Fred Garth – As the saying goes, you never forget your first time. In my case, I’m talking about the first time I swam with a whale shark.
To put into perspective how rare whale shark sightings are, I had been scuba diving for 10 years and racked up more than 3,000 dives before I saw one. As a full-time adventure travel writer, who spent most of my life in airplanes, hotels and boats, I’d explored the reefs of more than 80 countries. Life was hard.
My assignment in the summer of 1996 was to photograph schooling hammerhead sharks at Cocos Island, Costa Rica. After a mind-blowing dive surrounded by hundreds of hammers, my dive buddy and I hung on the decompression line 15 feet below the surface. For some reason I looked down. There she was – a whale shark – just 20 feet below us, lumbering along with no apparent agenda.
I punched my buddy and pointed down. We released the line and sprinted toward the 40-foot-long spotted giant. For the next 20 minutes, we bonded with one of the most majestic creatures on Earth, the largest fish in the ocean. The experience was nothing short of magical. Our other dive buds, who were waiting anxiously on the boat and wondering where we’d disappeared to, were green with envy and a touch of seasickness.
This genocide is exacerbated by the fact that sharks reach pup-bearing maturity slowly (in their teenage years) and only have offspring every one to two years. Therefore, the ability of sharks to rebound from this bloody slaughter is close to impossible. Many species are facing extinction having been depleted down to just 10 per cent or less of their population.
To change course, we face two common challenges: money and politics. Shark fins support their own economy comprised of hundreds of fishing boats and thousands of workers around the world making their living killing sharks, not to mention the seafood markets and restaurants that profit off the backs of sharks – literally.
From a political point of view, shark fishing is regulated by both domestic and international agencies. So, in order for politicians to write meaningful regulations and achieve sustainability, they need accurate scientific data. That’s where groups like the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation (GHOF) come in.
For the past several decades, the GHOF has been tagging a variety of threatened shark species such as tiger sharks, oceanic white tips, short finned makos, and our beloved whale sharks. These tags track the movements of the sharks for long periods of time – as much as a year or longer – so we know where they travel and when. This helps to identify the regions that need to be protected and the nations that need to join the cause.