Falling for Sharks: An Underwater Love Affair
It’s Friday evening, the sun has set, and a gentle breeze has brought both respite from the heat and a sigh of relief. The stars are sprinkled across the sky, a sky so vast it appears to be accessible simply by making a pilgrimage straight into the horizon.
I am running through my setup for tomorrow’s shark dive. Camera charged? Check. Memory card inserted? Check. Lights charged? Check. Mask and Perdix AI? Check.
My dive bag, cyan in color, is strategically placed like a beacon at the front door, heralding my future departure. A royal blue bikini is draped casually over the armrest of the Recamier, matched with a pair of tri-color blue board shorts and a bright teal My Fiji Shark t-shirt. I snicker softly to myself as I observe my morning attire laid out in all its glory; Hahaha ‘TashiBlue’ indeed… no guessing as to where that nickname originated.
As all systems were a go for the morning, it was time to send my thoughts to the Universe in the hopes my desires would manifest themselves in a visit from my favorite bull shark 'Crook'. My best friend and the Principal of Beqa Adventure Divers (pronounced beng-ga) scoffs at my positive affirmations and energy sending, but I am steadfast in my belief that it works. The proof is in her documented visits to Shark Reef. In the vein of full disclosure, there was only once where my requests to the Universe for a visit from Crook went unanswered. Only once. Closing my eyes, I visualize her face, the perpetual mischievous smile complimenting the equally mischievous twinkle in her eyes.
Crook, if you are out there…come tomorrow, come to Shark Reef.
Ahhh Crook. My heart skips a beat. Big, boisterous and brazen, she’s one of the oldest bull sharks visiting the Shark Reef Marine Reserve, and the 7th to be christened way back in 2003 (we currently have ~130 identified individual bull sharks in our scientific database). Named for the crooks in the corners of her mouth, the result of getting hooked by fishing lines, she is an unabashed bait thief and a repeat offender to boot. She sometimes sports a gaze so intent, she gives the distinct impression she is peering straight inside you, evaluating what manner of man or woman you are indeed. My relationship with Crook has been forged out of mutual respect, coupled with a heathy dose of obsession on my end. But, it hasn’t always been easy, for me that is. I had to recalibrate all my expectations and evaluate all the signals I was both giving and receiving, basically rewriting the playbook for our encounters over and over again. I went from fearing to fiercely loving her, and she has taught me more about shark behavior than I could have ever fathomed.
My name is Natasha, and I am a shark conservationist, shark diver, and now fledgling researcher. I used to be an attorney, but that life feels like it existed an eternity ago. Pre-pandemic, you would find me traversing the underwater world five days a week diving on the Shark Reef Marine Reserve here in Fiji in the company of six to eight species of sharks on any given day. With the onset of the pandemic, my underwater time was whittled down to just once a week, but you will find zero complaints here. I am beyond fortunate to have uninterrupted access to the ocean and to what I love most in the world: the sharks. The Reserve is my Zen place, and my source of exhilaration, it is where I feel most at home with my extended elasmobranch family. When I made the choice to relocate from New York City to Fiji, it was for the opportunity of a lifetime and achieve a dream long nurtured. To become an advocate on behalf of the voiceless shark populations and their habitats. I never did imagine though, that my journey would lead me where I am today. Embarking on my PhD research on Bull Shark Behavior.
When I became the Conservation Director for Beqa Adventure Divers (BAD), I was immersed in the shark diving and conservation world immediately. This company is unique in that it is more than simply a tourism operation, it is a conservation group masquerading as a dive shop. They began conducting shark dives and provisioning sharks to achieve certain conservation goals: the research, advocacy, and protection of Fiji’s shark populations and their vital habitats, the reef ecosystems. To that end, and with the support from the Village of Galoa and Ministry of Fisheries, BAD created the Shark Reef Marine Reserve (SRMR) in 2004 which became Fiji’s first National Marine Park in 2014. This notable achievement is but one amongst many other conservation initiatives borne by BAD. They have supported numerous studies resulting in over two dozen scientific publications. It was an honor to be offered a place within this family and a chance to work toward our shared conservation goals. In my new role as Conservation Director, I was humbled knowing full well I had a mighty big pair of shoes to fill.
In the Principal Director Mike, I found a mentor and a kindred spirit. He had been diving with these sharks for over two decades, had created the scientific database for the marine park, and named and identified the first individual shark in 2003. I was able to draw on his infinite knowledge of shark behavior and reflect on my own experiences. We shared many afternoons loading video footage and discussing behaviors searching for answers and dissecting published research. I was astounded by what I was witnessing within the visiting and resident shark populations. I trained my focus on the visiting bull shark population, observing and interacting with individuals during provisioned dives and non-provisioned dives on the SRMR. The sharks were teaching me invaluable lessons, and my intellectual curiosity had been piqued in a way I had never known before.
