To Save & Protect Sharks
Sharkman: You grew up in Canada and studied all aspects of the sciences at university, but it seems that biology was the one topic that decided your future. What made you take that path?
Ila: I grew up on the edge of the Canadian wilderness and spent my free time exploring the rainforest around me, watching wild animals, whether bears or ants. I actually disliked biology because it focused on the dissection of dead things, and the microscopic details of cells, which to me had nothing to do with the remarkable biosphere I admired. Eventually, I left university to pursue the free life style I loved. I sold paintings of the wildlife I observed to finance it.
So to answer your question, it was my awe of nature that made me take the path I did.
Sharkman: Was it at that stage, that you also discovered your artistic talent?
Ila: I was always sketching things as a child, and naturally grew up into a wildlife artist. During my studies I found that I had a good scientific background to help me understand nature and the wider world.
Sharkman: You left Canada and moved to Tahiti. Was there a specific reason for the move?
Ila: I had learned to dive and wanted to do so in warm water!
Sharkman: Good enough reason. When did sharks come into your life?
Ila: I had seen them among the rest of the wildlife underwater when I went exploring off shore. Then one night, soon after we moved to Tahiti, I dreamed I was walking at the edge of a supernaturally brilliant lagoon brimming with life. Fascinated, I leaned down to look deeply in, and saw two large sharks, one black and one white, gliding towards me. Without a pause, the black one swam straight into my arms. As I held him, he spoke into my ear, and I realised that all his fins had been cut off. At that moment I awoke in a panic, trying to remember what it was that the shark had said. It seemed terribly important to remember, but I could not. It was one of those striking dreams one can’t forget, and it troubled me.
Two days later the newspaper announced that a ship full of shark fins had come into the harbour. A whole page was devoted to the damage wrought by shark finning. My husband and I went down to the harbour to see the ship and spoke to the crew and the harbour authorities, but there was nothing we could do about the situation.
The dream snapped into perspective. Sharks were being finned nearby while I had been dreaming! I took the dream as a call for help and went looking for sharks. I also started painting them to show their graceful beauty and spread the word that they must be respected and protected, that party (shark fin) soup was a terrible waste of such magnificent animals.
Sharkman: How did you discover the right locations of where to find the sharks?
Ila: Several species of Reef sharks lived in the enormous lagoon nearby where I explored each day with mask, snorkel, and fins. Most especially, female Blackfin sharks had their ranges in those protected waters, and, being very social, they accepted me near them. I was able, as the years went by, to accompany them on their travels. Thus I learned a lot about them.
Sharkman: What made you take such special interest in them?
Ila: Having gathered from the study of biology that sharks are slow, cold and virtually brainless, I was not expecting to see much of interest in their behaviour. However, right from the beginning, their actions showed that they are highly intelligent and pursue complex social lives. They had friends, for example, which indicated that they relate to each other as individuals. Further, there were great individual differences among them. They responded flexibly to different situations in such a way that it was clear that they were thinking, rather than running on instinct alone. It was this that motivated me to study them so intently.
Sharkman: You grew so fond of the sharks that you named each one of them. Did you have a favourite?
Ila: My very favourite was Martha. Though at first she would not let me swim with her at all, she suddenly discovered that she liked to be with me and would join me any time she found me in the lagoon. Unlike many of the sharks who travelled for weeks and sometimes many months of the year, Martha was always in her range, with the exception of two weeks to mate and two weeks to birth. She was the shark who was always the first to spot something interesting on the surface and rise to sniff it, followed by the rest of the school. She was the only one who could target a treat that I threw to her. Thus I could give her treats without the others realising what we were up to! She disappeared after just three years, after which I had other favourites. I identified 600 sharks over the seven years of my study and could recognise 300 on sight. So there were many that I loved very dearly, and who stand out, now, thinking back.
Sharkman: Is it safe to say that you pioneered the study of cognitive ethology?
Ila: In sharks. It was Donald R. Griffin who pioneered the study of cognitive ethology with his book Animal Minds in 1992. I simply applied his way of observing the behaviour of wild animals to sharks.
Sharkman: You have been dubbed “the Jane Goodall of Sharks” for your observations. Was there a specific time of day when you went out to swim with the sharks?
Ila: Usually at sunset, because that was when they were really wide awake. However I went at all times of the day. I loved to go at sunrise too.
