THE OTHER SIDE OF SHARKS | SEAN SAMER | NOT SO ORDINARY CITIZENS
Posted on November 9, 2016 by Trace
T H E O T H E R
S I D E
O F S H A R K S
— Not So Ordinary Citizens Interview —
S E A N S A M E R
≫≫ SHARK CONSERVATIONIST ≫≫
Great White photography by Matt Draper / by Tracee Annetts
NORTHERN NSW SHARK CONTROVERSY
The current escalation of recent shark attacks on surfers and swimmers, resulting in injury and death in the past few years in Northern NSW has the public in fear of utilizing our glorious coastline.
This controversial and passionate topic, has people on both sides of the argument in heated debate as to whether shark nets will be a solution or instead a human laid death trap to marine life.
We were contacted by SEAN SAMER a Marine Researcher and Conservationist from Coolangatta on the Gold Coast, who aims to spread awareness and education in order to help change the thinking of the World and the issues it currently faces.
Recently, after two shark attacks in ten days off Ballina’s beaches, NSW Premier Mike Baird announced a six-month trial of shark meshing.
HC : Why the dramatic rise in shark attacks and why this region of the Coastline? Is there a reason the sharks are coming in so close, are they hungry.. is their normal food source being diminished?
S.S : When looking at the increase of shark sightings and bite incidents on the North NSW coastline, there are a number of contributing factors as to why this may be occurring.
Geographically, the area is a perfect setting for sharks of juvenile, sub-adult and adult life stages. The coastline between Byron Bay to Lennox Head and Ballina is the most Easterly point of Australia. This means that this coastline is shaped in a way that the beaches and headlands go from shallow surf zones to significant deep water drop-offs and there are a number of rivers that are connected to the ocean.
This area of the coast experiences a unique biological factor where a warm current moves South and a more temperate current travels North, merging together and bringing a rich biodiversity of marine animal species and as you can imagine, many prey items for sharks.
The river mouth where the Richmond River meets the ocean has been a shark attack hotspot over the years and the fact that it has scored a D- in the “Final Richmond Ecohealth Report”, makes it one of the most unhealthiest rivers on the coastline.
All these factors give insight as to why there are so many sharks in this area, and as to why are there so many attacks…
Looking at the sharks that have been tagged in the area by the DPI [Department of Primary Industries] it can be seen that the majority of the species that have been tagged are juvenile and sub-adult Great White sharks.
Studies that have been conducted on this species indicates that sharks that transition from the juvenile life stage to more mature life stages start to change their prey preference from smaller food items to much larger and robust prey.
As these sharks are still young compared to the 70 years that some Great Whites are known to live for, they are still in the learning stage of hunting and using their mouth and teeth as a means of determining what is edible and what is not.
You can see how a young shark may see a surfers leg dangling in the water and go in for a bite to determine if this foreign object is a food source.
Sharks have developed an array of sharp and accurate senses over millions of years of evolution. If these senses fail to determine something that is alien to them, they use their mouth as a last resort [they don’t have hands after all].
The increase in attacks also directly correlates to the increase in numbers of humans using the ocean. More and more people are starting to overload popular beaches wanting to experience the beach life and learn how to surf.
Due to this, we are seeing beaches that although were once secluded, are now full of people laying on the beach, swimming, surfing etc. It makes sense that if there are more people in the ocean, there is a higher chance of a shark attack occurring. We must also take into consideration that sharks are marine animals, and humans are terrestrial animals.
We do not belong in the ocean and sharks senses pick up on this and our vulnerability when we are in their home. Studies on shark behaviour convey that sharks may indeed attack humans if they feel provoked.
A human swimming in a sharks territory may be reason enough for it to feel provoked, not to mention the fact that we are constantly exploiting their food sources, polluting their home and killing millions of them annually.
HC : As a Conservationist what research would you like to offer the community on the placement of shark nets along Northern NSW beaches? And your insight on solutions to the issue.
S.S : Shark nets are not a viable strategy for preventing shark and human interaction. They are merely a false sense of security for people and considerably outdated [installed in NSW: 1937 and QLD: 1960’s].
Looking at shark bite incident data recorded between 1937-2009, of the 38 shark attacks in NSW, more than 60% of them took places at beaches with shark nets.
As a result of the recent attacks occurring in the Ballina-Byron region, there has been an enormous amount of pressure for Premier Mike Baird, who has formerly stated his opposition to shark nets and lethal technologies, to take action to stop people from being attacked. [Current stats can be viewed HERE]
Shark nets will now be trialled in this area for 6 months as a solution to this problem, but will it work?
