Conservation

Rehabilitation of a shark finner

Few shark conservationists will have once been dynamite fishermen who made a living from finning sharks. On the island of Malapascua, one ex-fisherman now spends his time guiding thresher shark dives and working to protect the species.

Words & photographs by Shane Gross

With the first hues of daylight yet to colour the morning sky, Nhato and I walked along the beach. It was 4:30am and we were making our way to a small dive boat that bobbed amongst the merging peaks and troughs of passing waves, a rhythmic and gentle rise and fall. The morning was filled with such stillness it was impossible to imagine that a hurricane had decimated these shores just a few short years ago. On this particular morning on Malapascua, the wind barely rose above a whisper. 

Even without a risen sun overhead, the air was already warm and humid. But it lacked the intensity of the midday heat which, as I carried my heavy dive camera to the lolling boat, I was grateful for. Mellow yellows and oranges coloured the sky as the sun began its slow ascent from the horizon. Despite the early hour, the day already had a vigour and vividness to it. And I, an alertness. This was a moment I had long thought about – the start of a day that would see me diving with some of the ocean’s most enigmatic creatures: thresher sharks. 

Malapascua, a tiny island located off the northern tip of Cebu in the Philippines, is regarded as one of the world’s most reliable sites for thresher sharks – as near to guaranteed as nature will provide. Monad Shoal, a seamount that rises from thousands of metres deep to within 15 metres of the surface, is where the sharks are typically encountered – it is a cleaning station, where the sharks can have their bodies ridded of parasites courtesy of cleaner wrasse. The site is special because thresher sharks tend to stay much deeper, out of the range of scuba divers. Their ascent to be cleaned offers a rare interaction opportunity. 

Thresher sharks are an unusual but beautiful species, easily identifiable courtesy of their huge eyes, tiny mouth and, most significantly, their enormous tail. The thresher shark tail is almost equal in length of the rest of the body. As far as we know its primary function is for hunting – a whipping weapon used to stun prey.

As the bubbles cleared and I peered down into the blue I was struck by the water clarity, but as we descended visibility reduced significantly. I reminded myself that encounters with threshers here were renowned for being close; visibility wasn’t important. As we reached a depth of about 30 metres, hovering alongside the edge of the seamount, my dive guide Nhato Reuyan pointed into the murky blue. Moments later a 10-foot thresher shark swam within feet of us. We’d been in the water for mere minutes. I didn’t even raise my camera to capture an image. I just looked, in awe, as the shark glided past, its huge tail scything through the water with incomprehensible gracefulness.

Just as special as the creature encountered, was the story behind the man who I was sharing the experience with. Nhato, my dive guide, grew up on Malapascua, during a time before the island found renown as a world-class diving destination. His family had little money, so Nhato was required to work from a young age. He got his first job at the age of 12, on a shark fishing boat. The primary ‘fishing’ technique used on the boat was dynamiting. The fish that rose to the surface after each blast were not hauled aboard as catch, however. Instead, the fisherman would wait for the sharks to arrive, scavengers grateful for the easy meal. That is when the fishing would begin. While some of the shark meat was consumed locally, the sharks were caught primarily for their fins, which were shipped to China.

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Issue Six
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This feature appears in ISSUE 6: Reconnection of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue Six
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