It's a double-page colour ad. The photo is captivating: a young lady swimming under water and smiling as a large shark passes by underneath. The headline: "I used to be scared but then I learned the facts". It's attributed to "Nina Dobrev, Actress and Ocean Advocate".
Sorry folks, I'm afraid I don't know who Nina Dobrev is. My friend Google tells me she's a Bulgarian-Canadian actress, born Nikolina Konstantinova Dobreva, who's appeared in a bunch of films and TV shows that have never reached my screen and aren't likely to do so. Still, it's not her thespian career I'm keen about. It's the fact she's joined Oceana to help save sharks that grabs my attention. After all, Oceana is the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. And in that, I'm interested.
You see, I wrote a book called "Shark Assault: An Amazing Story of Survival" (sharkassault.com), a true story about the life of Nicole Moore, a nurse from Orangeville ON who was attached twice by a bull shark in Cancun Mexico. She came very close to dying as a result.
Doing research for a book like this means diving into the facts about sharks and I was very fortunate to have three world-respected tour guides who helped me understand sharks and how they don't like going after people. The attack against Nicole was very rare and occurred for a confluence of reasons I won't get into here.
But let me share three key facts.
1) Sharks are being killed at a rate of over 100 million per year (this stat from no less than National Geographic). They cannot reproduce fast enough to counter this atrocity. Why the slaughter? Mostly illegal ships worldwide attract sharks, pull them on board, hack off their fins and throw the animal back into the water where they suffocate, sinking to a brutal death below. Those fins are used to make shark fin soup, long consumed by the Asian population in a ritualistic manner. (The practice itself dates back to dynasties in China where shark fin soup was regarded as one of a few select delicacies to be served at important functions. Folklore imputes various claims about what the soup may do for you, but at the end of the day, it's really just a way of signaling you have sufficient dough to offer this rare fare at key events.) Check out the film "Shark Water" by the late producer Rob Stewart. It'll bring tears to your eyes (at least it did to mine). The award-winning documentary begins with debunking myths about 'bloodthirsty, man-eating monsters' and goes on to show the exploitation and corruption surrounding illegal poachers catching sharks, hacking off their fins and throwing the animals back into the ocean.
2) My friend Dr. Peter Sale, who is an acknowledged ocean reef expert, tells me that sharks are the "policemen" of the ocean. "They maintain control in our seas. If we lose them, we lose the seas."
3) I had the pleasure of interviewing Claudia Li for my book. Immigrating with her family from Hong Kong to Canada in the 1980s, Claudia was able to grow up appreciating the best of both cultures, Chinese and Canadian.
“Peter, I watched ‘Sharkwater’ alone and then couldn't get over it,” Claudia told me. “It was so profound. It convinced me that I had a mission: to find a way to reach members of my own Asian community and get them to abandon their ritualistic obsession with shark fin soup at important gatherings. You know, people don't even think about it. ‘Hey, you’re getting married, gotta have shark fin soup.’ Just like you have turkey at Christmas... you just do it without asking why. So I can’t really blame people, because it is pretty mindless...”
Claudia set about establishing Shark Truth (www.sharktruth.com) with a goal of changing customs, developing tactics like “Make A Vow To Go Fin Free At Your Wedding”. These programs encouraging the "Fin Free" movement have so far diverted 80,000 bowls of shark fin soup and saved 8,000 sharks.
But her work goes beyond promotions for weddings. “We need to support legislation that protects sharks by stopping the import, sale, possession and trade of shark fins,” she says. “Shark Truth encourages political leaders and activists to engage and consult with all stakeholders involved before introducing legislation.”
Well done Claudia! The world needs more gifted conservationists like you.
BTW, I did ask Claudia if she has ever swum with sharks. "Are you kidding?" she exclaimed, laughing, "I don't even swim. I hate the water!”
"OK then. How about shark fin soup: ever had it?" I inquired. “Of course!” she admitted freely. “Everyone in my culture who attends a wedding or other key event has. In fact, just a few weeks before founding Shark Truth, I innocently sat down to a bowl at a family banquet without even thinking twice about it.” Claudia looks away for a moment, thinking about the incredible last few years of her life. “Of course, that was before I got enlightened.”
You can get enlightened too. Visit oceana.org to learn how you can help protect our oceans.