Firstly, shark nets don’t enclose a beach in anyway. They run approximately 500 metres off-shore and parallel to the beaches and are 150m long and 6m deep.
After living on the Gold Coast for 5 years now I have had a number of shark encounters, within the areas where shark nets are supposed to protect people.
In reality, the only “success” these nets have are the amount of by-catch and non-target species they capture and kill annually. From 2014-2015, 189 animals were tangled in NSW nets and over 20 of those were protected, or endangered species.
These nets kill on average 275 animals per year and every time whale season comes around I am completely on edge, wondering how many whales are going to be entangled as a result of our shark “control” methods. This year it was 12 whales.
There are a number of viable solutions as to how we can reduce attacks and fatalities without harming sharks or the environment.
Smart-drum lines, the alternative to lethal drum-lines are a method of catching sharks for scientific data/satellite-tagging and then relocating these sharks away from the coastline.
The Shark Smart app for iPhones and androids gives information to the user when tagged sharks are in certain areas.
I would highly recommend everyone to download this app as it gives people an insight as to when and where sharks are occurring on our coastline and then people can make a choice on whether they enter the ocean, or not, based on this.
For example, on this app I have been following the movements of a juvenile Great White shark that has been cruising between Clarke’s Beach and Suffolk Park Beach in Byron Bay.
The shark spotters program is a great alternative to lethal measures that increases beach surveillance and utilises watch towers and drone technology and aims to evacuate swimmers from the water if a shark is spotted.
This strategy has proven to be a success in South Africa where they have a significant population of Great White sharks.
There are other measures such as Eco-shark barriers and individual shark deterrent devices, which have proven to work in some circumstances but perhaps more testing is needed to acclaim their success.
I believe we need to invest in more scientific research, for the more we know about their movement and behaviour, the more we can predict what may happen in a human and shark interaction.
While the Government has invested in ongoing research of sharks on this coastline, we are not getting the answers we are looking for so I think the research needs to be more direct.
Above 3 images of Great Whites by Matt Draper
HC : You say that you would like to educate and spread awareness, which methods do you believe will change people’s minds?
S.S : Education and awareness go hand in hand, I feel. Never before in history have we seen sharks in such a favourable light to so many people.
This is a direct result of scientists, public figures, celebrities, conservationists and people in general sharing shark facts, documentaries, photos, videos etc conveying sharks in their true image, as interesting, intelligent creatures that we have the privilege of sharing their oceans with.
I want to continue spreading this knowledge. Social media is a great tool for this and while sometimes I never know if I am getting through to people with my shark posts, the feedback and support I continue to receive from people is amazing and inspiring.
People don’t need to agree with the information or perspective I give, but as long as I am speaking what I believe is the truth and giving them the facts, then you sometimes see a complete 180 turn in their mindset.
It is a humbling experience when you know someone who has been fearful of sharks their whole life and supporting shark-culling, and then out of nowhere they are starting to sign petitions protecting sharks and voicing their opinions against shark-culling and shark finning.
There is no such thing as a closed mind, we all take in information and if enough of the right information is obtained, our perspective can change.
I want to start pursuing shark education in schools in the near future. The next generation is going to play an important role in shark conservation and we need them to understand the consequences of a world without sharks.
Photo of Sean Samer by Morgan Schaffer
HC : You are a self-declared conservationist and NOT an activist. What do you consider to be the difference?
S.S : While I am not against activism and support it, if it works, it is just not for me. I want to get people on the same page as each other and not put people in a bad light because I disagree with what they believe in or their actions.
Conservation works with understanding and careful actions. Finding solutions to issues and promoting awareness.
HC : You’ve said your methods for success in conservation entail the following steps:
– Understand the situation or issue :
S.S : So when I say ‘understanding the situation or issue’, I am talking about knowing what you are dealing with.
So this is the first part of the big picture. You need to know every element of the issue if you want to conserve it successfully.
For example, some might believe that the shark finning industry is just Indonesian fisherman who are exploiting the oceans of sharks for personal and financial gain and on the surface it may appear that way.
It was not until I went to Indonesia and worked in shark conservation in relation to the finning industry that I found there is much more behind the scenes and the big players, companies that you would never even expect to be involved in such matters, are the ones that instigate it all.
The fishermen are just people trying to feed their families and not realising the consequences of reeling in thousands upon thousands of sharks from the ocean.
– Research, history, acknowledging both sides of the story :
S.S : Research into the issue is such an important step and people tend to skip over this and go straight to education and action without actually understanding the issue properly.
