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Swimming with sharks

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Swimming with sharks heightens our appreciation of these amazing creatures, according to South African-based New Zealand marine biologist Ryan Johnson.

Swimming with sharks

It’s one of the reasons why he has bought eco tourism venture Blue Wilderness in Durban where people can snorkel with blacktip sharks.

A passionate conservationist, Johnson is a leading authority on sharks, including great whites, which he has swimming and working with for 15 years. His ultimate goal is to protect these mostly misunderstood ocean predators and since purchasing Blue Wilderness four months ago his focus has been to make it “a genuine eco touristic shark diving operation”.

“We’ve developed techniques that bring the sharks up to the surface and allow snorkellers to get in with them,” Johnson says. “That way we can introduce people to sharks who have previously have had no experience other than seeing them on TV. It’s proving to be a massive way of changing people’s perceptions.”

He is also helping fellow shark scientists by making facilities and resources at Blue Wilderness available to support their research.

Blue Wilderness is just one of many projects Johnson is involved in because while science is his real love he has realised that education, eco tourism, activism and legislation are also key to helping sharks survival and protecting them from being over fished, becoming victims of by catch, and destined for shark fin soup.

“Science and common sense tells you that without top predators in the ocean it isn’t going to do very well at all. If you take out big predators then secondary predators can explode and then further down the food chain things crumble and it pushes it out of whack,” he says. “Sharks have been around for 400 million years and for the past 20-25 years as shark fin soup has become popular we’ve been putting them on our dinner plates … if humankind’s legacy is to destroy a 400 million year old evolutionary line … it’s probably the most horrible legacy we could ever imagine to leave.”

Enduring movies like Jaws have also not helped sharks cause. “We have to get way from this one-dimensional mindset of them as a man eater,” Johnson says. “If people believe that then they won’t really have an appreciation for them and get behind the conservation effort.”

Johnson admits he was nervous when he first got into the water with a great white and that thoughts of ‘will it attack me’ were going through his head. Instead it ignored him and swam on by. Up until then he had only observed sharks above the water but that looking at them in the water was something special.

“I love and admire sharks a lot. When I was younger the attraction was definitely the adventure and working with one of those charismatic species but since then I have come to appreciate the amazing diversity of the species. It never gets boring because there is always more to learn,” Johnson says. “[Sharks] are rare, they’re big, they’re really fun to interact with. Not in the same way as a panda or dolphin because they definitely don’t have that level of interaction with humans but I don’t really seek that. I just love admiring them for what they are.”

In 2005 Johnson was involved in one of the biggest breakthrough discoveries that showed great whites were trans-continental. Using satellite telemetry technology he helped track Nicole, a great white, from South Africa to Australia and back. At the time it was the longest migration ever recorded by a shark. It was a key finding which helped get great whites listed on CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) “because we showed that national protection was not sufficient to protect the population”, he says.

He is also one of the proponents of a marine research internship programme established in 2008 through Oceans Campus. The programme has begin to see a new wave of shark scientists emerge including former Oceans Campus intern Riley Elliott who has been central in the campaign to get shark fin legislation changed in New Zealand. The Government recently announced that that finning of dead sharks will be completely banned by 2016. The new laws mean New Zealand will join many nations including Australia, the US and EU that have banned shark finning.

Johnson is supported in his endeavours by his wife, underwater photographer Fiona Ayerst. The couple met on a film shoot where Ayerst was free diving with great whites. She is also a director of conservation group SharkLife. “She gets in the water more than me,” Johnson says. “She spends her life diving with and photographing sharks. Our relationship, profession and passion go hand and hand. Travelling all over the place with our son Finn, 5, diving, studying and doing stuff with sharks is pretty much our life now.”

Johnson doesn’t consider swimming with sharks to be dangerous though he concedes the situations and environment that he works in are. “I have had a number of close calls. I’ve got beaten up many times but it is typically the result of me getting in the wrong place or trying to do some type of innovative scientific technique where you know you are pushing the boundaries and you get in the wrong place and you get hit but it’s not the shark trying to bite you or attack you.”

On one occasion he was experimenting with a bite meter with a great white and it got hooked up in its mouth. Spooked, as the great white tried to escape its tail whipped round and cracked Johnson twice on the back. “I thought I was going to be paralysed but I walked away,” he says.

Attaching satellite tracking devices to dorsal fins on deck during OCEARCH, the largest shark-tracking research project in the world, which involved tagging and tracking 50 sharks including 35 great whites was also tricky. “Sharks are very placid most of the time and you can get a bit blasé and put a leg either side of the body and suddenly the shark starts thrashing and when you’ve got a one and a half tonne animal thrashing around on you, you definitely get thrown and pinned underneath it, it’s quite dangerous.”

According to Johnson five in 100 great whites will be interested in you so when you go into the water with them you want to take something like a broomstick or unloaded spear gun to be able to “prod the off” but if you do encounter a shark that is interested in you, you want to be able to hop out of the water.

Great whites are not man eaters says Johnson. Attacks on humans are rare and in 95 per cent of shark attacks they typically bite, then realise it is something that is not on their menu and swim off.

“It is an unfortunate reality that when a great white bites somebody the chance of breaking an artery and causing somebody to bleed out is very high and that is how most people die as opposed to being consumed in any way,” he says. “

Johnson is a guest at the New Zealand International Science Festival in Dunedin from July 5 to 13, 2014.

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