[Editor's note: The following post is written by Kydd Pollock, marine biologist for The Nature Conservancy in Hawai‘i. Kydd’s 2010 encounter with a reef shark is profiled in Discovery Channel's Shark Week segment, Shark Fight, which aired on August 15. This is the final post in a series about his encounter. Read the first and second posts.]
Since so few people are actually bitten by sharks each year (about 100 out of all seven billion of us), my encounter always sparks interest. And lots of questions. The first one I am usually asked is: “How can you go back in the water? Aren’t you scared?”
For me, getting back in the water was a given and is totally natural. I couldn’t wait to jump back in and fortunately I did, in just three weeks.
It’s not that I’m a macho tough guy. It’s that shark encounters are extremely rare. My experience in 2010 was an unusual one. And to be fair, one caused by humans operating in the natural home of sharks. The shark got caught up in our nets, and then out of fear lashed out at the nearest thing – a human, who happened to be me.
Think of the millions of hours humans are in the ocean all over the world: swimming, surfing, diving, fishing and boating. It’s unlikely you’ll ever see a shark, let alone interact with one. And because most people jump in the water and don’t see sharks, they think there aren’t supposed to be any.
But at Palmyra Atoll they’re everywhere, and we’re learning that that’s what Mother Nature wants it to look like.
One of the greatest strengths of Palmyra Atoll and the research we do there is the opportunity to see what a healthy ecosystem looks like and how animals behave in it. At Palmyra, the sheer diversity and the millions of pounds of fish is mind-blowing. When you jump in the water, you see dozens of sharks, huge schools of fish and massive quantities of coral. At night, you can look into the ocean and see lobsters feeding all over the top of the reef.
There is a cyclical connection between the ocean and land: when tuna push bait fish toward the surface, seabirds feed on those fish. Then the birds nest on the atoll, and their waste puts nutrients back in the water. The zooplankton feed on the waste, and small fish and manta rays feed on the plankton. The big fish feed on the little fish, and so on up to tuna and jacks and sharks.
Almost everywhere else in the world, there is a missing link in that chain. But in Palmyra, we can see an entirely intact system. This gives us an idea of what to aim for when we try to manage, restore and protect marine resources in places teeming with people – which is most of the rest of the planet.
Palmyra Atoll gives me hope, and I feel glad I can do my itty bitty part to improve the health of our oceans. We all can. Learn where the seafood you eat is coming from, how it’s caught, and whether or not it’s endangered. Vocalize your opposition to destructive fishing practices; that’s how we got dolphin-safe tuna. If you are a fisherman like me, take only what you need and release the rest. Always leave fish in the water – especially the biggest fish, since they make the most babies (it’s okay to take a picture of it for bragging rights, though).
If we take care of the ocean, we can appreciate its magnificence and use its resources to feed people for generations to come.
By hey, for those of you who are still really worried of meeting a shark, here are some tips to avoid them: don’t swim early in the morning or late in the evening, don’t spend time in dirty water, and don’t swim with a stringer of bleeding fish…
[Kydd Pollock interviewed on the Hawaiian island of Oahu in for Discovery Channel's Shark Week. Image source: Amanda Meyer. Second image: Kydd hangs ten with a reef shark at Palmyra Atoll. Image source: TNC. Third image: Schools of convict tangs, a colorful reef fish. Image source: Kydd Pollock]