Living With Sharks

There’s no use denying it we’re excited about the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” and we’ve got a full lineup of marine blogs this week to prove it! First up: In this excerpt adapted from a chapter of her book Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks, Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin talks to CI-Indonesia’s Mark Erdmann about his team’s efforts to protect Raja Ampat “the crown jewel” of the region’s biodiversity that is home to several species of “walking sharks.”

Amid the undulating wave of sea grass, a glittering eye suddenly appears, reflecting the glare of our flashlights. This 3-foot-long specimen of Hemiscyllium freycineti — better known as the Raja Ampat walking shark — shimmies across the seabed, using its pectoral fins to propel itself forward. But then Mark Erdmann — senior adviser for Conservation International Indonesia — reaches for it, and the flash now comes from the shark’s teeth as it hisses and struggles to escape the scientist’s unwelcome embrace.

Hemiscyllium freycineti has existed in this corner of the world for millennia. The Bird’s Head Seascape, an area on the northwest tip of the island of Papua, has recently become known as a sort of lost world, where most underwater trips regularly turn up species new to science. Within the Bird’s Head Seascape sits Raja Ampat, a series of 672 islands that is, in Erdmann’s words, “the crown jewel” of the region’s biodiversity.

Since CI launched an expedition here in 2001 — the first major scientific survey of the area in decades — researchers have cataloged 1,350 fish species in the Bird’s Head Seascape, along with 700 mollusks and more than 540 species of hard coral. Gerald Allen, an ichthyologist and CI consultant, identified 335 different marine species in a single dive, setting a world record, and in one six-week period in 2006 Erdmann’s expedition discovered 50 new species.

There are plenty of different kinds of fish in Raja Ampat, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to figure out which ones are new to science. “I found an epaulette shark, pretty much right away,” Erdmann says, recalling an expedition. “I pinned it down and swam with it back to the ship … Gerry [Allen] agreed that the shark did have an unusual spotting pattern, and decided we should at least photograph the animal for a permanent record. We sedated the shark with clove oil, returned her to the seafloor, and took photographs of her from every possible angle. As she awoke from sedation, I scribbled on my slate to Gerry, ‘Should we keep her?’ He wrote back, ‘I think it’s just a Raja Ampat shark. Let it go.’ ”

After the two men emerged from the water and started comparing their photographs to images of epaulette sharks on Allen’s computer, they realized the shark they had just set free belonged to a different species.

Later that spring Erdmann and Allen returned to Raja Ampat. One night Erdmann spotted another epaulette shark and went after the fish with a vengeance: “I went down and wrestled the damn thing out of the cave. This time we didn’t let it go.” Sure enough, the shark was a separate species from the Raja Ampat walking shark.

In a world of unrelenting bad press about the oceans, the Bird’s Head Seascape offers a reassuring alternative. Raja Ampat is not entirely pristine, but by and large, the region remains a corner of the world that has yet to be ruined. So Erdmann and his colleagues have embarked on a second mission that involves less science and more politics: preserving the Bird’s Head Seascape before it collapses under the pressure of poachers, mining entrepreneurs, and all the other outsiders who are encroaching on this remote paradise. Erdmann envisions a network of marine reserves in the region, where local fishermen will be allowed to continue operating but all other fishing activities would be off-limits.

The future of such protected areas here lies in the hands of men like Leonard Ayello, the son of the Selpele village’s spiritual leader. Landownership in Raja Ampat is different from other places. The islands are owned by tribes, and by extension they own the reefs that extend from their land.

And the seven local communities around Raja Ampat — including Ayello’s village — have decided to place a long-term bet on creating marine reserves. In December 2006, they made traditional declarations to set aside 2.22 million acres of the waters under their control in seven marine protected areas. After months of lobbying by the local communities around Waigeo, in the northwest corner of Raja Ampat, the Raja Ampat government signed a new law that dramatically expanded two of the seven reserves. As a result, 2.95 million acres of Raja Ampat’s waters are now protected.

Ayello and his neighbors, the Selpele and Salio people, went even further than Erdmann had expected by declaring the entire reserve under their control off-limits to any sort of fin fishing whatsoever. They asked for just two things in exchange: the right to take three coveted invertebrate species from one-fifth of the reserve every two years, and the opportunity to serve as paid community patrols in the area.

The first time locals opened up the area again, in October 2009, their collective take of sea cucumbers, spiny lobsters, and top shell brought in nearly $15,000. And more than 50 men from the two villages, including Ayello, serve in the patrol force, a gig that provides them with not only a salary but food and lodging during each two-week posting at the protected area’s field station. Saving sharks and their prey is paying dividends that Ayello couldn’t even envision a few years ago.

Excerpted from the recently published book Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks by Juliet Eilperin. Copyright ©2011 by Juliet Eilperin. Reprinted with permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.


  1. Margie Rhodes says

    I dived as a guide in various sites; the Caribbean, Australia, small Pacific Islands for many years. I’ve only left the water when the divers I was with started jumping around like bait, panicking. Humans are effective, unpredictable predators: we exterminate what we are afraid of. Sharks are dying at human hands by 100,000’s every year.
    Ignorance kills. Thank you for your efforts in informing people about sharks. Rule # 1: Don’t kill sharks. #2: If you do see a shark, don’t jump around & act like bait. #3 Stay calm and smooth in your movements. If you choose to exit, use smooth movements.
    That’s it. Just use common sense, & don’t act like food.

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