Ten Fast Fin based questions from WA’s shark guru Blair Ranford. I first met Blair through our fight against the government sanctioned slaughter of sharks of the coast of WA but you may have seen his work on shows featuring Australian sharks on Discovery Channels “Shark Week”.
1. How old were you, where were you and who were you with when you saw your first shark? Can you share with us a little bit about that memory?
Not sure exactly but it would have been quite young, say 5-6 years old from memory. It was Sea World on the Gold Coast where we had a family holiday home. I went there almost every holiday from Primary school right through to Uni days. I must have drove my parents mad pestering them every trip to take me there again. I could stand transfixed for hours watching those big Grey Nurse sharks cruise around.You could also go up top where you could look down into the tank, and you would only be a hands reach from the surface. I vividly remember once one of the sharks swimming by close enough to touch, and I did. I looked around after thinking I was about to get in big trouble, but no one saw me. I felt so alive at that moment being so close to the beautiful animal, and I’ve had that feeling ever since around the ocean and in particular sharks.
2. Do you have a favourite species of Shark? Can you tell us why?
I think as a kid it was the Tiger shark. It always seemed to be portrayed as this lowly scavenger, and I remeber lots of fishing mags running pictures of dead ones that fisherman had caught, strung up on the dock. I had a lot of empathy for those beautiful sharks, and knew from my own reading (even at an early age) that they important predators. Much to my mum and sisters displeasure a large poster of a tiger shark adorned my bedroom wall for years. As I’ve become involved in shark research, directly with Great White sharks in South Africa they have also held a particular fascination for me. As a surfer and diver in Southern WA, growing up in Victoria, and spending a lot of time in Cape Town Great Whites occupy a strong place in my mind. I am equal parts fearful of (fear mixed with large respect) and in awe of these super sized sharks. I’ve had many amazing encounters with them, and the fact they show clear distinct personality traits makes them all the more fascinating.
3. Do you have a Shark Hero? Someone who inspires you today?
Growing up I fed myself on a diet of Ron and Valerie Taylor, Jacques Costeau and Rodney Fox doucumentaries. I was always fascinated at Rodneys story. Bitten by a Great White that nearly killed him, and yet turned that experience around to become a life long advocate for shark protection. I’m still in awe of him today. Ron and Valerie also inspired me greatly. Their adventures, through film, opened my eyes to a whole world of sharks. Working with Great White sharks every year in South Africa, has also introduced me to some amazing people. Firstly Alison Towner, a white shark biologist with the Dyer Island Conservation Trust. I’ve known Alison for a number of years and her dedication and committment to the Great White, and ability to communicate their importance to people has been eye opening. Many of my most amazing shark experiences have been shared with Alison on the research vessel Lwazi. I’ve also been fortunate to spend many hours at sea with Chris and Monique Fallows. Chris is a world reknown wildlife photographer, with a particular focus on the breaching Great Whites of his home in False Bay, South Africa. He and his wife hav also introduced me to many other shark species such as Makos, Blues and Sevengill sharks. Their knowledge is second to none, and a day spent with them is the equivalent to a marine safari. And of course everyone involved with fighting the shark cull here in WA. It was truly amazing and inspiring to be part of a crowd of close to 8000 people standing up for our sharks. Who would’ve thought we could see such a turn out for one othe worlds most hated and demonized animals. This fight has introduced me to so many passionate people from all walks of life.
4. What is your favourite shark dive memory? Do you have a dream Shark Dive location? Who gets you there and what does it cost?
Hard to pick just one! The first Great White shark I ever saw was obviously amazing but I think I was so excited that it was mostly just a blur. I have a photo taken on a disposable u/w camera (in the days before GoPro’s) of that shark, and he’s looking right at me with those amazing eyes they have and very close. That will always stay with me. I was also lucky enough last year to visit one of my dream destinations, Guadalupe Island off Mexico. This lsand is 240kms out to sea, and blue of the water and visibility have to be seen to be believed. We had some fantastic grat whites to do with there. With the water so clear they seem to have a different mindset to the sharks you see in South Africa. They are very much relaxed, as you can see them coming from over 120ft away. I had an amazing dive in a small submersible cage, where I was able to sit on top of the cage and for the first time ever view these sharks without bars between us. We had a 12ft male great white do laps of us in slow motion, coming as close as 10ft away. At no point did I feel threatened at all, and simply was in total awe of this animal. With the visibility and relaxed nature of this shark called ‘Johhny’ you could really take in all details of one of natures most perfect designs. I was also lucky enough to swim outside the cage with blue and mako sharks. They didn’t look too big from the boat, but underwater they suddenly seemed a hell of a lot bigger! The blues are mostly very cruisy, gregarious and are of the most stunning shade of blue i’ve seen. The makos whilst not big ones, were a totally different story. Their disposition reminded me of someone with a nervous disorder. Fast and twitchy, they would fly in to look at you before veering away just as quick. Heart starters for sure.With multiple sharks in the water, this was without a doubt one of the best experiences of my life. You simply didn’t know where to look from one minute to the next. And lastly I can’t not mention diving with Sevengill sharks in the kelp forest in False Bay. 100m from shore, in an underwater forest with big, bold sharks that are among the most ancient of shark species. Must do for everyone. Ok one more, lol. Whale sharks at Ningaloo reef. Clear blue water and the worlds largest fish. What’s not to love.
