To Save & Protect Sharks
Sharkman: During the last 12 years, you have devoted your life to shark research and conservation. Before that you had quite a range of different jobs. If I am not mistaken you started with joining the U.S. Air Force in the early 70s where you excelled, both as an airman and as a medic. Can you tell us about this?
Gary: I served as a medic and psychiatric social worker in the Air Force during the Vietnam war era.
It was an intense experience handling seriously wounded soldiers, both physically and psychologically. I did intense drug and alcohol rehab work, as well as working with the first POWs that were released from Hanoi, after the war ended in 1975.
Sharkman: When did you start diving?
Gary: I was raised in the midwest in Oklahoma and Texas … totally land locked, but from my earliest recollections I was always drawn to the water, and sought out every creek, stream, pond and lake for exploration. Much to my parents concern at times! When I separated from the Air Force, I went to college in Florida at the Florida Institute of Technology, where I obtained a degree in Underwater Technology and Engineering. On weekends I would work in a dive operation in West Palm Beach for a remarkable woman named Norine Rouse. Norine became my mentor and was the single most inspirational figure in my life. She planted the seeds of conservation in my soul and gave me a purpose for my underwater explorations!
Sharkman: Was this when sharks come into your life?
Gary: Yes, Norine was passionate about sharks and together we had countless adventures with hammerheads, tigers, lemons, bull sharks and many others. Mind you, this was in the 70s when “Jaws” had just come out and anyone diving with sharks for fun was considered to have a death wish!
Gary Adkison filming a Tiger Shark in the Bahamas.
Sharkman: Yes, the “Jaws” Era.
Gary: I know you remember those days, Alex and how often did we try and explain to people that it simply was not dangerous when interacting with sharks! Most would just shake their heads …
Sharkman: Some still do. How did you get involved in marine parks?
Gary: I left The Norine Rouse Scuba Club of the Palm Beaches and what I considered the perfect job. I had itchy feet and wanted to taste the waters in the rest of the world. After an exciting stint as a hard hat diver in the Gulf of Mexico I wound up in the Turks and Caicos Islands working for the PRIDE Foundation. PRIDE stood for Preservation of Reefs and Islands from Degradation and Exploitation. We worked with the schools, local island government and the Prime Minister’s office giving talks and teaching about the country’s natural resources, and how to protect them. Marine parks were established based on biodiversity.
We also set up a conch mariculture facility, which is in operation to this day, raising conch to seed the Caicos Banks with. I had many encounters with sharks in this virgin and rich marine environment, and had named “pet” sharks that would frequent my dive sites. I also became involved in the marine archaeological excavation of the Pinta, one of Columbus’s three ships of discovery. This was found near my tiny island of Pine Cay. After building up a successful dive business on Pine Cay, I sold it and took off on a 4 year sabbatical, sailing around the world.
Sharkman: Like many other shark conservationists, you were first a shark killer. You were even honoured for killing a Tiger shark. What was that story?
Gary: During this adventure voyage, I was living in the Gambier Islands in a remote part of eastern French Polynesia. I had become close to the local villagers, and would go with them, diving for pearls and fishing for the village. I would photograph these amazing free divers who would routinely dive past 100 feet for the pearl bearing oysters … all day long! This is where I encountered a large Tiger shark, that was attracted by the blood in the water from a village spear fishing party. The Tiger was out of control, attacking and biting the fins of the natives, the outriggers on our canoes and my wife’s fins. I had a power head someone had given me, I had never used it before, but it was in my dive bag. I grabbed it and ultimately dispatched this magnificent creature.
The villagers feasted on the Tiger shark and the Chief presented me with two teeth from either side of the jaw of this shark which I carry to this day. I carry it as a reminder of the fact that I had killed this animal out of fear. We fear what we do not understand. It is a reminder of my ignorance. I now understand that the Tiger shark was doing what it was supposed to do, eating sick and wounded fish. All we really had to do was exit the water and leave the area to fish another day. She would be swimming the oceans still today, but for my ignorance. It was a definitive and life changing moment for me. I have never forgotten it and have dedicated a major portion of my life now, to shark conservation and research. I hope she did not die in vain.
Sharkman: Well she did “turn” you and those that you inspired since. You also set up the first shark dive “Rodeo” in Walker’s Cay, right?
Gary: Yes. After returning to the United States I again worked with Norine Rouse, who was deeply involved in sea turtle research and tracking. We followed two huge Loggerhead turtles, that we had been tracking for over a decade. They became like our undersea pets, when they returned to our reef each year for four months.
During this time I was approached by the management of Walker’s Cay in the Bahamas to set up a dive operation. I kissed Norine goodbye, and began what ultimately would become a 17 year experience. Developing the island’s tourism and the famous Shark Rodeo Dive. I created a safe and controlled experience with over 100 sharks each dive. This was the greatest underwater laboratory for shark behaviour observation and interaction, known at that time!
I never got tired of sitting with the swirling “kids” as I referred to them.The volume of scientific papers and observations that poured from this unique experience was a testimony to the value of a shark marine protected area (MPA). I began working to set up the area as a marine park. After many years of working in the local community and with government officials, five parks were set up in the Bahamas, which was just the beginning of many more to come.
It was during this time at Walker’s Cay that every photographer, film maker, National Geographic, BBC, Discovery Channel and many others would show up on our doorstep to film our “kids”. We were nominated for several Emmy awards for our work and won two for educational filming of a pilot for Aqua Kids which my 10 year old daughter starred in. She had been diving with our sharks, since she was five years old. She wanted to share the experience with other children her age.
