The shark whisperer

Tony Wilson
Boughton Law

Having recently returned from a week of scuba diving with great white sharks in Guadalupe, Mexico (a rather barren rock, about 275 kilometres off the west coast of the Baja), I believe I have earned some bragging rights about this endeavour, as well as the right to make a political statement or two about sharks and shark fin soup. So keep reading.

“Why on earth would you want to scuba dive with great white sharks?” is a fair question; to which the answer “because they’re there” doesn’t fully satisfy. I like to swim with sharks and rappel off Vancouver skyscrapers for charity. In the knowledge that I could be hit by a wayward bus at any time, adrenalin-pumping activities like shark diving remind me that I’m still alive. You’re a long time dead, so I’ll enjoy all the adrenaline while I’m alive, thanks very much.

Besides, as a humble solicitor, what chance do I get for adrenalin rushes drafting documents and giving telephone advice? The litigators in my office get the fun in court!

Excluding the “shark week” I’ve recently returned from, I’d say that over the past 10 years, I’ve been on five dives where there were sharks the size of my six-foot, three-inch son — nearby and minding their own business.

One special shark-feeding dive I did in Nassau three years ago featured about 50 Caribbean reef sharks larger than my son (the same ones featured in “Thunderball”), bumping into me and the other divers as we all knelt down at 35 feet holding onto rocks. The sharks were all headed for the bucket of dead fish being distributed by the dive master (who was dressed in chain mail and a helmet, just in case). My adventure is still available on YouTube, if you’re at all curious. There were no cages, but we were told not to move our hands, bleed profusely, or pee in our wetsuits. Good advice to live by.

The most recent shark dive in Guadalupe involved being in a cage with nine other people a few feet below the surface while the deckhands and dive masters chummed the water with dead fish, and fish guts and blood to attract the great whites. And when the great whites finally showed up to check us out, “man are they big” is damning them by faint praise.

These fish are huge. When they decide to bash against the cage you happen to occupy, you really have a sense of how massive these animals are.

I did 17 cage dives in four days, and one at 40 feet where I sat on top of the cage to get a better view (and with the ability to hop back into the cage if the circling sharks got too close or too aggressive).

This gives my friends and clients the willies. Said one long-time friend and part-time client about a new Facebook picture featuring a great white mere metres behind me (I was outside the cage for that shot):

"Your new profile picture on Facebook is freaking me out. . . . Don’t you have something with dolphins in it you could put up instead? You really need to stop doing these extreme activities, do your other clients know that the lawyer they are depending on is busy swimming with sharks and jumping off buildings?”

Not surprisingly, I have a keen interest in the recent banning of the sale of shark fin soup in the city of Toronto and in some of its surrounding suburbs. I’m waiting for the debate to hit Vancouver.

Diving with these huge sharks is an incredible and awe-inspiring experience. Four or five dives a day with a number of five-metre-long great white sharks (some which came so close to my cage I could brush their teeth), is something that will give anyone an appreciation for these animals, and the need to protect them and other sharks from a commercial fishing industry that would simply cut off their fins and throw them back in the sea to die.

Indeed, during a dive I did 18 years ago in Thailand, I saw firsthand evidence of this, 95 feet below the surface, where a shark was dead on the ocean floor without a dorsal or tail fin. It was sickening. No other part of the fish was used.

“Sharks are definitely at the top of the list for marine fishes that could go extinct in our lifetimes,” Julia Baum of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California said to The Guardian in 2008. “If we carry on the way that we are, we’re looking at a really high risk of extinction for some of these shark species within the next few decades.” And great whites and hammerheads are near the top of the ocean’s endangered list.

The move to ban the killing of sharks for their fins, and the sale of shark fin soup has attracted a few notables in the business community. Anchored next to us in Guadalupe (with his own submarine, no less!) was Sir Richard Branson, who has gone very public with his pleas to save sharks, as has Chinese basketball star Yao Ming.

Killing sharks so their fins can be used for soup is analogous to poachers in B.C. killing bears for their gall bladders and paws; the gall bladders being marketed in Asia as a cure for things like erectile dysfunction and the paws being used as a ritual dish in parts of China. The so-called medicinal and aphrodisiac products harvested from a single gall bladder can sell for more than $50,000.

Surely, killing an animal because a part of them supposedly has “aphrodisiac” qualities is unsupportable in a world awash with Viagra and Cialis. Likewise, cutting off the fins of a shark for soup and dumping the bleeding animal back in the ocean to die is just as reprehensible.

There are other soups.

It’s also analogous to killing elephants for their ivory and rhinos for their horns: the rhino horns being ground up and marketed as traditional medicine, pushing the price to about $3,600 per ounce and decimating the species.

Government mandated bans and consumer-led boycotts are tricky, but they can work, as evidenced by the move away from “conflict diamonds” mined in Angola, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire to diamonds mined in Canada. I would never buy a conflict diamond, but I wouldn’t have come to that conclusion without the issue being raised in my consciousness by bans, boycotts, media reports, and public relations campaigns.

The same thing may be occurring with sharks.

The ban in Toronto has heighted awareness in other parts of Canada, and if Chinese restaurants continue to serve shark fin soup, (or serve it underground), I predict they’ll be the subject of demonstrations, embarrassing viral videos, and consumer boycotts, especially from consumers in their 20s and 30s who are far more environmentally conscious than their parents or grandparents. Indeed, the demographics may dictate what happens on this issue as the older generation is replaced by a younger one more interested in changing the world than showy weddings or expensive soups.

In fact, one of my daughter’s university roommates told me that she and her five friends stormed out of a Victoria Chinese restaurant when they saw shark fin soup on the menu, and vowed never to return.

And what if you’re a restaurant that serves shark fin soup? Do you take a popular food item off your menu just because the local government will fine you if you’re caught serving it? Or do you defy the ban and serve it “underground” by not putting it on the menu, hoping that nobody surreptitiously shoots video footage, then sends the clip to a TV news station or posts it on YouTube? It’s risky from a PR perspective with this new heightened awareness.

Perhaps consumers will take a page out of Mao’s Little Red Book and “slit the belly of the pig from within”; deliberately not tipping the waiter and telling him or her (or writing a note on the bill) that it’s because the restaurant serves shark fin soup. (That’ll get someone’s attention, real fast. Servers will demand it come off the menu to protect their tips!)

Or perhaps Chinese restaurants will embrace the future and tell their customers that they do not serve shark fin soup. Not only could this be a public relations coup, demonstrating their business is both environmentally and socially responsible, but it might make good business sense as well, bringing in the customers who are avoiding less responsible competitors.

As a supporter of the ban, and as one who will return to Guadalupe and other places to dive with great white sharks again, you have to start the revolution somewhere, and Toronto is as good a place as any.

Vancouver and its surrounding suburbs should come next.

Banning shark fin soup will not destroy the Chinese restaurant industry in Canada. Don’t let anyone tell you that; it’s simply nonsense. Nor will it ruin Chinese weddings. There are other soups.

But it may save a species.


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