Do a history and context read up on everything to do with the environmental issue. This will give insight into why it first started happening, why it is still happening, and how people’s perspectives are altered by it.
Culture plays a big part in it all. Australia, while rich in cultural diversity, apart from the indigenous culture has no proper cultural practices or motives.
This is a big part of why countries that are not third world can be quick to judge others from such countries that harm the environment due to cultural practices.
The reality is that some of these cultures have been doing this for generations and now that the environment is reaching a breaking point, we tell them that they can not do this anymore.
They in turn look at us, in a country where we have everything we need but we are hypocrites.
We still harm the environment, pollute, overfish and our Government is currently destroying our Great Barrier Reef as we watch. Why should they listen to us? This is why we must understand everything.
Photo of Sean Samer by Morgan Schaffer
– Education : sharing knowledge of the issue with the public and community
S.S : so I touched on education above. I think an important part of education is to make it relatable.
Everyone has access to thousands upon thousands of scientific articles that give us insight into a lot of research and findings. The problem is, these publishings are hard to read and the only people that really read them are other scientists.
The good news is that there is a lot of “easy on the brain” information out there for us all, and while I wouldn’t recommend Wikipedia, there are a lot of credible sources on the internet, documentaries on YouTube/TV, books etc.
Another important aspect of educating and awareness is communication. I have talked to many shark fishermen over time from all parts of the world and heard their stories and why they do what they do.
I always give them the facts about shark fishing: how it is not sustainable, how even catch and release fishing can be fatal to the shark etc.
Some of them don’t know how detrimental to the oceans, shark fishing can be, and others know but still pursue it.
At the end of the day I have managed to share what I know with them and have planted a seed of awareness, so to speak, and I have come away learning more about shark fishing.. so that this information might help me with future conservation efforts.
– Action : taking direct action in a realistic and viable way if possible
SS : Taking action is the hardest step of them all but can be the most rewarding. It is often hard to determine when to take action and what is the right way to do it. I am still learning how to do this right.
What I have learnt over the years so far, is that action in conservation is disguised in many forms.
Signing petitions can go a long way and we have seen great achievement in conservation from thousands of people taking a small part of their time to sign a petition online or in writing. Along with petition signing, there are also ways in which you can email or make a phone call to Government members to voice your opinion on an issue they are related to.
Protests, or information rallies are a great way to take action and bring people and a community together to stand up for a cause.
My friend Mollie Cox who is an amazing advocate for conservation has organised protests against shark culling when it was a big issue and controversy in Western Australia and she has even taught a whole yoga class wearing a shark costume to raise money for shark conservation.
I have attended and spoken at many protests or information days over the years and if enough people show their support, the outcome is favourable in terms of conservation.
In Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary “Before the Flood”, which explores climate change on our Earth, he conveys that the Government will always listen to the people if they speak loud enough and this is what we can achieve by bringing people together to stand up against something.
Lastly we have physical action, whether it is cutting a whale free that has been entangled in nets, being involved in a beach cleanup, using your car less to reduce carbon emissions or ramming a Japanese whaling boat to stop them harpooning. This is all action and each action no matter how big or small, is a step towards achieving successful conservation.
HC : Tell us how these steps have helped achieve success in recent shark conservation projects which you are currently co-working on in Indonesia?
Above & below 3 Shark pups and Sean by Paul Friese of Bali Sharks
SS : This workshop is helping to save sharks from being finned by the shark fishing industry which is a huge issue in Indonesia and the world.
After learning how Indonesia was the leading region in shark finning world wide I knew I had to travel there to understand the situation and try and help if I could.
I found the Bali Sharks project online and contacted the owner and founder Paul Friese and the next thing I knew I was on my way to Indonesia.
Paul started Bali Sharks as a conservation project to save sharks from shark finning. The project involves working with local fishermen whom he purchases sharks from and then rehabilitates them in a netted nursery until they are able to be released back into protected marine waters.
Due to not wanting to create a market for fishermen to bring sharks to him [because that will encourage them to target sharks] after educating the fishermen on the importance of sharks in the ocean and why his project is needed, the fishermen now bring him sharks if they end up in their nets as by-catch.
It is amazing to see first hand how these people went from fishing for sharks to helping and supporting their conservation.
Bali Sharks is funded by Eco-tourism which gives travellers the opportunity to swim with the sharks and learn about them and the threats they face from the shark finning industry.
The project has been successful in saving and releasing over 200 sharks and counting.
After spending months with the project conducting research and aiding in the conservation, Paul and I decided to start a Bali Sharks workshop which gives people the opportunity to have hands-on experience in shark conservation and see the inside of the shark finning industry.