Sharkman: It was during your time managing Walker’s Cay that Erich Ritter nearly lost his leg to a Bull shark. A lot has been said about this case, and all were different versions from the same person! As someone who was actually there, can you tell us what happened?
Gary: Yes it was during this time I met a man named Erich Ritter. He showed up on my door step and wanted to do what he described as behavioral research on sharks. I introduced him to the film world, in retrospect I believe I may have created a bit of a monster, that would have far reaching implications in the world of shark science for years to come. That would be Dr. Ritter’s version of science, I suppose. The bite seen around the world happened on a beautiful clear day. Ritter was in the water bare legged with Discovery Channel’s anchor person, Nigel Marvin. A second film crew was filming as well, for Dateline NBC.
I asked Ritter to leave the water after over an hour of filming. The tide was slack, much chum and blood had been introduced into the water, and this was not being swept away by the tidal current. There were an unusual number of smaller, snappy Blacktip sharks around mixed in with the numerous Bull sharks and Lemon sharks. There had been some close calls already, with near bites on hands dangling in the water. After working with these sharks for years, I knew we were pushing the envelope, and sensed we were tentatively holding on to a fragile balance as far as safety was concerned. Ritter said he did not want to get out yet, as there was filming to be done. Five minutes later he paid for that decision with the calf of his leg.
I believe a smaller fish had brought a chunk of chum nearby Ritter’s leg and this was later confirmed by the underwater cameraman. The scent of chum may have prompted the Bull shark to investigate Ritter’s leg more closely. The point is, he gambled, and paid with his body, with an animal who did exactly what it is supposed to do! Bite and investigate something that looks right and smells right. The rest is history. I kept Ritter alive, during the next two hours of transport to the airport. During the airplane flight and emergency run to the hospital in the United States, I controlled the bleeding and held him in my arms as he went in and out of shock induced awareness. I spent the night in the hospital and waited through his surgery and was relieved to know he was not going to lose his leg. He was a lucky man.
Sharkman: Lots of damage was done to sharks when the footage went public.
Gary: I refused to be a part of the filming of “Anatomy of a Bite”, and told Erich that there was no valuable point in sensationalising his bite. Especially, when it occurred as a result of bad judgment. It would only be fuel on the fire for the perpetual shark fear-mongers to use. Since that time, Dr. Ritter has publically blamed me for his accident, stating that I did not advise him of that particular shark being behind him. The absurdity of that statement speaks for itself, when one sees the footage with dozens of sharks in the water within inches of his legs. It has effectively closed the door for any further conversations with the man. I have long since moved on and put that incident and the pathetic state of that individual behind me. This sad and unfortunate incident, has gotten far too much publicity for the man. I am afraid it defines who he has become. Rest assured, it has not and never will define, who I am.
Sharkman: You are now deeply involved in shark research and conservation and work for the Shark Foundation. What sort of research are you doing?
Gary: I have been involved with active conservation of sharks since the early 1990s. My wife Brenda and I later became the US Directors of the Swiss Shark Foundation more than a decade ago. This has further increased our active participation in global shark education and conservation efforts. Our focus is primarily on the science of sharks. The Shark Foundation supports “out of the box” research and study of sharks that our group of scientists pursue. We have ongoing projects in Africa, England, Mexico, Fiji and several in the state of Florida – just to name a few locations. Our focus is to publish and produce the data, so that other scientists can build on it. That data then can be used to fight for the rights of sharks in the global arena – not emotionally but factually.
Sharkman: Gary you have had a life full of adventures and must have many memorable moments.
Gary: Alex, I have had such a wonderful and rich life. The work we do through the Shark Foundation with sharks, marine parks and coral reef conservation initiatives, define who we are. If I died today, I would die a wealthy man. I have been blessed to have tasted an ocean of life, that only few have ever witnessed on our planet. I know you understand what I am saying, Alex!
As a young man, I remember sitting with old time divers and fishermen, who would say “Ya should have seen it back then!”. Then they would describe the abundance and richness of the oceans of their day. Well now, we are those old salts, and the young folks of today look to us to plant the seeds of inspiration. Whilst we describe in words the richness of the now declining oceans of our day.
Every week, I add another chapter to my memoirs on HubPages.com. I call it “A Life Underwater” and if you have some time to kill, take a walk down my memory lane of adventures. I know you will relate also to many of the impulses and underwater adventures, which we pursued in our youth that you yourself have experienced, Alex!
Sharkman: I will do that for sure. Is there a final comment or message that you would like to pass on to our readers?
Gary: I believe that with population explosion, and a hungry planet, our efforts to save the ocean and its creatures can only be done with understanding the creatures in it. We must set aside vast areas of protected waters globally. That is where the work of the Shark Foundation, and so many other worthwhile organisations, continue to reach out to the young minds. They will inherit the mistakes and victories of those that have gone before them.
Your work as well, Alex, is indeed an inspiration my friend! You have always been on the forefront of vocal efforts to educate the general population, concerning the fragile status of shark populations globally!
It was a pleasure to finally meet you face-to-face in Fiji and share our love of sharks, while being surrounded by the majesty of the Beqa Lagoon Bull sharks!
As you know, I just recently visited the Shark Marine Reserve there again last month and you were greatly missed! In your absence, the crew and I toasted you with a “high tide” bowl of kava to honor you my friend!
I thank you for allowing me to reminisce and share some sea stories with your readers and followers.
Fair Winds and Calm Seas Always My Friend.
Sharkman: Gary, it was a great pleasure to meet and dive with you. Thank you for being with us here at Sharkman’s World.
The 3 Shark Men: Rusiate Balenagasau, Alex (Sharkman) and Gary Adkison
at Shark Reef Marine Reserve in Fiji.
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