The Insight of a Shark Attack Survivor

I have blogged about the subject of shark nets before (“Shark Culling is NOT the Answer”).  Those in favor of shark culling argue that nets reduce the amount of shark attacks by catching and killing large predatory sharks. They say that since shark culling began, there have been no fatalities due to shark attacks on culled beaches. Activists and environmentalists contend that these nets are damaging to all marine life alike, as they do not discriminate between sharks, whales, seals, dolphins, rays, or even sea turtles. The NSW Greens MP, Cate Faehrmann, told the Sydney Morning Herald that shark nets are nothing but a “psychological comfort to swimmers.” In fact, she views them as ineffective. “The nets were supposed to be a barrier to stop sharks reaching shallow water, but in reality almost half of shark entanglements occur on the beach side of the nets,” she said.

Lisa Mondy survived an attack last year at the jaws of a great white shark. Despite this, she has since advocated for the removal of shark nets. On January 18, Australian surfer Glen “Lenny” Folkard was attacked by a shark (believed to be a young great white or bull shark) at Redhead Beach. Redhead Beach, which is about 100 miles north of Sydney, is a netted beach. To Mondy and Greens campaigners, this instance only further fuels the argument that shark nets need to be eradicated. “Shark netting was introduced over 70 years ago and is now outdated and in dire need of revising.”

Is there another alternative? Yes. Mondy suggests a warning system that could take various factors, such as water visibility and movement of prey, into account, and allow swimmers and surfers analyze the risks themselves and make their own decisions about whether they should venture out into the water that day. While people may disagree about methods that could decrease the risk of shark attacks, one thing is clear: People need to be educated. Every time we enter the ocean, we are sharing it with its natural inhabitants. Fear is not an acceptable excuse for removing individuals from their own environment. Further, sharks are also vital to the oceanic environment. Removing them could produce effects that reverberate throughout the marine ecosystem.

And if a shark attach victim such as Lisa Mondy could argue against shark culling, what does that say about the nets? 

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Captivity: Home Away From Home?

Jacques Cousteau, the famous marine conservationist, once said, “No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea.”

Tilikum killed three people while in captivity, thought to be related to behavioral problems associated with captivity.

Flipper the dolphin, Shamu the killer whale, and Andre the sea lion have even become centerpieces of modern day culture. These exhibits have turned beautiful free-ranging animals into public spectacles, and placed them at the center of a never-ending circus arena. Forced to perform for crowds in enclosures that are too small, these animals often suffer severe behavioral and biological problems.

It is incredibly difficult to replicate the varying conditions of a natural underwater environment. In the wild, cetaceans travel great distances through the open ocean, free to porpoise through waves and roam at their will. Comparatively, in captivity, these animals swim in patterns within the confines of closed pools. Captive dolphins, including killer whales, spend most of their time swimming in tight circles or resting listlessly at the water’s surface. Their wild counterparts spend most of their time in deeper waters, with many species spending less than 20% of their time at the water’s surface.

Cetaceans are incredibly intelligent, social animals and it is impossible to replicate the dynamics of the social groups of wild animals. Lack of freedom in captivity and forced, unnatural social interaction can result in agitation and aggression.

Since 1968, four people have been killed by captive orcas, and over 50 people have been injured. For instance, Sea World’s orca Tilikum, is responsible for three deaths – two trainers and a civilian. The public may remember the media frenzy that arose after Tilikum pulled his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, underwater and subsequently drowned her. Jonathan Smith, a trainer at Sea World, was almost drowned by two orcas, after they grasped him within their jaws and dragged him to the bottom of their tank.

While orcas may be large predatory animals, there have been no records of wild orcas attacking humans. People have fallen into wild orca pods without serious harm. No wild orca has ever been sighted pulling someone off of a beach and dragging them underwater, despite them using this adapted behavior to hunt. A wild orca named Luna, who lived in the Puget Sound, was known to playfully interact with humans, even seeming to crave human contact.

