French Polynesia is saving sharks with the largest shark sanctuary in the world. These top predators are vital in keeping reefs and oceans healthy.
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“Look, there!”, Floris shouts as we walk across a beach of white coral sand. His voice sounds surprised and enthusiastic at the same time. “A baby shark!” He points to the shallow, clear water next to the beach. “Yes, I see it, cool!”, Ivar replies in awe. Our eyes follow a black fin that pierces the water’s surface. Until now, we have always had to answer “no” when asked if we had encountered sharks on our journey. We are happy to finally see one, even if it is only a small specimen.
Floris consults a fish guide of the Pacific and determines that we have seen a black tip reef shark. They are common in French Polynesia and not dangerous to humans. “But sometimes curious”, Floris reads. Those words still echo in Ivar’s ears on a snorkel expedition the next day. A big daddy or mommy black tip reef shark approaches him and only turns away at the last moment. Floris smiles when we surface. “An innocent black tip, just curious.” “That may be true, but I thought it was a bit scary”, Ivar admits.
As we snorkel in more places in Gambier, we get used to the presence of sharks. Apart from black tip reef sharks, we see white tip and grey reef sharks, especially in deeper water. Both species are rarely aggressive, according to the guide. They feed on crabs, shrimp, lobsters, and reef fish. Some get close, others keep more distance. “Actually, they are the only fish that don’t swim away quickly, but are curious about us”, Ivar notes. We are fascinated by their streamlined appearance and stealthy swimming style.
Black tip reef shark swimming close to the beach
Black tip reef shark with yellow fish
White tip reef shark in shallow water
White tip reef shark swimming away
A Swimming Deity
In Polynesian mythology sharks represent an “‘aumakua”: a deity or sacred ancestor. Seeing an ‘aumakua is a sign of prosperity, while injuring or killing it brings bad luck. That may explain the great public outcry that arose in French Polynesia in 2004 when a video went viral in which fishermen killed sharks and cut off their fins. Diving schools started a petition and politicians intervened, which led to a total ban on shark fishing in 2006. The entire Exclusive Economic Zone of French Polynesia, an area larger than the European Union, has thus become one large shark sanctuary. It is the largest area in the world where all sharks are protected. It explains why we see so many sharks here.
On the White Shark
From Gambier we sail to the neighbouring archipelago, the Tuamotus. When we arrive at Fakarava, we are amazed at the size of this atoll. With a size of 30 by 10 nautical miles, the lagoon is the size of the entire Dutch IJsselmeer. Part of the atoll is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its impressive biodiversity. It makes the island popular with tourists, who mainly come here to dive.
We anchor close to SY Pakia Tea with Sonja, Tom, and their son Keanu on board. Sonja and Tom are marine biologists and experienced divers. Before we go underwater with them, they show us around Pakia Tea, which means “White Shark”. “It’s a Polynesian double canoe equipped with two masts, numerous solar panels and an electric motor”, Tom explains. “We like to receive guests to show the beauty, but also the vulnerability of the underwater world. We promote conservation of marine life through our ‘Planet Ocean’ website”, Tom adds. We’ve clearly come to the right people to see something really special underwater.
Grey reef sharks all around
Grey reef shark coming close
Grey reef sharks swimming by
The southern pass of Fakarava is known for its many sharks. “Don’t worry, their bellies are still full of groupers”, Sonja reassures us just before we deflate our buoyancy control devices (BCD) and descend to a depth of 22 meters. Once we reach that depth, hundreds of sharks appear as if out of nowhere. We are completely mesmerized by the spectacle. Slowly they swim by, undisturbed by our presence. They are grey reef sharks that hunt in groups at night and rest during the day. To take in oxygen they have to keep moving at all times. The current in the pass is perfect for that, as they can remain almost motionless while incoming ocean water flows through their mouths and over their gills. We stay on one side of the pass and we cling to dead patches of coral to keep the current from carrying us away. It feels like we are in an underwater theatre with a live shark performance on the program.
Indispensable for the Oceans
Back on board at Pakia Tea, Tom explains that only a few shark species are dangerous to humans. While only a handful of fatal shark attacks on humans are reported each year, fishermen worldwide kill millions of sharks each year. Some researchers estimate the number as high as 100 million! Their fins in particular are in high demand: shark fin soup is an expensive and prestigious delicacy in Asia. Obviously, this form of ecocide has major consequences for the oceans. “Sharks are indispensable to a healthy reef and ecosystem”, Tom continues. “As top predators, they keep the fish population under control. As they mostly eat the weak and sick fish, they also maintain the health of the fish population. Indirectly, they are indispensable for healthy coral reefs and oceans because reefs and oceans depend on healthy and balanced fish populations.”
Protection by law is not enough to save the sharks. “The fishing ban must be monitored and enforced”, Tom explains. “While that may be possible around the islands of French Polynesia, in the middle of the ocean it is a different story. Unfortunately, the authorities lack manpower, money, and boats.” That enforcement is desperately needed is evident from sailors who report having encountered gigantic fleets of fishermen on their way to the Marquesas. We also hear about a Chinese fishing vessel stranded in the Tuamotus with a hold full of illegally caught tuna and shark fins. According to experts, illegal fishing is large-scale, so they argue for stricter enforcement and higher penalties to protect the larger shark species that live in the oceans.
Ivar with grey reef sharks
Hundreds of Grey Reef Sharks in the south pass of Fakarava
Grey reef shark with remora
Grey reef sharks swimming above us
Floris diving with grey reef sharks
Ivar diving with grey reef sharks
Grey reef shark undisturbed by us
Marine Biologist Tom Punchner explains the importance of sharks
Cherish the Shark
In Western culture, sharks are definitely not very popular. While dolphins have “Flipper” as their PR-figurehead, sharks have to make do with “Jaws”. The image that the Hollywood movie created is not only unjustified, but also problematic. At times like these, in which coral reefs and oceans are under serious threat from climate breakdown, pollution and overfishing, the sharks’ disappearance would be catastrophic. Naturally, a wide range of strategies is required to tackle this complex problem. In our opinion, more marine reserves and better enforcement are essential parts of the solution. French Polynesia leads by example by protecting sharks in their waters. We are delighted to have found a place in the world where marine life thrives and we can swim with sharks. Although enforcement of the shark fishing ban needs to be improved, it doesn’t have to be too late. With more marine reserves and stricter enforcement, we can still leave healthy, productive oceans to future generations.