Last Saturday morning I found myself balancing on the tailgate of a pickup truck loaded with some 30 live sharks in plastic bags.
It was one of two trucks, transporting 60 young sharks in all. Dive instructor Jean Christophe Thomas and I sat in the back of one of them. One of my legs was down by a plastic bag bloated with water and oxygen. The black tipped shark in the bag swam furiously round and round, occasionally bumping into my leg.
It was a 15 minute trip to the pier, but encountering unexpected traffic on the pier itself – one of the downsides of Pattaya – we placed upturned soft drink crates on the bags to prevent them from heating up in the sun. We transferred them as soon as possible to the covered deck of the boat.
Soon we were off out to sea, eventually mooring near a reef some 26 kilometres off Pattaya, at Ko Rinn. This was the first of two reintroduction sites.
Divers went into the water and were passed the bags one by one. Among the group of foreigners and Thais was 37 year old Panutcha ‘’Ouy’’ Bunnag, an executive from a private sector firm in Bangkok, and an experienced diver.
Struggling at first with the bags which were filled with air and awkward to drag below the surface, they opened them, submerged them carefully, and let the sharks swim free. The black tipped sharks, which are swift swimmers, shot away; the bamboo sharks seemed to linger, almost disbelieving of their freedom, before disappearing.
The divers emerged from the first few releases with whoops of joy and exchanged high-fives.
This was the Dive Tribe’s ‘’great shark release’’ – possibly the largest ever release of captive sharks into the wild in Thailand, perhaps in Asia.
Most of them were bamboo sharks, but there were 5 black-tipped sharks with their distinctive dorsal fins. Their ages ranged from a few months to 3 years. The black tipped sharks were each about a foot and a half long; fully grown, they can reach 1.5 metres and live up to 25 years in the wild.
Bamboo sharks are relatively inactive, preferring to hang about among corals and rocks. Black tipped sharks must keep moving to process oxygen. In their bags, they swam constantly in circles, their distinctive dorsal fins slicing through the surface of the 6-8 inches of water. They reminded me of the pacing in zoo enclosures of another apex predator of the terrestrial world, the tiger.
They had been purchased using donations from across the world, from restaurants in Bangkok, Puket and Pattaya, and dealers in Bangkok’s Chatuchak weekend market, by Gwyn Mills, who founded Dive Tribe two years ago.
Dive Tribe combines diving for paying customers, with marine conservation. UK native Mills, 43, now a resident of Pattaya, said in recent years it was clear that Thailand, once one of the best dive destinations in the region, had lost its cachet to other countries, notably Indonesia.
Furthermore, what excites divers most is spotting a shark – and there were very few left in the waters off Pattaya. This is a problem for the diving industry, which is Thailand’s second largest sporting pastime after golf.
The reason? There are no regulations protecting sharks in Thailand, and they are much sought after for their fins. More recently, sharks are also being used in other products; Mills reckoned that the common Thai fish balls, are now made of cheap shark meat.
'Thailand is taking 22,000 tons of sharks from the sea every year’ he said. ‘We have a big problem. All the dive stores around Thailand have been complaining that they don’t see sharks on dives any more.’
The owner of the boat, seafarer Robert Camp, tall, lean and sunburned, said that in his 10 years of diving in the area, he had seen some bamboo sharks – which lie around on reefs and under rocks. He had seen just a few black tipped sharks, and no hammerhead sharks at all – though they used to be present.
The condition of the waters off Pattaya had improved somewhat when Pattaya – a once low-profile but now fast-growing city swamped by tourists and dominated by tall hotels and condos – began treating its sewage some 8-9 years ago. Some species like sea turtles had reappeared. ‘’But not the sharks’’ he said.
Among other concerns of marine ecologists and activists like Mills, is the level of mercury in shark fins. Mercury is a well known contaminant in seafood; in many countries pregnant women are cautioned to limit their intake of seafood. Sharks, which are long-lived creatures, accumulate more mercury in their systems than others. For more on this see http://water.epa.gov/scitech/swguidance/fishshellfish/outreach/advice_index.cfm
Sharks have been the top predator of the planet’s oceans for an estimated 400 million years. Estimates vary, but hunting for sharks - for their fins, driven mostly by the shark fin soup market - removes up to 100 million sharks a year from the marine ecosystem.
In one documented example, the removal of sharks to the extent that they are now at ‘’functionally extinct’’ levels in parts of the North Atlantic on the USA’s east coast, led to an explosion of the population of one of their prey species, the cow nose ray. The ray east scallops, oysters and clams; with the growth in ray population, scallop, clam and oyster catch in the area has plummeted.
Mills addressed the criticism of operations like the shark release, on grounds that buying sharks fuels demand. It was a one-off event and against a background of million of sharks being taken, it was a mere blip, he said. The sharks had been saved from certain death, and the publicity from the operation outweighed the downside, he reckoned.
For more on how sharks are being slaughtered and there is still nowhere near enough being done to protect them, see TRAFFIC’s report here (the link features a downloadable .pdf which makes very grim reading indeed) - http://www.traffic.org/home/2011/1/27/shark-populations-dwindle-as-top-catchers-delay-on-conservat.html
And for a comprehensive and sobering look at what we are doing to the marine ecosystem, see the incredible Sylvia Earle’s outstanding TED talk at http://www.ted.com/talks/sylvia_earle_s_ted_prize_wish_to_protect_our_oceans.html
Some raw video from my trip to Pattaya is up on my Facebook page http://www.Facebook.com/ST.Nirmal