A captive orca performs to hundreds of people every day in a marine park.

Confinement can lead dolphins to become distressed, with accounts of some even starving or abusing themselves by banging their heads on the walls, as Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer for the “Flipper” TV series, found when he studied a dolphin nicknamed “Big Boy” in Nassau, Bahamas. Big Boy was known to frequently bang his head on the wooden gate of his sea pen.

Dolphins have been observed acting out in an aggressive manner towards other dolphins, and have even caused injury to humans, likely due to the stress caused by the confinement in small enclosures. Earlier this year there were reports of two dolphins involved in a head on collsion, which resulted in their deaths, while in 2008, a dolphin at a swim-with-the-dolphins (SWTD) facility in Curacao breached out of the water to land directly on top of three tourists nearby, causing significant harm. Although cited as an accidental “bump,” the dolphin was perceived to have deliberately maneuvered itself.

Captivity is highly correlated with significant physical and mental stress in dolphins, which manifests in high infant mortality rates, lower life expectancy, and aggression between themselves and humans. In the wild, dolphins can live to be 25 to 50 years old, while orcas can live to be 50 to 80 years old; however, most dolphins only survive up to six years in captivity, with more than half not surviving more than two years. Most orcas rarely survive more than ten years in captivity.

Some people theorize that dolphins can commit suicide. It is a tantalizing, if not

Dolphins are regularly made to perform in aquaria, to the detriment of their mental and physical health.

horrific idea. Ric O’Barry stated that Kathy, one of the dolphins that played Flipper, committed suicide while in his arms. He contends that due to the stress brought on by captivity, she intentionally stopped breathing. Research has been conducted on cetaceans to determine if they are capable of self-awareness and if they could indeed comprehend the idea of suicide.

Cetaceans are voluntary breathers, which means that they have conscious control over their blowholes. Thus, when they come to the surface of the water to breathe, they can choose whether or not to take a breath. It is for this reason that cetaceans require respirators in order to survive anesthesia. If you have ever seen a dolphin or orca sleep, you may have noticed that they rest in a semi-conscious state with their blowholes positioned above the water’s surface or in a position that allows them to easily rise to the water’s surface to breathe. Could Kathy have been so depressed in captivity that she ended her own life?

As we have begun to explore more and more of the oceans, more animals are discovered, thus adding to the ‘catalogue’ of organisms that aquariums attempt to keep in captivity. Large sharks have become the next in line to be subjected to aquarium life; however in comparison to cetaceans, there has been little success keeping them in captivity.

Despite the fact that large sharks are given huge areas of water to live in, it doesn’t quite make up for their usual swimming behaviors. Large sharks, especially pelagic species, cover massive distances and can have extensive migration patterns.

High stress levels cause sharks to stop eating and often engage in harmful behaviors such as rubbing along and bumping the walls of their enclosures. Researchers believe that because sharks are able to use vibrations and electrical currents to navigate through the water, they may be able to discriminate aquariums as not being a natural environment, making it even more difficult to replicate the varying factors of the open ocean. Most captive sharks seem to exhibit vastly different behaviors than those normally observed in the wild, as though the different electromagnetic currents confuse them and cause them to run into the walls of their enclosures. Equipment used to run the enclosure can further aggravate behavioral issues.

One of the first captive white sharks, Carcharodon carcharias, seemingly settled into its enclosure well, then began to show stress from the overhead lights being switched on and off, bumping into the walls when the lighting changed. The people involved in the husbandry of this shark described how the health of the animal quickly deteriorated as it became more aware of its surroundings.

Monterey Bay Aquarium in California set new records when they held a white

Monterey Bay Aquarium has had mixed success housing white sharks in captivity.

shark in their Open Sea enclosure for 198 days in 2004. Following this event, Monterey had varied success in maintaining the health of captive white sharks, with individuals living in the Open Sea pen for 11-162 days. Each shark was released alive and tracked via the Tagging of Pacific Predator (TOPP) study.

