When off- duty sharks hang out among fins
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.