Annie Guttridge is a shark publicist and underwater photographer based in The Bahamas. She has conducted several social media takeovers featuring her photography for Shark Week, Discovery Channel, and most recently Oceana’s Instagram feeds.
Free diving world-record holder William Winram founded The Watermen Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to marine conservation. The project conducts expeditions across the globe, with Winram lending his eight-minute breath hold to shark tagging and scientific research. He is an avid public speaker, having presented for TEDx WWF in 2012, and continues to give talks across the globe on behalf of The Watermen Project to increase education on shark behavior and conservation. Winram is also an Ocean Ambassador for the Global Marine and Polar Program of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Winram is currently based in Geneva, Switzerland.
I caught up with these two shark conservationists on South Bimini just after Winram set the seventh satellite tag on an endangered great hammerhead shark. All shark tagging was done as part of a research collaboration between The Bimini Shark Lab and The Watermen Project. The interview was originally conducted on @discoversharks Instagram Live feed for 1.9M followers.
When did you first fall in love with sharks?
Guttridge: I have been obsessed with sharks since I was 5 or 6 years of age. I had a fascination with them. My earliest memory when I was young, I had a goldfish bowl and I emptied the contents of it into my bath and put my goggles on. I used to pretend I was snorkeling with a shark in my bathtub. That was my earliest memory of wanting to dive with sharks. From then on I just started collecting shark key rings, clothing, magazines, everything. My favorite shark item was a silver shark skateboard.
Winram: Good choice.
Guttridge: I was pretty serious.
Winram: I learned about my fascination via my mother. When me and my brother were kids we would never stop moving. So for her doing the housework was impossible. One day she heard a crash and she didn’t hear any crying so she figured we were both okay, or dead. One of the two. We had been climbing the bookcase, and when we got to the top, the bookcase came down. She walked in to find me and my brother sitting in a pile of books, but we were mesmerized by these underwater photographs of sharks, and she knew from that moment on if she wanted us to sit still she just had to open up a book and we would stay fixated on sharks.
You both are wearing Discoversharks shirts, as shark advocates what does this account mean to you?
Winram: Well its one of the bigger presences on Instagram and I think the man behind Discoversharks is doing great things to raise awareness about sharks. The different aspects of sharks’ behavior: from the tooth-bearing great white shot to the more tranquil, beautiful shot of someone swimming side by side a great white. I think his social media captures a great balance of those creatures.
Guttridge: Who is the man behind Discoversharks? The man behind the Discoversharks brand is someone I have grown quite close to over the last few years and although the brand is clothing they do a lot of good in terms of educating and donating a percentage of profits to various ocean organizations. Sometimes his voice does not come across in his captions and posts, but the man behind Discoversharks is an incredibly passionate advocate for sharks and will be doing some exciting things this year, so stay tuned!
@Discoversharks followers would like to know, do you have a favorite shark?
Guttridge: I do!
Winram: I have several. Great whites, tiger sharks, nurse sharks and great hammerheads.
Guttridge: He’s only thrown the nurse in there to look cool.
Winram: I love nurse sharks!
Guttridge: All the big apex predators, tick tick ticking them all off the list. For me its nurse sharks because I think they are just underappreciated. People think they’re just puppy dogs of the sea, but what many people don’t know is they have a similar bite force to a bull shark, their skin is insane, the roughness of it, they can take a battering from the opposite sex and still be okay. They are full of personality. They are smart and brave. You can have giant hammerheads coming in and even the bull sharks to a certain extent are scared of the hammerheads, and you get fifteen nurse sharks that don’t even care that there is a hammerhead next to them.
What are some common misconceptions about sharks?
Winram: The one that irks me the most is when human beings who use the ocean recreationally want to kill sharks so that they can play in the sea. I made a suggestion to a bunch of surfers that I was going to be sponsored to smack a golf ball around the Serengeti, and one of the guys asked: “Well what are you gonna do if you are attacked by wildlife?” I said Oh, don’t worry I’ll just have special forces on call to shoot anything that moves, and the guy said, “You’re an idiot you can’t just kill wildlife so you can go smack a golf ball around.” I said exactly! That’s the same perspective on killing sharks so you can go ride a surf board. I get the fear, the risk, but when we swim in their ocean we have to accept the risk and find an alternative that is respecting the right of the animal to exist.
Guttridge: For those that know me, follow me and my work, they know I got my start on Twitter, and I was known for boycotting companies that sold shark-based products. In 8 years I really honed in on the sport fishing industry for targeting big sharks. Budweiser is a big brand that is doing a lot of damage. They are supporting big organizations that are targeting big sharks in shark fishing tournaments. Unfortunately, these fishing tournaments are targeting mature sharks, particularly the pregnant females because they look big and weigh more. In this day in age its just completely unnecessary, I mean why are we out killing endangered great hammerheads?
Winram: They are targeting the bigger sharks which are sexually mature and with some species that takes almost 14 years before they reach sexual maturity, so big game fisherman are doing a great disservice to the species and to the marine ecosystem. Don’t get me wrong I like to fish, I have been spearfishing since I was a kid, but I do that to eat, not to put trophies on my wall.