Sharkman: So that is where the title of your first book “My Sunset Rendezvous” came from. Please tell us more about it.
Ila: I named it My Sunset Rendezvous because it really was a rendezvous—they waited for me at our meeting place. I knew they were waiting and so would tear myself away from whatever else was happening to go to see them. For the seven years that my intensive study took place, I always put them first.
That first book told the story of how I got to know the sharks and the many electrifying things that happened in the course of my visits to them. It continued with the events that followed. The scientific recognition that sharks are thinking, as a result of my observations, which happened at the same time that finning began and the way the media treated it.
As a result of my discoveries, a film crew from the BBC came to film my work. To me, their visit was my one and only chance to get the news of the massacre out of the country. My findings contradicted the official line on what sharks are like. When Discovery Channel aired the film, it was on Shark Week. My work was belittled in front of 22,000,000 million viewers. My beloved sharks, timidly coming forward because they were afraid of the cameras, were made to look scary and dangerous. The information about their intelligence and the fact that they were being filmed during the day and finned at night was omitted. The boldest shark, whom I had hoped would star in the episode, was finned just days before the crew arrived.
Sharkman: Yes I remember watching that documentary. It is called “Size Matters”. I was very disappointed with it.
Ila: With their tragic story blocked by the media, I started writing My Sunset Rendezvous, overlooking the bloody waters where they were being finned. I did not know, then, if the ending would be happy or sad.
When I published the updated second edition, I changed the title to The Shark Sessions and My Sunset Rendezvous became the subtitle. It was a mistake not to have included the word shark in the title of the first edition.
Sharkman: What species of sharks did you encounter?
Ila: Whitetip Reef sharks, Nurse sharks, Blackfin Reef sharks, Sharptooth Lemon sharks, and occasionally, Grey Reef sharks. Later I was able to observe Bull sharks, Tiger sharks, and Atlantic Lemon sharks for shorter periods of time.
Sharkman: During your dives, was there ever a moment where you felt in danger?
Ila: Often! For a while the sharks were mad at me, the whole group of the thirty-six residents! It was as if they grew more enraged every time I came to see them, and eventually they all began slamming my kayak, hard, when I arrived. Their motive was a great mystery and I was very afraid they would slam me when I went underwater. Later, their fit of pique faded. Eventually, instead of rage, they showed signs of affection when I arrived. They would undulate against my kayak and, when I reached down to stroke them, they would come again and again. They would actually lift their heads from the water when they came up to me, as I put on my gear in the kayak, for me to stroke them. So there is no doubt, to me, that they have a counterpart to some of the emotions we feel, especially rage and affection.
In all that time, when I was alone with dozens of excited sharks, often after sunset, never did one bite me. They are the only animal I’ve been in intimate contact with, long term, that did not bite me, whether by accident or intention. Even dogs will sometimes bite accidentally, when they snatch a cookie too excitedly. With few exceptions, sharks don’t bite each other, either.
Sharkman: In 2009, together we initiated and spearheaded “The International Year Of The Sharks”. Part of the motivation behind this was the fact that “your” sharks were vanishing! What happened?
Ila: One day when I arrived at the study area, there were simply no sharks. It turned out that they had fled because a company from Asia had set itself up throughout the far-flung archipelagos of that island nation, and was finning them.
Sharks flee when some of them are killed. Fishing badly disrupts their communities and the social lives of the survivors. For two years, I and the diving community lobbied the government asking that the sharks be protected and that the country be made a sanctuary for sharks.
Traditionally, the Polynesians never wanted their sharks fished nor disturbed. It took two years, but now French Polynesia is one of the largest shark sanctuaries in the world, with an area about the size of Europe.
After that, I was anxious to protect the sharks that remain, for sharks all over the world are threatened by the shark fin trade. So I have been promoting their protection, and debunking shark fisheries propaganda, in every way I can. The International Year of the Shark was a great project and one of the most worthwhile.
Sharkman: Yes it was, and we had great success. We did create a lot of global awareness and our fight still goes on.
Ila: The phenomenon of the shark fin trade is an appalling example of human indecency. To take the fins of large predators, comprising a whole class of animals, globally, for just one recipe in just one of the world’s cultures. It is especially shameful that the western nations are participating in the killing frenzy, now that the trade has made sharks valuable, and because ninety percent of traditional fisheries are fished out.