The most recent attempt at housing a white shark was August 2011, also by Monterey Bay Aquarium. The four-foot shark was held at the aquarium for 55 days before being released, and then died a week later at sea. An official report by the aquarium stated:

“Based on the shark’s behavior and condition prior to release, the Aquarium’s white  shark team had every confidence he would do well back in the wild, and that the release would be a success.”

Although the team involved with the husbandry of the shark believed release to be the best possible option for this particular individual, it is clear that something went wrong. It could be that the abrasions it suffered from hitting the glass wall of its tank induced infection, weakening it sufficiently to make survival in the wild unlikely. It may be that certain individuals are just not predisposed to captivity – some individuals do better than others.

There are many arguments to and for captivity of animals, both marine and terrestrial. On the one side, captivity allows the public to view animals that they otherwise would have no opportunity to interact with, potentially producing advocates for the species. It allows researchers to get close to these animals and potentially find out ground-breaking discoveries. However, on the other side of the coin, are we educating people that keeping endangered animals behind bars or glass walls is the only way we can conserve them? Aquariums suggest that a life in captivity for many animals is better, as it is sterile, protects animals from the “plight of the sea,” with plenty of good food, and quality medical care, but what is the cost of this? Perhaps a life spent within glass walls is more detrimental than it would seem. Ric O’ Barry said of his dolphin companions:

Baby dolphin born in captivity.

“I question the mental health of captive animals. After all, captivity changes them forever, and habitat dictates behavior.”

This article was published in the Beyond Blue Magazine, Issue 14 (pg. 24)

Related articles: The Captive Industry & Fin Collapse in Killer Whales

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Shark Conservation Progress in 2011

Over the past year, much has been done to help sharks.

To recap:

-Honduras announced creation of 92,665-square mile shark sanctuary

-243,244 square miles of the Bahams converted into a shark sanctuary

-The Marshall Islands, Guam and Palau created a 2 million square-mile shark sanctuary -Chile banned shark finning

-ICCAT agreed to reduce fishing of shortfin mako shark and porbeagle sharks -Shark finning, which was outlawed in Hawaii in 2010, was also prohibited in Guam, Oregon, Washington, and California

These improvements will greatly help these magnificent creatures. But there is still a lot of work to do save these sharks and our amazing ocean.

This information is courtesy of Shark Research Institute. To visit them online, go to

Related Article: Update on Shark Cull in Western Australia

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Sea World’s Tilikum Is Sick

Many people recognize the name Tilikum. As a controversial bull orca that killed three people, including Sea World Trainer Dawn Brancheau, he is one of the most famous killer whales in the world.

The 22-foot, 12,000 lb bull orca is sick, although he is responding to treatment. Colleen Gorman, CEO of the Orca Project, has stated that she believes Sea World is simply waiting for the killer whale to die. He is currently being kept in an 8-foot deep medical pool. After observing him, Gorman commented, “He didn’t move much, but how can he in that tiny pool that is only 8-feet deep, with nowhere to go?” While Gorman agreed with Sea World’s statement that Tilikum’s condition has been improving, she thought that it was unbelievable after him being ill for over a week. She wouldn’t have expected him to have made it this far after being that sick.

Former Sea World trainer Samantha Berg does not think that Tilikum belongs in the spotlight. When interviewed by CBS News co-anchor Erica Hill in April 2011, Berg stated, “He’s been extremely stressed, because he’s got broken teeth and he’s been on antibiotics on and off.”

After the 2010 incident that ended in Brancheau’s death, Tilikum was isolated for 13 months. He was put back in the public arena in May 2011, but trainers are still not allowed to be in the water with Tilikum. For safety concerns, no one is allowed to enter the water
to treat him either. The only situation in which he is physically touched is when he is out of the water. Hence, the only time which Tilikum truly receives stimulation is during the shows. Otherwise, he is kept in complete emotional solitude. Gorman cannot believe “he’s alive still because he’s pretty much isolated all the time, but he keeps on going.”

