Dr Elliott's Very Polite Predators

New Zealand shark scientist Dr Riley Elliott is happiest when diving below the waves observing sharks, or lobbying for better understanding about the ocean’s most maligned occupants

BY Diane Godley Published Mar 13, 2024 16:06:05 IST
Dr Elliott's Very Polite Predators PHOTO: COURTESY RILEY ELLIOTT

News helicopters flew low over Drs Riley Elliott and Ocean Ramsey in an effort to film the crazy rescue the pair were attempting in the waters just south of Perth, Western Australia. It was April 2014 and the two marine biologists were frantically swimming alongside a dying shark in an effort to revive it. What made the dramatic rescue even more unusual was the fact that it was taking place during a shark cull.

There had been seven lethal great white shark attacks over the previous three years off Western Australian beaches. The public wanted something done and permission had been given for a three-month shark-cull trial targeting sharks longer than three metres.

The larger animals were to be hooked using massive hooks on baited drumlines then killed, while smaller sharks were to be released ‘alive’. According to The Guardian at the time, drumlines captured 172 sharks, 50 were larger than three metres and shot. None were great whites. Some 20 sharks were found dead on the baited hooks—14 of them under three metres—before crews could reach them, while another 90 were released ‘alive’.

Drs Elliott and Ramsey had found one of the released sharks suffocating on the ocean floor. The 2.4 metre tiger shark was also bleeding from hook wounds. The pair of conservationists swam the shark to the surface, one either side of it, and continued to swim with it for an hour and a half trying to revive the animal.

image-87_031324040321.jpgDrs Riley Elliott and Ocean Ramsey spent over an hour swimming alongside this tiger shark in an effort to revive it. Photo: Courtesy Riley Elliott

Both marine biologists knew that the released sharks didn’t stand much of a chance of survival after sitting on a hook for up to 12 hours. Exhausted and traumatized, once released the animals simply sank to the bottom of the ocean floor. “We realized the negligence of this, as well as the entire shark cull, and wanted to do something to stop it,” says Dr Elliott.

Like many marine species, sharks need to keep moving through the water to allow them to breathe, explains Dr Elliott. If they don’t, they suffocate. When game fishermen release a catch, they hold it in the current to let the water flow over its gills. They don’t just let it go because it doesn’t have the energy to swim.

“So, we took a baby tiger shark off the bottom and we swam with it, one of us on either side.” During the resuscitation effort, a shark-cull fisheries vessel travelled alongside the pair, yelling through a loudspeaker that what they were doing was against the law. But the scientists were not intimidated: they had already consulted with lawyers before they ventured into the water. What this crazy act of saving a shark did, however, was attract worldwide media interest.

GROWING UP SURFING in Raglan and the Coromandel Peninsula, on New Zealand’s north island, Dr Riley Elliott was drawn to the ocean from an early age. Initially studying dolphins, the marine scientist completed an honours degree in Zoology and a masters in Marine Science at the University of Otago. But it was an incident during a dive in the South Island’s Fiordland region to study the local dolphin community that changed the focus of his research.

Through his mask he could see something 40 metres below rushing up towards him—it was a shark. Back then, his knowledge of sharks was limited to what he’d learnt from watching the movie Jaws. He totally freaked out.

“I ejected my buoyancy control device and shot to the surface,” he recalls. Bracing for an attack, he opened his eyes to see a benign 30-centimetre school shark—considered harmless to humans due to its small size and preference for small prey.

“I felt so ashamed—I was a budding marine biologist and I didn’t have the slightest idea what a shark was.”

image-88_031324040412.jpgDr Elliott has free-dived with every shark species. PHOTO: COURTESY RILEY ELLIOTT

He took that shame back to the university before later heading to South Africa to study great white sharks. After spending time with the world’s largest predatory fish, he found them to be cautious, calculating and vulnerable.

By his own admission, his fears quickly turned to fascination. Since then, Dr Elliott has free dived with sharks of every species without a cage—including great whites, tiger sharks, bull sharks and mako sharks—and his knowledge and understanding of the species has grown. By understanding the science, humans and sharks can find a way to coexist or even evolve to a stage where we can overcome our adverse reaction to sharks, he says.

“We should fear sharks. But I hope we can react to that fear rationally. Sharks have been around longer than dinosaurs and trees. They are incredibly important to our marine ecosystems, yet their populations have declined by 70 per cent in the past 50 years, and a lot of that is down to fear and misinformation.”

AT THE TURN OF the century, shark fins for shark fin soup and traditional cures were increasingly in demand, particularly in China and its territories. As shark fins are one of the most expensive seafood products, a largely unregulated shark-fin industry became widespread and seriously threatens shark populations worldwide.

Shark finning entails sharks being caught, fins sliced off at sea, and the body dumped back in the ocean. Unable to swim effectively without their fins, they sink to the bottom where they die from suffocation or are eaten by predators.

To his horror, Dr Elliott discovered that New Zealand was one of the top five countries in the world to allow shark finning, “and it was going on because it was not in the public eye.” He decided to do something about that.

