When off- duty sharks hang out among fins

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

THEY like their sex rough — bit­ing, bump­ing and thrash­ing about — have mul­ti­ple rows of ra­zor-sharp teeth in a con­stant cy­cle of growth and re­place­ment, have cold, scary eyes that can switch be­tween monoc­u­lar and stereo­scopic vi­sion, and their first-hatched young are known to de­vour other eggs and em­bryos in the uterus.

No won­der sharks have a se­ri­ous im­age prob­lem. But there is one species that can eas­ily outdo them as a flashy fighter and blood-cur­dling killer: hu­mans.

There were about 71 shark at­tacks world­wide last year, a frac­tion of the es­ti­mated 73 mil­lion sharks killed each year for their fins.

Thirty-year-old marine bi­ol­o­gist Ryan John­son, a New Zealan­der based in South Africa, has de­voted his life to study­ing and sav­ing sharks. He knows all their quirks and tricks and un­der­stands only too well how per­ilous the sit­u­a­tion has be­come for most of the 70-odd known species, half of which call Aus­tralia home.

Part sci­en­tist, part ad­ven­turer, John­son fol­lows diver and nat­u­ral­ist Hugues Vitry through a labyrinth of reefs, cav­erns and caves to a shark pit off the coast of Mau­ri­tius.

The pit was dis­cov­ered ac­ci­den­tally by Vitry in 1977 and was later in­vaded by fish­er­men who mas­sa­cred hun­dreds of the con­gre­gated sharks.

Shark pits, you ask? Th­ese lit­tle known un­der­wa­ter refuges, rich in oxy­genated wa­ter, are where sharks come for R and R ( in nor­mal deep wa­ters, they have to keep mov­ing to breathe). Con­sider them spas, nurs­eries and play cen­tres: places where sharks can leave their young, play, and sleep.

No one knows ex­actly how many

‘ One of the best dives’: Marine bi­ol­o­gist Ryan John­son shark pits there are in the world’s oceans, but what has be­come clear is that sharks be­have very dif­fer­ently when they are in th­ese en­vi­ron­ments, re­lax­ing and be­com­ing much less ag­gres­sive and preda­to­rial.

Adult sharks tend to spend only a few hours at a time in the pits, no doubt a wel­come es­cape in their rel­a­tively short lives of 20-30 years.

It’s likely the pits have been around as long as sharks: about 400 mil­lion years.

The pits rep­re­sent a fresh an­gle that draws you in to the doc­u­men­tary and the un­der­wa­ter photography is spec­tac­u­lar. And de­spite div­ing con­di­tions that would make Lloyd Bridges shud­der in his grave, John­son ven­tures right into the heart of the shark pit, in­fested with 60 or 70 shark pups. ‘‘ This is one of the best dives I’ve been on,’’ he en­thuses.

At this point, I was not not sure whether I was more in awe of his courage or the jaw-drop­ping sight of vast schools of sharks swim­ming to­gether. This is a man who re­ally loves his job.

Greg Cal­laghan

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