Take the pledge: Don’t buy tickets to shows with captive dolphins or orcas

Related article: “Fin Collapse in Killer Whales”

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Japan Uses Tsunami Money To Fund Whaling

Times have been tough in terms of money. Families are struggling to make ends meet and to simply get by. With the trouble that the economy has put on many people, things are even more difficult when tragedy strikes. And strike it did in Japan. On Friday, March 11, 2011, the coast of Japan was hit with the most powerful earthquake in its history. The earthquake was a magnitude 9.0, and triggered tsunami waves of 40.5 meters. As a result of the destructive incident, 15,840 people lost their lives, and 5,950 people were injured. More than half a year later, both the country and its people are still recovering. There is still much rubble to clear away and rebuilding to be done, and the threat of radiation poisoning still looms. Empty towns stand as a reminder of what used to be. Additionally, 3,647 people are still missing.

Although there is still approximately 23 million tons of debris left to be removed, Japan has decided to allocate 2.28 billion yen ($30m US) to a more commercial operation: Whaling. This is in addition to its annual funds of $6 million. Greenpeace forced Japanese officials to divulge their financial plan. The executive director of Greenpeace Japan, Junichi Sato, commented, “It is absolutely disgraceful for the Japanese government to pump yet more taxpayer money on an unneeded, unwanted, and economically unviable whaling programme, when funds are desperately needed for recovery efforts.” I could not have put it more eloquently.

Japan officially granted the money to the Japan’s Institute for Cetacean Research (ICR), which is the agency that oversees the whaling operation. The program is carried out under the guise of research, but all whale meat is commercially sold. This year, the whaling operation plans to kill more than 900 minke whales and 50 fin whales in the Southern Ocean. As it is illegal to carry out such acts within this area, Sea Shepherd has vowed to stop them. Japan claims that this program will aid the towns wrecked by the tsunami.

People have lost their lives and their homes, and some are still searching for loved ones. Towns and peoples’ livelihoods have been devastated. Yet, Japan continues to justify their acts. It is downright shameful. This money should go to helping people, not aiding a commercial practice.

Tell Japan not to use tsunami funding for whale slaughter!


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Update on Shark Cull in Western Australia

Last month, I blogged about the proposed shark cull in Western Australia. Now, I have an update on what  happened with this: Victory for the sharks!

Recently, Western Australia’s sharks have caused a bit of a raucous; there have been four lethal shark attacks in the past fourteen months. To prevent further injury, local politicians and residents proposed a drastic solution: a shark cull.

To prevent the unnecessary deaths of sharks and other wildlife that would have been caught by the culling nets, activist Ryan Kempster and the NARC dive club started an online petition that was signed by nearly 19,000 people. As a result, the WA government opted for non-lethal shark monitoring measures. On November 15, 2011 the WA Fisheries Minister Norman Moore announced that the WA government will invest $13.65 million over the next five years towards this effort. In order to reduce the risk of shark attacks, this money will go to creating a shark response unit (including increased aerial surveillance), more shark research, and swimmer education. The great white shark tagging program will also be extended for two more years, and will focus on sharks near popular swimming areas. Additionally, the Fisheries department will further assess local fisheries management practices.

Norman Moore stated that the WA government is “trying to get a balance between protecting these species, which are protected under law, at the same time as giving people as much information as [the government] can about the likelihood of a shark attack when they go swimming.”

Shark culling nets don’t work. The majority of the sharks caught in the nets are headed back out to sea. Instead, these nets are excellent at indiscriminately killing innocent wildlife, such as seals, whales, stingrays, turtles, and dolphins.

Ryan Kempster expressed his appreciation: “This is a great day for our WA sharks and shark conservation worldwide.” Well said, Ryan.