In 2010, Dr Elliott started the first in-depth study of blue sharks in the South Pacific, which revealed it was the most-finned of all shark species. Lacking government funding for his shark research, Dr Elliott turned to crowd-funding to raise $2,00,000 for the satellite tagging system he needed for the field research. People who contributed funds could name a tag that identified a particular shark and were able to follow that shark’s tag via a website.

His research found that the blue shark migrated from New Zealand to the equator and back and this journey made it vulnerable to long-line fishing. Schools of blue shark were running the gauntlet of millions of long-line hooks and if captured, their fins were sliced off and their bodies thrown back into the sea to die.

“Many of the sharks we tagged would simply disappear,” says Dr Elliott. “They were being caught and finned for shark fin soup. It was devastating.”

His research emotionally engaged the public and resulted in 88,000 signatories to support the ban of shark finning in New Zealand. Since 2014, when the ban on shark finning in New Zealand waters became law, an estimated 1,50,000 sharks a year have been saved from slaughter.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER, and communicating science through modern media is how Dr Elliott engages with the public to make change, such as the ban on shark finning in New Zealand and elsewhere, and to stop the 2014 shark culling programme in Western Australia. “We know scientifically from Hawaii [where shark culling took place between 1959 and 1976] that it doesn’t reduce the risk to people. All it does is needlessly kill sharks as well as hundreds of other species whose home is the ocean,” says Dr Elliott.

“If we are going to understand sharks, we need to learn where their habitats are, where they behave in certain ways. From that we can make informed decisions. Sharks survive by catching what they eat. At the end of the day, they are probably the most polite predator on Earth.”

According to the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), each year around ten people die from shark attacks—globally. To put this in perspective, upwards of 150 people die every year from falling coconuts.

Every summer, millions of us ‘flap’ around in the ocean above sharks’ heads, yet there are only around 10 people fatally killed by sharks a year, says Dr Elliott. “It is the least statistical risk in the natural world. Because of Jaws, we inflate it well beyond drowning or car crashes and other everyday risks.” In fact, according to AIMS, more people are killed each year by elephants, crocodiles, bees and wars, than by sharks.

image-91_031324040508.jpgDr Elliott diving with a blue shark, once the world’s most finned shark species. PHOTO: COURTESY RILEY ELLIOTT

WHEN I WAS A CHILD, we would often spend school holidays at an unpatrolled beach and were told if we saw a single fin to get out of the water, but if there were many fins not to worry, because they would be dolphins. I was curious to find out whether this was a myth when I interviewed Dr Elliott, especially after a young jet skier jumped into the Swan River, Perth, in February this year to swim among dolphins and was fatally attacked by a shark.

“At the end of the day, dolphins are predators much like sharks,” he tells me. “They often eat the same prey. So just because there are dolphins doesn’t mean there won’t be sharks.”

The Perth attack was what Dr Elliott describes as a ‘bad dog scenario’. In murky water, bull sharks hunt blind, using electroreceptors and vibration. The combination of murky water, feeding activity, and then a flash of flesh, led the shark to react. “To avoid a shark attack, we must not interrupt foraging predators in feeding mode,” says Dr Elliott. “In these kinds of conditions, you are basically setting yourself up for an adverse interaction.”

WHEN DRS ELLIOTT AND RAMSEY finally let go of the baby tiger shark after swimming with it for an hour and a half, it dramatically sank to the bottom like a stone. The pair’s disappointment was palpable. But when its fin touched the sand it gave a little kick and woke up, before giving another kick and swimming off unaided. Their efforts had paid off.

“All around the world, the public saw an innocent baby animal being rescued,” says Dr Elliott. Although the aim of the shark cull was to rid the beaches of large great whites, it resulted in over 100 small tiger sharks being killed. No tiger shark attacks had been recorded in the area. “It was a ridiculous political knee-jerk reaction.” The Western Australian government of the day eventually backed down from its plan to string drumlines along 70 Perth and south coast beaches.

Today, SMART (Shark Management Alert in Real Time) drumlines – which consist of an anchor, two buoys and a satellite-linked GPS communications unit attached to a baited hook—are set every morning off many Australian beaches, approximately 500 metres from the shore and collected at the end of each day. The use of drumlines is currently the subject of debate with their effectiveness being researched.

According to the Western Australian government website Sharksmart.com.au, “The scientific non-lethal SMART drumline trial was designed as a catch, tag, relocate and release programme of target species, unlike the lethal 2014 trial that was designed to kill target shark species caught on the line.” However, according to Dr Elliott, who today is an independent researcher as well as a presenter and producer of Shark Week on Discovery Channel—the world’s longest running TV series—the SMART drumlines only draw sharks into the coastline that would otherwise just swim by.

Editor’s Note: Dr Elliott uses Shark Week to help fund his scientific research and assist the media in educating the public about conserving the natural world. Elliott also runs The Great White app, a shark tracking app that lets divers explore sharks tagged by the Sustainable Oceans Society (SOS), a not-for-profit founded by Elliott and marine biology university friends. All proceeds from shark-related work is reinvested in SOS.

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