Conservation

When saving sharks is part of the job

Words by Lydia Koehler

I have a passion for conserving sharks. For most people that seems odd.

For the majority, sharks are frightening creatures, man-eating monsters that enjoy nothing more than seeking out human flesh. The truth, of course, is that most sharks are harmless to humans, and those that do pose a risk can still largely be engaged with safely. For us, the volunteers of Sharklab-Malta, it feels natural to care for sharks and we would do almost anything to make sure that sharks, rays and skates have a future. Even if that means diving fully-clothed into cold water for several hours…

It was a pleasant Sunday afternoon in May, when Pam Mason, Sharklab’s education coordinator, called with an exciting discovery. She had received an anonymous call informing her that an angular rough shark (Oxynotus centrina) had been found in a bucket at the shore of Zonqor Point in the South of Malta – alive! They were en route and would pick me up on the way. With camera and snorkel gear packed, I was out the door for a shark rescue!

Having weaved our way through an agonising mess of Sunday afternoon traffic, we eventually arrived at the site to find the creature in a poor condition. Barely breathing or moving, it appeared close to death. Immediate action was required. At first we tried to circulate water through its gills by slowly moving it through a seawater-filled baby bath and using a plastic bottle to gently pump water in its mouth – sharks rely on the flow of water for oxygen. But it wasn’t enough – we needed to get it into open water.

With no time to change clothes, I pulled my rash guard on over my t-shirt and jeans. With snorkel and fins added, I plunged into the cold water of the harbour. For more than two hours, and while the sun began to disappear from the sky, we swam along the coast carrying the shark through the water. It began to recover, lifting its head up – most likely to support the water flow through its gills – and eventually started moving and slowly swimming on its own. When we hit the mouth of the bay, where the seabed gradually leads into deeper waters, we released the shark and watched it swim toward the seabed until it disappeared from view.

The encounter was not a common one. The angular rough shark is a rarely seen species, with only a handful of recorded sightings over the past few years in the Mediterranean, mostly trawler vessel bycatch.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species as Critically Endangered in the Mediterranean.

For more information about Sharklab-Malta, visit www.sharklab-malta.org.

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