Inside my suicide vest, I had my laptop, pens, recorder, GPS, click counter, and for research, I had individual research sheets, pinned to two A5 size waterproof clipboards, with pens attached, which I could put it in my main vest compartment and it could be deployed immediately. I made an announcement about my research and asked if they would like to take part, which most people were happy to do, except those who felt particularly queasy. Seeing me play the role of “expert” on the boat helped the tourists open up. I had to always be listening, taking notes and observing what was happening, and I had to take shark conservation seriously, look like an adventurer with all my “research” tools and kits.
They often asked questions about the sharks in the region, where we were going and what chances we had of actually seeing them; most of them came with realistic expectations about shark sightings. The knowledge that they had a scientist on board also made them feel like they were part of something bigger, and not just a tourist venture; therefore, they wanted to help as much as they could.
As we got closer to the island, all the tourists came to see it. It would look isolated and even primitive, and the seals would be a sign that it is the domain of the great white shark. The scenery itself created a great backdrop for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure experience. Mike would decide which side he wanted to anchor on depending on the tides, winds and shark sighting experience in the previous days. Once we anchored, Macca and I would begin preparing the cage for launch. The cage was fixed to the platform behind the boat, secured with a heavy belt running through it, and tied with another rope attached to the railing. First, I would open the ratchet that the belt was secured with. Once this was done, the primary rope attached to the cage would be untied from the bars and reconnected to the crane hook; this was crucial, otherwise the cage could fall into the water. Once he fell into the water and Carwyn had to dive to attach the cage to the crane cable so it could be lifted. This came as a shock to the tourists watching; as Carwyn tells it, the tourists were mortified to see Mike insisting that “a woman” go into the “shark-infested” waters to retrieve the cage.
Mike’s daily talk was a great source of knowledge for tourists to learn about the global and local shark population and biology. “Around the world, there are only 3,500 [adult] sharks, so there aren’t many of them. These numbers are compiled from places like South Africa, Australia, the USA and New Zealand. [He included Mexico later.] We are almost certain of the number of sharks in New Zealand; We know that between 120 and 140 sharks live in these waters every year, which represents a lot of sharks in a very small area. Everywhere else in the world, they are solitary animals; so there are more or less 10% of what we expect to be the number of sharks worldwide. Shark liver represents a third of its weight; in fact, until they were protected in New Zealand, they were hunted for three purposes: for their liver oil, fins and jaws. Here, for four meters [13 feet] shark, the jaw would be traded for NZD 10,000-12,000, but you couldn’t eat the meat, because being our main predator, sharks were very rich in mercury.”
He would go on to say, “The numbers are decreasing very gradually every year – that’s one of the sad things, because what we can’t afford to do is lose an apex predator. Thank God they are protected, but unfortunately there are still some local people on Stewart Island who have been fishing for them for years and still think it’s fun to kill a shark and hang its jaw in their garage or house.”
After the cage was attached to the crane, it was lowered into the water, off the platform, and then secured to the platform with bolts. This next part of the cage setup can be frustrating if the waters are rough. The boat moves at its own speed, as does the cage, and it can be a delicate process to get the two screws into the socket considering the weight of the aluminum cage. Even after months of doing this, I was still anxious with one leg on the half-submerged platform and the other on the loose cage, trying to secure it, when I knew there were probably great white sharks swimming below us at that very moment. time.
I had to deploy and configure the underwater camera linked to the cabin TV. The TV screen became the window to the underwater kingdom, important especially for spotting sharks, and Mike had plans to have high-definition cameras to get images he could sell to the public. Discovery Channel. So now, the underwater space in front of the camera was yet another stage for the act to take place, and here there was only one actor of interest – the great white shark.
Jim Corbett, the famous British hunter and naturalist, was known to have spent thousands of hours atop his tree-top hut to observe and even kill man-eating tigers in India. My treetop viewing platform, which was sometimes too close for comfort, was the back deck of the boat and the top of the cage. Even though I was on top of the submerged cage (and the cage platform often kept me busy because I had to tend to tourists coming in and out of the cage), it gave me a strategic position to observe the sharks and humans. shark interaction.
Any research that incorporates situations where the observer has to be close to large predators always brings its own challenges, particularly in the case of a researcher who is not a confident swimmer working inches away from a 3.6 to 5.5 meters long. sharks and is petrified of them to begin with. I had to remind myself of the dangers of complacency, when I would often put my hand in the water and outside the cage to take a perfect photograph of a passing shark, forgetting the most important saying in cage diving: “It’s not the shark What you can see is what you should be worried about, but it’s the shark you’re 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 those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.