Wild Thing: Shark Tourism

Wild Thing is an occasional series where JHU Press authors write about the flora and fauna of the natural world—from the rarest flower to the most magnificent beast. 

Guest Post by Gene Helfman

One of the true and ongoing pleasures of writing a popular, science-based book about sharks is that it’s a great conversation starter. You continually meet people who say, “How cool! I love sharks.” And then you get to talk shark. Dispel myths. Drop facts. Correct misconceptions. And listen to stories. The fascination with sharks crosses all ages and sexes. Grandparents brag about how much their grandkids know about sharks, but invariably ask questions of their own.

I have just returned from two and half months in the Florida Keys and Belize, and these shark-related conversations happened everywhere. There was the German couple with a five-year-old daughter to whom I taught the German word for shark, haifisch. Now she says her name is Sophie Haifisch. I also met a Canadian couple with two teenage sons; one couldn’t hear enough about sharks, nor could his parents. The other son wants to be a corporate lawyer. Then there was the retired Senate staffer who wasn’t sure if whale sharks were sharks or whales—so many opportunities to educate.

Equally encouraging is the growing common knowledge that sharks are in trouble. People seem to be universally appalled at the Chinese shark fin trade and happy to hear progress is being made to curtail it, largely because of grassroots efforts by ordinary people. Everyone finds the recent upsurge in manta ray fishing to make gill plate soup, also for Chinese markets, horrifying. And we just learned, via the efforts of a Hong Kong-based marine conservation organization called WildLifeRisk, that a factory in China’s southeastern Zhejiang Province is slaughtering over 600 whale sharks a year to produce shark oil for health supplements and fins for the shark fin soup market. The products are exported to the United States, Canada, and Italy, against international law (more info can be found here).

Helfman_Carib Reef SharkMuch of our time in both Florida and Belize was spent in the water, fish watching. At Looe Key sanctuary in the Florida Keys, we were treated to a short visit by a five- or six-foot long Caribbean reef shark that stayed around long enough to have its picture taken. In Belize, we spent a week at Glover’s Reef Atoll, about forty miles off the coast. The funky resort, complete with cabanas over the water, sits in a marine reserve and abounds with sharks and rays. The locals fish daily outside the reserve and then clean the fish at the dock. This brings in a regular parade of nurse sharks, lemon sharks, spotted eagle rays, and southern stingrays. Many of the latter were missing their tails, purportedly from encounters with hammerhead sharks, their chief predator. The nurse sharks were big and oblivious. They almost posed for pictures.

Helfman_Nurse SharksWe fortunately had a long layover on our return and got to visit the many curio shops in the Belize City International Airport. Shark stuff was everywhere. It included the usual collection of tasteless junk manufactured in southeast Asian daycare facilities. But some of the locally produced, carved wood products were among the best, most realistic shark and ray replicas I’ve seen anywhere. I couldn’t resist taking home an anatomically-correct spotted eagle ray. I just hope the wood was sustainably harvested.

Helfman_Eagle Ray

Helfman_SharksGene Helfman, coauthor, with George H. Burgess, of  Sharks: The Animal Answer Guide, is professor emeritus in the Odum School of Ecology’s Program in Conservation Ecology and Sustainable Development, University of Georgia. He lives on Lopez Island in northwest Washington State.