We finished our first workshop in the winter, successfully releasing four sharks back into the ocean and rescuing three juvenile blacktip reef sharks from the aquarium trade [another leading threat to sharks].
We were able to release the sharks along with our workshop group and an International school from America; which is another great aspect of Bali Sharks as we are continuously working with schools locally and internationally to raise awareness and educate.
Great White shark photography by Matt Draper
HC : You’ve told us: “I believe a lot of people’s perceptions are being altered by directly biased media sources, however if everyone had the true facts and information, then people can make up their own minds” What kind of biased media are you referring to?
S.S : Since Peter Benchley released his novel Jaws and it was made into a popular movie directed by Steven Spielberg, people became terrified of sharks and the ocean.
Decades later, people still view sharks as monsters waiting in the depths of the ocean to kill people despite all the evidence to show that this is simply not true.
Some sources of media know how to work this to their advantage and instil fear, using sentences such as “monster shark hunts beach go-ers” or “killer shark lingers off Coast”.
Basically these sentences are really just saying a shark has been spotted in its natural habitat, but if the media in question said it this way, it would merely be an observation and not a story.
This is why we must remember that everything we read is not black and white. There is a depth to it and in circumstances where you may read headlines describing a “near-miss shark attack”, digging deeper into the story you will most likely read that it was just a simple shark meets human encounter and that there was no potential attack.
When the attacks started occurring more frequently in the Ballina area, every news source in Australia was flooded with pictures of infamous Great White sharks with their mouths open and teeth flaring.
Even when there were no attacks some media would still release articles on sharks that had been spotted in the area or updates about a shark attack victims health and most of this would still make the front page.
In reality, all this does is instills unnecessary fear in people and keeps the controversy ball rolling for some journalists to utilise or take advantage of.
That being said, this is not how all media outlets operate and a lot of them are conveying nothing but the truth to their audiences.
We are engulfed by media for most of our daily life and it influences us in ways we don’t even realise.
We must remember to not judge everything by front page news and look at an article and ask ourselves, are they trying to ‘create’ a story or are they trying to ‘share’ a story?
Great White shark photography by Matt Draper
HC : With the growing number of humans actively involved in educating and supporting our Ocean and Environment, who most inspires you and your work?
S.S : Inspiration comes to me in so many ways. My parents are a major inspiration to me and have had a huge influence on my relationship to nature and the ocean with my Dad being a former professional Scuba Diver and my Mom being the most compassionate lover of animals I have ever met, it was inevitable that I would grow up to immerse myself in nature completely as a career, as a way of life and with a mission to protect and conserve it always.
A majority of my inspiration comes from some of my good friends who do their amazing part for marine conservation such as Malia Roullion, Mollie Cox, Alice Forrest, Nicole McLachlan, Matt Draper, Paul Friese, Liana Cornell, Hannah Smith, Madison Stewart to name a few [don’t mean to leave anyone out, this is almost an endless list].
There are a huge number of nature and ocean conservation advocates such as Sylvia Earle, Jacques Cousteau, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jane Goodall, David Attenborough, Stan Waterman etc that I have always been inspired by since I was young.
I feel like their messages, stories or knowledge are more relevant now than ever.
Every environmental group or organisation that is out there [the number is growing rapidly!] spreading awareness, taking action and supporting the voiceless, is a huge source of inspiration for me. A lot of groups I have met have been self funded and organised with the sole intention of helping nature in the most selfless ways.
The biggest kick of inspiration or motivation comes to me from any individual who stands up for what they believe in and wants to help nature, animals, people, the Earth.
Whether it is someone picking up rubbish from the beach, a little girl explaining to her dad that a dolphin is a mammal and not a fish, a clothing brand donating profits to a conservation cause, someone sharing a conservation post on Facebook or people helping a beached shark back into the ocean so it can swim freely – all of this encourages me to keep following the path that I am on, and reminds me that there is still so much for me to learn from anything and everyone.
You don’t need a science degree, a conservation background or a vegan diet to teach and inspire. We all teach, motivate and support each other in so many ways we don’t acknowledge enough.
Exploring with Sean Samer by Morgan Schaffer
HC : Where has your own passion for sharks and marine life stemmed from?
SS : When I say the ocean is like a home to me, I mean it. Some days I will spend more time in the ocean than on land. Since I was young the ocean and its life has always intrigued me.
How could it not? It’s a whole different world under the surface and one that we haven’t even begun to explore yet [we know more about space than our oceans].
