Culture

Iridescent Skin: A Multispecies Journey Of White Sharks & Caged Humans

Raj Sekhar Aich, an expert in marine anthropology, takes readers along with him on a thrilling journey into the world of white sharks and cage diving. Raj unveils the dynamics between humans and these awesome yet ecologically threatened apex predators.
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February 10, 2024 04:04 EDT
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Inside my suicide vest, I had my laptop, pens, dictaphone, GPS, click counter, and for the surveys, I had single survey sheets, set on two A5-size waterproof clip boards, with attached pens, which I could fit in my vest’s main compartment, and could deploy immediately. I made a disclaimer about my research, and asked them if they would like to participate, which most people gladly did, except the ones who felt particularly seasick. Seeing me play the part of the “expert” on the boat helped the tourists to open up. I had to be always listening, noting down, and observing what was going on, and had to be serious about shark conservation, look the part of an adventurer with all his tools and kits of “researching.”

They often asked questions about the sharks in the region, where we were going, and how much chance we had of actually seeing them; most of them came with realistic expectations about shark sighting. The knowledge that they had a scientist onboard also possibly made them feel that they were part of something bigger, and not just a touristic endeavour; hence, they wanted to help as much as they could.

As we got near the island, all the tourists would come out to see it. It would look isolated and even primitive, and the seals would be a sign that is the domain of the white shark. The setting itself created a great backdrop of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure experience. Mike would decide which side he wanted to anchor on, depending on the tides, winds, and the experience of shark sighting from the days before. As soon as we anchored, Macca and I would start getting the cage ready for deployment. The cage was secured on the platform behind the boat, attached with a heavy belt passing through and tied with another rope attached to the railing. First, I would open the ratchet, with which the belt was attached. Once done, the primary rope attached to the cage would be untied from the railings and re-attached to the crane hook; this was crucial, as otherwise, the cage could fall in the water. Once it did fall in the water, and Carwyn had to dive to attach the cage with the crane line, for it to be lifted. This came as a shock to the tourists watching; as Carwyn tells, the tourists were mortified to watch Mike insisting “a woman” to get in the “shark-infested” waters to retrieve the cage.

Mike’s daily spiel was a great source of knowledge for the tourists to learn about global and local shark population and biology. “Worldwide, there are only 3.5 thousand [adult] sharks, so there’s not a lot of them. Those figures are compiled in places like South Africa, Australia, the US, and New Zealand. [He included Mexico later.] We’re pretty sure of the number of sharks in New Zealand; we know that in these waters, each year, there are 120 to 140 sharks, which is a lot of sharks in a very small area. Everywhere else in the world, they are solitary animals; so, there is a plus or minus 10 per cent than what we expect the numbers of sharks globally to be. The shark liver forms one-third of its weight; in fact, till they were protected in New Zealand, they were hunted for three purposes: for their liver oil, fins, and jaws. Here, for a four-metre [13 feet] shark, the jaw would trade for NZD 10,000–12,000, but you couldn’t eat the meat, because being our top predator, the sharks were very high in mercury.”

He would continue saying, “The numbers are declining very gradually each year—that is one of the sad things about it, because what we can’t afford to do is lose an apex predator. Thank goodness, they are protected, but unfortunately, there still are some local Stewart Islanders, who have been fishing them for years and still think it’s fun to kill a shark and hang the jaw in the garage or at home.”

Once the cage was attached to the crane, it was lowered into the water, off the platform, and then was attached to the platform with bolts. The next part of setting the cage can be frustrating if the waters are choppy. The boat moves at its own speed, as does the cage, and it can be a delicate process of getting both the bolts right into the socket, considering how heavy the aluminium cage is. Even after doing it for months, I still used to get anxious with one leg on the half submerged platform, and the other on the loose cage, trying to fasten it, when I knew there probably were big white sharks swimming below us at that very moment.

I had to deploy and set the underwater camera linked to the TV in the cabin. The TV screen became the window to the underwater realm, primarily important to spot the sharks, and Mike had plans of having high definition cameras, to get footage that he could sell to the Discovery Channel. So now, the underwater space in front of the camera was another stage for the act to occur, and here, there was only one actor of interest—the white shark.

Jim Corbett, the famous British hunter and naturalist, had been known to have spent thousands of hours on top of his treetop hut to observe and even kill man-eating tigers in India. My treetop observation platform, which was sometimes too close for comfort, was the back platform of the boat and the cage top. While being on top of the submerged cage (and the cage platform often kept me busy, because I had to attend to the tourists getting in and out of the cage), it did provide me a strategic position to observe the sharks and the human–shark interaction.

Any research that incorporates situations where the observer has to be in close proximity of large predators, always brings its own challenges, particularly in case of a researcher who is not a confident swimmer, working inches away from 12–18-feet-long great white sharks and is petrified of them to begin with. I had to remind myself of the perils of complacency, when often I would put my hand inside the water and outside the cage to take a perfect photograph of a passing shark, forgetting the most important dictum in the cage diving practice: “It is not the shark that you can see is what you should be worried about, but the shark you are not seeing.”

[Niyogi Books has given Fair Observer permission to publish this excerpt from Iridescent Skin: A Multispecies Journey Of White Sharks & Caged Humans, Raj Sekhar Aich, Niyogi Books, 2022.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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