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Swimming with Sharks and Conserving Oceans

WWF's Oleg Martens on the beauty of sharks and the importance of ocean health

bull sharks swimming

I could feel my heartbeat start to pick up as I sat in my SCUBA gear on the edge of a boat bobbing in the turquoise waters off of Pacific Harbor in Fiji. I was minutes away from my very first shark dive. Our instructors had spent the last hour trying to prepare my fellow divers and me for what we were about to experience 130 feet below—but no words can aptly describe what it’s like to come face-to-face with over 30 full-grown bull sharks. While undoubtedly there were others in the group whose heartbeats denoted a certain level of nervousness or fear, mine was symptomatic of nothing but sheer excitement.

The real magnitude of this event, though, lies not in swimming with sharks, but rather the fact that a little over a decade earlier this perhaps would never have been possible.

oleg martens swims with sharks

Unsustainable fishing practices threaten ocean habitats all over the world. Fisheries mismanagement, the use of poisons and dynamite, improperly-sized gill nets, and general overfishing all contribute to the damaging effects on marine life and their surrounding habitats. Unfortunately, Fiji is not immune to such practices. However, in recognizing the importance of preserving marine life—providing revenue from tourism—entrepreneurs all over the islands are now venturing into new business opportunities that not only promote marine life in nearby regions, but also create a steady mechanism through which fishers and the community can secure their livelihoods.

Because of these concerted efforts, the number of sharks have risen exponentially among this region—in some cases up to 600 percent. Such an increase in populations among large predators is also a good indicator of improvement in the overall health of the reef.

WWF’s work in Fiji helps better equip experts to understand the nuances of incentivizing people to protect oceans, the support of private sector engagement in the field, and how each can be successfully implemented into our conservation work in other places. By acknowledging that the protection of marine environments cannot be done in isolation, we can better grasp how a balanced approach to conservation will lead to multiple benefits—making our efforts sustainable and long-lasting.

Swimming with sharks in Fiji is a conservation success; the communities that once harvested these sharks are now fully included in the dive venture, and continue to profit from the tourism they attract. Having succeeded beyond their initial expectations, these same communities are now investing profits into replanting mangroves in coastal areas, which act as a natural barrier to coastal erosion and serve as important nursery grounds for marine species, but also allow the dive outfit to present itself as carbon neutral.

Experiences like this reaffirm the work WWF is doing, advocating our efforts in moving the needle forward and making a lasting positive impact on the environment and people’s lives. It goes to show that we can learn from our experiences and become a wiser species.