like half an hour later, but was probably only a couple of seconds, the sharks emerged, and I am to this day convinced they looked as smug as it is possible for a shark to look. My buddy then emerged, still holding the spear, albeit an empty spear. The reef sharks had achieved their free meal, at the expense of a point on my thesis data set. Believe it or not, I was willing to forgive them.
This wildlife encounter is certainly not the most exciting out there, but for me it proves a point that is being increasingly lost in the media. Sharks are not the man-eating beasts we see personified on our TV screens today. Sharks are not deserving of the horrific mutilation and murder they receive from the shark fin trade, and in response to the media.
I did not once feel threatened by the sharks I encountered. They were there to reap the benefits of a free meal, a meal about 5% the size of myself. Not once did they behave in any way that made me think I was their next meal. What I experienced from these sharks was a peaceful dominance. Sharks are not a threat to human lives. Humans are a threat to shark lives.