As a surfer, diver, sailor and person who has lived by the sea my whole life, I feel an infinite connection with and love for the ocean. In 2012 I was bitten by a shark in Vavaʼu, Tonga. Two weeks later, I was discharged from hospital in Australia.
I started asking questions and researched sharks, out of interest and as a foundation to help me deal with the sudden spotlight put on me by the media. It was then that the horrifying shark facts stared me in the face, and the facts had nothing to do with attacks on humans; in fact, it was the attack on sharks that was most worrying.
One of the biggest threats currently facing our marine ecosystems is the massive decline in shark populations throughout the world. But not even the rapid decline in shark species, and their important role to keep our oceans clean, healthy and balanced can save them right now. I often wonder, if we could turn back time, how different the stigma of sharks would be if the movie Jaws had not been made.
Sharks have had a hard time at the hands of humans; not only are they portrayed as malicious ocean beasts, but they are often killed as by-catch from fishermen. Globally, over 100 million sharks are killed every year, 78 million of these for their fins alone, to support growing demand for shark fin soup.
Even the so-called protection title “Endangered Species” has not helped our ocean’s apex predator. In Australia - a so-called developed and educationally advanced country - the green light has just been given to kill Endangered sharks on the West coast, using baited drum lines. On the East coast, it is currently legal for 100,000 sharks to be killed every year inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, all to support the shark fin industry.
I knew that after the shark encounter I would possibly have psychological hurdles to face. In all honesty, being bitten has not deterred me, but deepened my respect for sharks. The ocean is not our personal playground, but a complex bio-diversity and self-regulated ecosystem - it is wild and governs itself. How dare we, humans, take away a shark’s right to life, and their role within the habitat where they breed, gestate, feed and live!
I still surf as much as I can, and dive, and swim in the ocean, because it is such an amazing place to me. I have respect for the territory that a shark calls home. I have also taken the time to understand sharks, which has opened a door of genuine empathy. I can see that beneath the negative image is another animal, a big fish that has grace, elegance, and is in great need of our help.
Footage of free-divers swimming harmoniously with sharks is slowly circling the globe. Researchers are working intimately with sharks and people are experiencing beautiful encounters under the water. A new and more honest understanding is emerging, while our politicians are feeding fear and making decisions they are not entitled to make.
Sharks, like all species, have the right to live. Any person who spends time in the ocean is already aware that s/he is in same water that sharks patrol. During my research while healing, I watched documentaries and read various stories from other shark encounters around the world. Not one person felt ill feelings towards sharks; in fact, they agreed to the importance of conservation and protection.
My heart goes out to all those who have passed away who love the ocean. I wonder what they would feel about the shark cull in Western Australia?
I feel shame and embarrassment for the direction that Australia has taken on this issue. We urgently must put a stop to the brutal killing of sharks around our coast, and demand use of the sophisticated and intelligent information that is already available, yet ignored, to protect this very beautiful and misunderstood animal.
Kylie is a deckhand on The Sam Simon, currently on patrol in the Southern Antarctic Whale Sanctuary with Sea Shepherd Australia's Operation Relentless.