Thank you to everybody who signed the petition and supported shark conservation! They are vital to the oceanic environment and play a key role in maintaining balance.

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Let’s Not Stand Idly By

A war has been staged by the fisherman of Taiji, Japan. Against who, you ask? Poor, defenseless and innocent dolphins. Today, a pod of Risso’s dolphins was killed. After 2-3 babies had witnessed the murder of their family, they were taken captive. We must ask ourselves how far this has to go before we can stop it! Please help! Find out HOW! If you would like more information on these merciless acts, click here. Let us not stop until the dolphins are free.

Here are the thoughts of Paul Watson (Sea Shepherd), as he gives his commentary on the occurrences in Taiji.

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Fin Collapse in Killer Whales

Approximately 1% of wild orcas exhibit fin collapse, where the dorsal fin leans to one side.  A rare occurrence in the wild, fin collapse is exhibited more in whales with poor health, and may result from serious injury, such as an oil spill or a collision. The resulting scar tissue can result in the fin’s deterioration, thereby causing it to collapse. Despite the fact that dorsal fins stand straight up in the air, they consist of collagen, which is a fibrous connective tissue, which is more vulnerable to injury than a more rigid type of tissue. The National Marine Fisheries Service has reported that “the collapsed dorsal fins commonly seen in captive killer whales do not result from a pathogenic condition, but are instead thought to most likely originate from an irreversible structural change in the fin’s collagen over time.”

In the ocean, orcas spend most of their lives swimming straight and quickly through the water, allowing water flow on both sides of the dorsal fin. This equal water pressure allows the tissues to remain healthy and straight. Obviously, orcas need to turn in order to maneuver themselves through the water. However, their movements are random, so the water pressure doesn’t begin to weigh more heavily on one side.

Tilikum, at Sea World

Contrastingly, 30-100% captive orcas, most of them being males, have dorsal fin collapse (male orca dorsal fins are bigger). Due to the inadequate amount of space that captive orcas are given, they spend most of their time resting at the surface, and only have the choice of swimming either clockwise or counterclockwise around the pool. Turning constantly in such a pattern puts most of the weight from water flow on one side of the fin, and spending so much time resting at the surface allows gravity to pull down on the fin. his excessive surface resting also results in more sun exposure, which softens the collagen. Further, many marine parks house their orcas in pools that slightly exceed marine temperatures. This, and decreased movement and exercise lead to reduced food intake. The result is less hydration than their wild counterparts because orcas extract fluids from their food (as a source of fresh water). In addition, frozen-thawed fish are a lesser source of fluids than are live prey. The combination of these factors puts the dorsal fin in a position where the tissue begins to atrophy, and thus causes the fin to flop over to one side.

Keiko, being loaded into a transport tank at Oregon State Aquarium

While Sea World asserts that dorsal fin collapse “isn’t an indicator of the animal’s health or well-being,” it doesn’t occur in nearly the same frequency in the wild as it does in captivity. This certainly isn’t normal. After the 1989 Exon Valdez oil spill, two male orcas that had been exposed to the oil exhibited fin collapse, and subsequently died. In 2002, a stranded male orca in Washingtondeveloped fin collapse after three days. However, being released and resuming a normal swimming pattern, the animal’s fin regained its erect position. So what does all this say about whether these animals should be held in captivity?


1. Dave Ellifrit & Astrid van Ginneken, MD, PhD Interview at the Center for Whale Research in WA
3. National Marine Fisheries Service Northwest Regional Office (August 2005). “Proposed Conservation Plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca)

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Killing Taiji Dolphins is Anything But Painless

