I recently returned from Rangiroa, an atoll that is part of the French Polynesian islands. This is an area that is well known for scuba diving and we were definitely not disappointed! We saw dozens of sharks, enormous eagle rays swimming in formation, sea turtles, dolphins and their babies, huge schools of fish and a giant moray eel! It is a rare privilege to be able to experience such a vibrance and diversity of marine life anywhere in the world and serves as a reaffirmation of the critical task facing us all to keep it intact!
photo by Laetitia Scuiller
Protecting marine life is something that the native Polynesians understand. On Rangiroa, you often see young men spear fishing for their family's dinner. They tie buckets to cords tied around their waists and throw their fish into it as they move along the reefs in the turquoise blue waters of the lagoon. Knowing that sharks are attracted to spear fishermen, I asked one of them, named Joseph, if he had ever had trouble with sharks. He pointed to his upper thigh and showed me the bite mark of a small lemon shark. Here is how the rest of our conversation went.
Joseph: "Actually, I was bitten once. I had been spear fishing my whole life ever since I was a little boy and they never bothered me. But this one time, a shark was swimming around me acting strange. I should have gotten out of the water but I didn't think it would bite me so I stayed."
Alexandra: "Oh my goodness Joseph! That must have been terribly painful! Do you still get in the water to go spear fishing? Did your experience make you afraid of sharks?"
J: "Absolutely not! When we get in the water, we enter their world. Sharks are my companions on all my dives and have never hurt me. In fact, for many families here, sharks are their totem- a protective force that keeps families safe from harm. Lots of people spear fish every day here and hardly anyone ever gets hurt by a shark."
A: "So if sharks aren't considered dangerous to people, why did you get bitten?"
J: (laughing) "Oh that was my father's fault! The shark isn't to blame at all!!"
A: (dumbfounded) "Uh... how so?"
J: "Well, ever since the time of my great great great grandparents, everyone knows that you can't fight at home when a member of your family is in the water because then a shark might bite them. When I saw the shark acting strange, I should have known. At the very moment I was bitten, my dad was yelling at my kid brother for something he did. And I got bitten by the shark. If my dad had been more careful about not creating tension at home when I was out fishing, I never would have been bitten. So it really wasn't the shark's fault."
A: "Does that happen a lot?"
J: "Not really. Families here are really careful about not fighting when someone is out fishing. But the only other cases of shark bites happened because the families were fighting. That's what does it every time!"
A: "So you really aren't afraid of sharks. That's so great Joseph. What do you think about people from the US and Europe who are so terrified of sharks. Did you see the movie "Jaws"? Did it scare you?"
J: "Well sure, itâ€™s a scary movie. But the idea that a shark would attack a boat just to eat the people inside is ridiculous! And usually the bigger sharks are the more mellow sharks. The little ones are usually a little more skittish since they still have so much to learn about how to survive. But a giant shark attacking boats and people that way... itâ€™s just silly. I think that the reason people are scared of sharks is just that they have never seen them in the wild. If people knew sharks the way I do, they wouldn't be scared, they would want to protect them."
Enough said. Thank you, Joseph.