My experiences with these sharks were the catalyst for the creation of the conservation initiative entitled "My Fiji Shark". I was able to succeed in launching My Fiji Shark through a fortuitous collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme under Sustainable Development Goal SDG 14: Life Below Water. This unique initiative offers named sharks for adoption to support conservation efforts on the ground here in Fiji, and is a conduit for educating people about the multi-dimensionality of sharks. Presenting them as individuals with life histories and characters. Through My Fiji Shark and because of it, I was becoming more entrenched in the lives of the sharks. Each dive found me intent on observing, cataloguing, and interpreting their behaviors and getting to know each named individual as intimately as possible. To this date, I have personally identified and named a total 51 new sharks on the SRMR since 2018, of which 23 are bull sharks.
It was a natural order of progression that the more time I spent underwater amongst these burly behemoths, the more questions I had about them and their behavior. I was supplementing my hands-on shark education with the steady review of scientific publications; but it was not enough. From the early days, Beqa Adventure Divers began working closely with an independent researcher from Zurich named Dr. Juerg Brunnschweiler to carry out scientific studies. This collaboration led to discoveries and publications about the visiting bull shark population including spatial and temporal dispersions, migration patterns, mating and pupping seasons, habitat and nursery identification, energy requirements, and more. With Juerg, we would have ongoing discussions regarding the direction of new research and ideas, and I had plenty of ideas, so it was with Juerg that I first broached the subject of pursuing my PhD. I was in possession of a slew of anecdotal evidence to support various hypotheses I had concerning bull shark behavior and I wanted to test my hypotheses through science. January of 2020, I sat with him alone to discuss my ideas for research and the possibility of pursuing a PhD. After several hours, I came out of the meeting enlightened and with purpose.
My first order of business was to kick off the behavioral research I had envisioned. To that end I again hit the scientific literature and then began to create a feeding modalities ethogram for the bulls. Following the stamp of approval from Juerg, I began collecting data on SRMR. I was able to collect data for about 3 weeks and code behaviors in the video logging software BORIS, before our borders shut down because of Covid-19. The end of our tourism meant my research had to be placed on hold, as the parameters of our dive had altered dramatically and would invalidate any results obtained.
All of a sudden, the global pandemic had given me what I had not had in two years in Fiji - extra time. Although that time was quickly consumed by activities designed to assist in keeping our company afloat, I actively began researching institutions, programs on offer and supervisors seeking the ideal university for my research PhD. When I happened upon the CRAB Research Centre at the University of Exeter, I knew this was the place for me, a PhD in Animal Behaviour was exactly what I was looking for. After six months of email exchanges, literature review, drafting, revisions, and Zoom sessions, my arsenal is now stocked with incredibly knowledgeable and supportive supervisors, a strong research proposal, a study site, crucial infrastructure, subject sharks, and my entire future in front of me for the taking.
My PhD research is focused on sociality in bull sharks within the artificial aggregation formed on the SRMR: exploring group membership, assortative patterns, personality and hierarchy, and investigating free ranging activities. The structure of animal societies has fundamental consequences for ecology and evolution. While it is well established that sharks have the potential to form complex social structures, there is a notable paucity of data with respect to the drivers of community dynamics and the function of social interactions in sharks, or indeed how these interactions are influenced by human behavior. If we understand the drivers and the mechanisms that underpin the social structures in bull sharks, we are not only better situated to design conservation measures to protect them, but can identify and alter our own actions such as fishing pressure (sharks targeted/bycatch and depletion of coastal fish stocks), habitat degradation, and pollution (mangrove deforestation, dredging, mining). All of which have detrimental impacts on the fitness and survival of this population. I hope to use my research as a platform to advance conservation measures on behalf of shark populations in Fiji, as well as the foundation for future studies aimed at identifying the cognitive capabilities of these sharks.
My life is now dedicated to the research, advocacy, and protection of shark populations. Through BAD I have built allegiances in both Ministry of Fisheries and with other prominent scientists and researchers. I have several collaborations waiting to kick back into gear when we come out from the stranglehold of the pandemic, and plans in the works to build a wet laboratory here in Fiji as part of our new dive base. I am very much looking forward to becoming part of the student body at Exeter University this fall, to conducting my PhD research, and ultimately to becoming a productive member of the scientific community and an authoritative voice on shark behavior. All that remains now is that long-awaited visit from Crook. It has been almost five months now, and it is time for her to come home, home to the Shark Reef Marine Reserve. I will continue to send my thoughts to the Universe on her behalf and hold true to my belief that she will come.
Crook, if you are out there… come tomorrow, come to Shark Reef.
*Update, on the shark dive which occurred the very next day (April 7), we were graced with a visit by none other than the notorious 'Crook'. I am not ashamed to admit I shed tears in my mask at 30m, my heart was overflowing with joy at the sight of her.*
You can now directly support shark conservation initiatives by adopting one of the more than 50 named individuals. All profits will go 100% into scientific research and local initiatives that will benefit the resident shark populations.
For more information on My Fiji Shark, visit myfijishark.com
Crook Swims Overhead - https://www.instagram.com/p/B2n5fjGg6uy/
Diving in "The Arena" watching the Bulls swim - https://www.instagram.com/tv/B-V3_LaBvpW/