One of my earliest and easily most profound memories is back when I was five years old and snorkelling with my family in shallow waters off Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef.
At that age I still hadn’t mastered buoyancy control and the art of smooth swimming as opposed to the slapping of my fins I was doing at that time.
Out of nowhere, a juvenile blacktip reef shark that I must of spooked, charged right towards me and I freaked out!
From there began a life of utter shark obsession. Every book I owned was about sharks and some of them I couldn’t even read but would sit for hours flicking through photo after photo mesmerised by these torpedo shaped animals with sharp teeth that controlled the oceans; memorising species names and facts about them.
Since my first encounter with a shark up until now, I have been lucky to have a large number of amazing experiences in the ocean with various species of sharks, from big solitary sharks such as Great Whites and Tiger sharks, to schooling sharks such as Black Tip and White Tip Reef sharks and smaller species such as Wobbegongs, Port Jacksons and Bamboo sharks to name a few.
Back in 2010 I moved to South Africa to live for a couple of years where I was working as a conservationist and marine researcher in one of the most amazing locations in the world.
It was from here that I knew I would never be happy in life unless it revolved around the ocean and conserving it.
Since then I have dedicated my life to marine conservation and research projects and have had amazing opportunities to do this in some incredible locations around the world.
Apart from sharks I have had the honour of being involved in research and conservation with many marine creatures such as Jellyfish, Dolphins, Whales, Turtles, Seals, Seahorses, Fish and Sea Birds.
I have had such support from a lot of people and organisations along the way, who without their efforts I would not be where I am today, so a big Thank You to them, they know who they are.
Photo of Sean Samer by Morgan Schaffer
HC : Tell us more about your own Ocean passions and music interests. What else is on the horizon for you Sean?
SS : Besides searching for sharks in the ocean, my other ocean passions are snorkelling, swimming and surfing.
The ocean is a big part of my life and day, and a lot of people underestimate its abilities to clear one’s mind.
If I am stressed or tired or under the weather, jumping in the ocean revitalises me every time.
I am so lucky to live 2 minutes walk from the beach here in Kirra and on most days the water is clear and warm and resembles that of a tropical island [minus the buildings and all the people].
There is a great Reef to snorkel, just down the road from me and is so rich in biodiversity that every time I’ve been out there I have been severely sunburnt from losing track of time whilst observing schools of Fish and Eagle Rays, Sharks, Stingrays and Turtles in their natural element.
I am also lucky to live down the road from such great surf spots, and while there hasn’t been any really impressive waves lately in the last couple of months, it’s always fun to take out the longboard and find a wave or two somewhere.
This Whale season I was fortunate to have a number of incredible encounters with some Humpback Whales whilst out in the surf. If there are no Whales, there are always Dolphins around showing off their pretty impressive bodysurfing skills.
I am truly blessed to live where I live.
Music is a huge part of my life and I have been playing guitar for about seven years now.
A lot of my friends at the moment are all amazing musicians in one way or another and we spend a lot of time sitting outside with the guitars and jamming for hours upon hours.
It has really helped me to start writing my own music and have a true appreciation for what music has to give. Life would definitely not be the same without the ocean or music I can tell you that for sure!
Photo of Sean Samer by Morgan Schaffer
HC : As your final parting words with us, what is the most important factor in the controversy we are currently facing as a Community?
S.S : This is a tough issue we are all facing at the moment and I can understand where both sides of the argument, about the shark control issue, are coming from.
We must remember not to judge people for their opinions or actions and the only way to fight is to educate, spread awareness and rise above it all.
Whatever we do now affects our future for the better or worse. Whatever detrimental influence we have on our oceans will eventually result in our downfall as we cannot survive without a healthy ocean.
We must remember that while shark attacks seem to be becoming more frequent in the Northern NSW region, there is still a higher chance of fatalities from coconuts landing on your head, car accidents or a vending machine falling on you.
We must, most importantly remember, that we are killing an outrageous number of sharks annually [millions a year, with a lot of catches not on record] which is a far greater concern right now than any other shark issue.
In the hour I took to write this, approximately 11,000 sharks were killed for no other reason than for human benefit.
We have the power to make change happen and it needs to start happening now.
One day when I have kids I don’t want to be showing them photos of these animals called sharks that once existed in the oceans, but were wiped out by humans.
I want to be able to take them swimming with sharks and let them see for themselves the beauty and gracefulness of the ocean’s top predator who deserves nothing but our utmost respect.
Should you wish to quickly sign a petition to revoke the NSW shark meshing program please join us HERE
Keep in touch with SEAN SAMER
↱ Instagram @vooodooochilddd