I love my kids. So what the heck was I thinking in 2005 when I put my 5 and 7 year old children in the water with great white sharks at Guadalupe Island?
Rewind two years back to a call we received from our son’s daycare. He had been in a ‘fight’ – more like a tussle – with his two best friends. Turns out that they had been watching ‘Nemo’ and Charlie’s friends had commented that ‘Bruce’ was bad and that we should kill the sharks. Charlie said: “No, my daddy says we have to love sharks and help save them.”
I think I was expected to discipline Charlie over the ‘tussle’ but that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, I was intensely proud of Charlie for standing up for sharks and told him so.
He had already adventured all over Alaska, British Columbia and the Sea of Cortes with me on the Nautilus Explorer and asked if he could go diving with great white sharks on the Explorer. Sure: I told him no problem once he turned five years old as long as he practiced with a scuba tank and regulator in the bathtub before the trip. So there we were two years later and two weeks past Charlie’s fifth birthday with five kids, two television crews, a boatload of divers and some great white sharks waiting to greet us.
The kids were awesome – even the 5 and 6 year olds. I was amazed at how eager they were to get in the water and had no fear whatsoever of the great white sharks. Mexican shark biologist Dr. Mauricio Hoyes had joined us and spent a lot of time helping the kids identify the different sharks they were seeing and teaching them about the great white’s behaviour.
The trip was an enormous success and gave me the idea of running a ‘kids and teens dive free with great white sharks trip’ every year. The more kids who experience being in the water with great white sharks, the more people will appreciate these amazing animals and hopefully want to protect them. Fifteen years later, this program is running stronger than ever.
It is funny when I look back at the video on how we did things in the early days of Guadalupe Island. There was no such thing as Management Plans, Environmental Impact Studies, enforcement or even any rules on how to interact with the sharks. I cringe at the thought of how we used blood and chum and chopped up mackerel to bring in the sharks. And how we baited them.
I collaborated with the park director of the day on cage design and our cages were the prototypes for the original regulations. We knew so little about the sharks compared to the present. I wonder what I will be saying 15 years from now?
The most striking thing to me when I watched this old video was when I was interviewed about my fear that we were seeing the last of the sharks and that they might soon be virtually extinct. Shark finning was in its heyday.
The United Nations estimates at that time were that 100 million sharks a year were being slaughtered and that 90 per cent or more of the worldwide population had already been killed.
We were not seeing a lot of sharks during our dives. I explained on film that I wanted to get kids in the water to see the sharks because I thought that in five or 10 years there might not be any sharks left to see. And that, just possibly, getting kids in the water would help raise awareness of the sharks’ plight. It was a grim time.
I couldn’t imagine the rebound of the shark population that we have now experienced, the great awareness of sharks and the mainstream acceptance that shark finning is bad and should be outlawed. The latest census of 8,000 white sharks just around Australia is double what we believed the world wide white shark population to be back in 2005.
I am joyful and fortunate to be witnessing this change first hand and hope to introduce many more kids and teens along with divers of all ages to our big smiley friends!!
Captain Mike Lever