Sally Sonnex - Shark Conservation in Fiji
Why Shark Conservation?
Up until my early 20s I was scared of sharks. I had swallowed the media portrayal of them as toothy villains hook, line and sinker, if you’ll pardon the pun, and was convinced that one day I’d meet a grisly end courtesy of one of their number.
Then, way back in 1991, I encountered a reef shark whilst snorkelling in Malaysia and it didn’t eat me! In fact it didn’t even seem to acknowledge my presence. I mean there I had been, a tasty morsel bobbing around as an easy target, and it didn’t even give me a second look - how could that be? That is where my curiosity and subsequent love of sharks began.
Not so very long after my nowhere-near-death experience I learnt to dive. I instantly fell in love with the underwater world. Aquatic landscapes whose vibrancy and textures leave you awestruck; creatures that couldn’t be dreamed-up even by the likes of Dr. Seuss, appearing for the patient, the observant and the just plain lucky.
Listening to diver’s stories about creatures they have seen, and those they are still hoping to see, you become aware of the diversity of sharks, which feature highly on divers “must see list” and also how rare it is for sharks to act aggressively towards humans unless they are provoked.
I have travelled to sites specifically to see sharks and hope to be able to see a great deal more of the different species on my personal bucket list before I hang up my fins.
For the last 9 years I have lived in Hong Kong, which is where a huge percentage of globally traded shark fins are processed before heading to Mainland China and other parts of Asia for consumption in soup and traditional medicines. There is a lot of debate locally about this traditional luxury food item and a strong anti-finning and anti-shark fin soup movement.
I have volunteered my time with the Hong Kong Shark Foundation and on the FINished with Fins campaign. Last year I raised $1,000 for shark conservation by doing PADI Finnathon (sponsored swim for sharks). The more you get involved the more information you access and the more you realise how important it is to try and make a difference and that is what led me to the Projects Abroad Fiji Shark Conservation project as part of my career break.
My first days
I arrived at the start of a project weekend and was immediately included in the weekend’s social plans. By the start of our working week I felt completely at home. I am staying for a total of 12 weeks and so there have been a few comings and goings since I arrived. Now I’m one of the ‘old hands’ and in fact after 6 weeks there is only one volunteer who was here before me.
It is horrid saying goodbye to people you have shared awesome experiences with, but their names are often spoken and I am sure many a life-long friendship has been forged within these walls.
Volunteering in Fiji
The energy around this project is electric. Whilst it never feels like you are really working hard by the end of the week when I write my blog I realise just how much has been packed into every moment.
It’s not just the survey diving and tagging trips, it’s the active involvement in finding out about these poorly understood creatures and their status in the world; whether that’s through researching a shark for a presentation or talking to villagers about their experiences with sharks to help us plan where to look.
It is of course not all sharks - every weekend there is someone planning something that has by default an open invitation to the group – surfing, hiking or lazing on the beach, but if you want to chill at the villa and catch up on emails that’s fine too.
There is little pressure to do anything but be happy, and we all seem to be achieving that nicely.