Approximately 20,000 dolphins, porpoises, and small whales are slaughtered each year in Taiji, Japan. Beginning on September 1, the hunting season runs through the end of March of the following year. Hidden from the public, these animals are mercilessly stabbed, and are left to thrash around until they die. The “lucky” ones are sentenced to a life in captivity. Note that we are only 2 months into the hunting season, and already approximately 100 innocent animals have died. This number would be higher, but opposing weather forces have allowed pods of dolphins to thwart their killers. For more information on these killings, click HERE. And for those of you who who still find it hard to believe that people could be so cruel to innocent beings such as dolphins, here is real footage showing just how agonizing their deaths are. For many dolphins, it can take up to ten minutes to finally escape the horror, as they writhe around, desperately trying to escape. There aren’t enough words to express how atrocious this is. “The horror of lying on your side, out of the water, having trouble breathing, hearing the sounds of your podmates as they’re slaughtered.” (Hardy founder)

Please help save these dolphins. They don’t deserve to endure this brutal treatment. Let’s stop this! Find out how you can help!

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Shark Culling is NOT the answer

Does the picture below offend you as much as it did me? Ever since the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks and surrounding media frenzy, fear of sharks has become a global phenomenon. But whatever the cause of the fright, what does ring true is that people fear what they do not understand. Despite the low incidence rate of shark attacks, people are still afraid to enter the water. However, the reality is that humans pose a far greater threat to sharks than they ever will to us. This year, there have only been 6 deaths due to sharks. Contrastingly, 100 million sharks are killed every year by humans. One is more likely to drown or be caught by a riptide, than attacked by a shark. Further, sharks are not the only marine dweller of which humans need to be cautious. And while the number of shark attacks per year may be growing, it is not because shark populations are increasing. Quite the contrary. A third of open-water species, including the great white and hammerhead, are facing extinction.

Over the past year, Western Australia has had four shark attacks. In WA’s search to deal with these attacks and prevent the occurrence of future ones, the state’s government is looking to instate new measures, one of them being shark culling. Culling has been shown to not only be extremely expensive, but also ineffective. The theory behind these nets is that they will reduce the number of sharks visiting that area, and therefore reduce the risk of attacks. However, this is not true; killing a few specimens is not likely to prevent future attacks. Shaun Collin, a professor at the Western Oceans Institute (University of Western Australia) points out that there is no data to suggest that shark populations off Western Australia’s coast are increasing. Instead, the data shows that the average number of shark attacks per year have remained fairly constant, with an average one per year over the last 50 years. Comparatively, in 2008 there were 315 drownings and 694 people killed on Australian roads (Sea Shepherd). Moreover, these nets don’t discriminate; they also kill seals, dolphins, sea turtles, non-predatory sharks, and even whales. Shark researcher Barry Bruce argues that localized culling is an ineffective measure due to the migratory swim patterns of Australian sharks. There is also no way to know if any of the sharks caught by these nets would indeed be culprits of future attacks. And while shark attacks are tragic occurrences, they are indeed rare events. Thus, shark culling is not the answer. Instead, educating people and surveillance measures such as spotter planes and patrol boats would be a lot more effective in reducing future attacks. “Shark nets are simply a false security blanket for the public. The majority of sharks that are caught in the nets are on the beachside on their way back out to sea. They simply don’t work” (Sea Shepherd).

I spent last summer in Mossel Bay, South Africa doing research on great white sharks. As an intern for Oceans Research, I helped assist with genetic sampling, and record visual data and take photographs of dorsal fins, pigmentation, and other distinguishing features of resident GWs. While observing these awe-inspiring creatures, what amazed me the most was how non-violent they seemed to be, even when approaching our bait heads. Many were more inquisitive than anything. They are not the human-eating machines that we make them out to be. I think it is important to remember that we are entering their environment, and it is our behavior that is wrecking their homes, and not the other way around. Sharks are apex predators that are vital to preserving the oceanic ecosystem.

“We share the oceans with these animals. The notion that we need to kill any animal that might place us at risk when we enter the water, is a totally unacceptable attitude in the modern world” (Professor Mike Barker from New Zealand).

Please sign this petition to PREVENT Western Australia’s sharks from being CULLED!

Interview with Barry Bruce by Australia’s ABC News:

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