5. Why Sharks? Why not dolphins or fur seals or trees? Can you explain a little bit about what fascinates you about them?
Predators have always held a special fascination for me, and to this day I struggle to put in words just what it is. I used to get quite angry when I was younger listening to people make comments like ‘only good shark is a dead shark’ or that they were ‘mindless killers’. I was quite young but with just a little research I knew that not to be the case, and it frustrated the heck out of me that other people couldn’t see it. Also so many people were protecting koalas, or pandas or any of the cute and cuddly critters that I felt it simply unfair that not many people were doing the same for our sharks, crocs, lion, wolves etc. I just knew inherently they were important, and needed a voice too. Of course being a regular surfer and diver, in some of the sharkiest places to be found you can’t not be fascinated wih an animal that can consume the mind every time you enter the water. I would read every story of shark attacks and encounters I could find, and end up equally scared and intrigued. And to be honest, sharks do scare me! And that’s ok. They are large and powerful Apex predators, and should be given full respect. Fear can be healthy, and it helps people make informed decisions as to when to use the water. Schools of baitfish, whales, seals etc in the water should all give people pause before entering the water. Often as a surfer you get ‘feeling’ like a cold shiver and it’s this sixth sense I listen too, as well as the obvious warning signs such as baitfish, seals etc. I have seen sharks surfing and diving, although never a White. But I have no doubt that many Whites have seen me to which I was oblivious. And I think the very nature of the ocean, it’s alien aspect where our senses are dulled or completely comprimised adds to our fascination with what lies below. You could walk in the bush in Africa, but still see, hear, smell perfectly well. You could run if need to, or climb a tree. But the moment you enter the water you are completely vulnerable. You are now the slowest fish, weakest seal, the blind baby unaware of whats occuring around you. In the words of Hunter.S.Thompson, ‘It was the Law of the Sea, they said. Civilization ends at the waterline. Beyond that, we all enter the food chain, and not always right at the top.
6. Do you have a favourite Shark photo at the moment?
Any photo of a healthy and alive tiger shark connects with me at the moment. As someone spending a lot of time on the water monitoring the Fisheries vessels conducting the shark cull, I’ve witnessed a lot of tiger sharks being treated terribly.
Tigers released ‘alive’ we have seen sink to the bottom dead. Tigers they claim are dead, and treated as such we have seen are clearly alive. Hooks through heads and more. Terrible to witness such brutality inflicted on a shark which is not responsible for a fatal attack in southern WA for nearly a hundred years. The amazing photos of the tiger shark called Emma, interacting peacefully with divers really strike a chord. I hope that one day instead of killing our tigers here, we can all be experiencing a dive like they have at tiger beach.
7. What individual or group do you think most needs to be taken swimming with the sharks and why ?
I think the people who sit on the fence on shark issues, especially when it comes to concersn like shark culling. There will always be the exterme minority who will not change their opinions, ‘only good shark a dead shark’ forever their creed. Personally I’ve learnt not to waste my time trying to reason with these types, and instead concentrate on education and knowledge for those who don’t have access to it, or haven’t been exposed to it. There are so many people who simply don’t know anything about sharks other than what the media tells them. The whole ‘Jaws’ mentality that pervades our media reporting of sharks has a lot to answer for in vilifying and demonizing sharks. With the shark cull here in WA, we have seen so many people come to see this cull as cruel, ineffective when previously they were pro cull. Once people see the images of how we are treating these sharks, of how drum lines may very well be making it more dangerous, and learn more about the animals involved they often become vocal opponents of the cull. And if we could show people the true beauty of sharks by swimming with them, you would have converts for life.
8. What does your family and friends think of your fascination with sharks?
My friends and family for the most part fully understand my fascination. And I’ve been lucky enough to see first hand a lot of good friends become passionate shark supporters from trips I’ve taken them on. My parents are still a little bemused I think that I chose sharks, and coming from a different generation may never fully get my passion for this animal. But they do accept it and support it. Although I know they are certainly not a fan of my shark tattoo’s, lol. And my family and friends are under the clear understanding that if I were ever to suffer a fatal shark attack (or croc attack) that they are to speak up in the media, that under no circumstances would I want the animal killed. I acknowledge the risks I take in entering a wild environment. And my family and friends understand that 🙂
9. If you could speak “shark” on your next dive..what would you want them to know ?
I would certainly teach them what a drum line looks like, and to avoid it at all costs. And would ask them politely for their own good to leave people alone. But that if they did have to for any reason could they please keep an eye out for politicians and do us all a favour.
10. Where is home for you? What is the biggest threat to Sharks in your region? What can our readers do to help change this?
Home for me is Perth, Western Australia. And the Cape region of South Africa is like a second home to me. The biggest threat in WA is currently the shark cull taking place. And make no mistake, despite the Govts insistence on arguing semantics, it is a cull.
And of the worst kind. Based on zero science, against the express opinions of every leading shark scientist, and with absolutley no proof that it will in anyway make it safer.People can help in a number of ways. You can get involved at the facebook page #noWAsharkcull. Sign petitions, write to the WA govt, hold a protest in your local area and share it with us. Most of all though, just be a passionate and proud supporter of our sharks and marine ecosystem. Use calm reason logic and science to educate people about the issues they face worldwide. Let’s win the world over, one person at a time 🙂