As shark publicists, what role do you think social media plays in improving conservation? Do images of open jaws and lots of teeth instill more fear of sharks? Or is this a natural view of an apex predator, and gets people talking and sharing more facts about sharks?
Guttridge: Social media has allowed us to put out a massive stream of information and images for the masses. It has been fantastic for sharks in terms of educating people about the threats they face, their role as by-catch and how that affects the greater marine ecosystem. Tuna fishing has been absolutely catastrophic for sharks, and social media has allowed for conservationists to explain and educate people on a much larger scale about what they are consuming. What their makeup contains, what fish they are actually eating. In Britain and Australia in particular, fish and chips on a Friday people think they are eating “rock salmon” and “huss,” but these are in fact sharks, and most people don’t know that. So using social media to channel that education is where I think we need to go. Yes, there are arguments that some sharks are sustainable and catch limits are regulated so we can have a sustainable fishery, but for me that is just not option. I am all about saving every last shark.
Winram: I would say I agree. I think social media is incredibly important for conservation as long as it is the right message. The shots of great whites with the open jaws are spectacular, when you are showing how it is a powerful predator. However, if it is taken and then used to reinforce the image of it as a psychopathic killing machine that is not honest. If you feature divers riding sharks where the message is sharks are not dangerous that is also incorrect. We have never said that sharks are not dangerous, what we said is that they are not psychotic. They are not out there hunting us, if they were we would not be able to dive with them safely. I think social media should be used to honestly portray the animal in all of its facets and to communicate the issues that they are facing and that we are facing. Its an excellent medium for engagement and starting a discussion.
You briefly mentioned human interactions with sharks, and breaking the touch barrier. What are your thoughts on touching wildlife? When is it acceptable and when is it not?
Winram: The Waterman Project has a photo series of a tiger shark that swam right out in front of me, and my only option was to put my hands on her to move out of her way. I think in those instances it is necessary for your own safety. She was not exhibiting any aggression, but I was floating in the direction of her mouth, and its common sense to move yourself out of the way. I do not understand the riding of sharks while holding the dorsal. If it was a one-time exploration of the shark’s behavior maybe, but not doing so repeatedly.
Social media gets people interested in shark tourism which then gives greater value to the animal alive than dead. So if more and more people are going to be going out and diving with sharks how would you like to be the shark that every time there is a boat out someone is grabbing their dorsal fin, people are touching them all the time. I think it is important to be respectful and give the animal its space, and enjoy observing it.
Guttridge: 100 percent agree. The only thing I will add to that is the amount of time we have spent with sharks now in the water, I can definitely say that there have been moments where I have been up close and personal with a shark, sometimes within half a foot and they have come up closer to me and of course I have the urge to reach out. The urge to connect with an animal will always be there. Its like if a puppy dog comes up to you the urge to touch is sometimes overwhelming, but have I done it, no I can honestly say I have not. I do understand the urge; but as Will has said I do not think it is benefiting the animal in any way.
Winram: And here is a question for people watching: Look at different Instagram accounts that have those photos, which is more powerful, seeing someone swimming side by side a shark or someone holding onto the dorsal fin? For me I appreciate the grace and beauty of a human side by side with an apex predator, mutually coexisting.
There are a lot of questions from @discoversharks followers about the shark fin trade and what it means for shark mortality worldwide.
Guttridge: The shark fin trade is massively controversial. It runs so much deeper than shark finning, and that seems to be what a lot of people grab hold of and want to stop. However, shark finning is under control in most of the world now: the act of cutting off all of a shark’s fins, dumping its body overboard and letting them drown and being eaten alive. With 100 million sharks killed a year, and 273,000 sharks killed a day, shark finning represents a minority in the grand scheme of things. The bigger issue is the by-catch of sharks within the greater fisheries industry. The U.S. have a very “sustainable” in their words, fisheries management program for sharks and they all have different quotas for different shark species. However, that being said I am now in the belief that we need to stop it altogether. I am for no finning of sharks, whether it be at sea or landing the body with the fins attached and then removing them.
Winram: One of the most infamous stories about the shark fin trade was of a boat that came in with a shark with 160 fins stapled to it. The rule was that the fins needed to be attached to the shark to be legal, so they found a loophole. I think the whole fisheries industry needs to be changed because it is not sustainable with so much by-catch. Its like destroying the entire garden so that you can harvest the tomatoes but you throw out every other vegetable and you remove the top soil so the garden can no longer produce anything. It does not work and its not sustainable. I think every fisheries practice needs to be looked at to ask, is this sustainable? Who is profiting? Is it employing people? Because I do not think individual fisherman are a problem. It’s the big industrial fishing machine that is destroying in a big way the sea and killing a lot of sharks as by-catch. So we need to change.
Guttridge: My biggest frustration over the years as most of us know is the majority of fins are heading to China, Hong Kong in particular. I have been to China, and I realize first hand how difficult it is to try and educate a country that blocks mainstream social media. So that has been the biggest challenge for us is how we take away the infrastructure around the supply. The demand I don’t know if that will ever stop because of the lack of shark education we could get in there, but we can start chipping away at the infrastructure. Targeting fishing boats, targeting the airlines and ships that are taking fins to Hong Kong to try and stop the demand that way.