Sharkman: Ila, you have had a life full of adventures and must have many memorable moments. Is there an event that you consider as the best?
Ila: The time I spent with the sharks I knew in the lagoon in Tahiti is the highlight of my life. Some of the times when I was first getting to know the female sharks, who became my most steady underwater companions, were the best. There were times they sought me out and suddenly joined me when I had been alone for hours. The first time they came to me to undulate against my boat, clearly wanting to share affection, was also magical. It was after I had been unable to visit them for two months, due to a personal disaster, they showed that they had missed me and were glad I had returned to them.
Sharkman: You also published a second book about sharks right?
Ila: After writing the story of the sharks I loved, I wrote The True Nature of Sharks, to make my findings on their intelligent behaviour available to others. My research for that book consistently revealed the discrepancies between mainstream ideas about sharks and my findings. It was as if we were talking about two different animals. A big part of the problem turned out to be that most shark scientists are working for fisheries, and study sharks from the perspective of fishing them. They do not observe their behaviour underwater. Instead they long-line them and/or put tags on them, which distances them from the animal. Instead of calling themselves fisheries scientists, they call themselves shark scientists. So I devoted a chapter to the reasons why the true nature of sharks goes unrecognised.
Sharkman: This brings me to my next question. Can shark sustainability really work?
Ila: The problem with fisheries scientists is that they are looking to see how many sharks they can fish, without concern about the ecological facet of the situation, or what sharks are like. They consider sharks to be as senseless as logs, and assume their right to have them. So-called shark scientists even promote the shark fin trade for the benefit of fishermen. Thus, not only do shark fisheries support science by providing funding and cadavers to dissect, but science supports fisheries.
Their current catch-phrase is that sharks are being, or will be fished “sustainably.” An examination of the top scientific papers on the status of sharks (globally over the past decades) reveals that only a very few shark fisheries have ever been sustainable – local ones being fished for meat. Now that they are dependent on the shark fin trade, their viability is unlikely to continue. With ninety percent of traditional fish stocks depleted, sharks are now the most lucrative prey, along with tuna, so fisheries around the world are targeting them, even those who did not do so before.
The result is seen in the way that more and more species are being listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List. There is a steady decline of sharks toward extinction, caused by the rising demand for their fins. This is driven by high profits and rich customers with no interest in sustainability, making it evident to anyone with a basic understanding of grade one arithmetic, that commercial shark fishing is not sustainable.
An example of the incredible claims made by the sustainable shark lobby is the Mako shark in the North Atlantic. In 2017, shark fisheries scientists used the Mako shark fishery as an example of a shark fishery that was sustainable for the shark fin trade. We know now that the status of the species is actually so dire that even if all fishing is stopped immediately, their numbers would continue to decline for the next fifteen years, with only a 50% probability that the stock would be rebuilt by 2045.
Sharkman: Dark prospects indeed. Your writings did not stop with sharks. You also write about other wildlife you observed?
Ila: Being back in western society, it was clear that other animals are also badly wronged by industrial interests – bears and ducks by the hunting and arms industry, chickens by agri-business, and so forth. So, I am now publishing my material on the other wild animals I have known.
The first two are already published: The Spirit of Wild Ducks and Outwitted by Chickens: The Bird Who Killed the Tiger. The one I am working on now is about a variety of wild birds whom I met while running a clinic for distressed seabirds on Tahiti. A book about bears, and their plight as hunting targets in Canada, will follow.
Each of my books focuses on the abilities and intelligence of a variety of individuals and the events that befall them. In each case I show how their actions reveal that they are conscious and thinking, as they face the situations that come up in the course of their lives.
Sharkman: Very Interesting. I wish you a lot of success. Is there a final comment or message that you would like to pass on to our readers?
Ila: Overwhelming evidence reveals that we live on a planet filled with conscious life forms, in spite of what we have been taught. The knowledge of their true nature must change how we consider and treat them, not only in the interests of building a moral society, but because it is the only way that we will be able to build a sustainable civilisation.
Sharkman: Very true words. Ila, it was a great pleasure to meet you. Thank you for being with us here at Sharkman’s World.
Ila: Thank you for inviting me!
For more information on
Ila France Porcher,
her books and of course Sharks,