To Save & Protect Sharks
Project Malta Interview. Feb. 2003
Welcome To The World Of
Alex ' THE SHARKMAN' Buttigieg.
by Alan Carville
When we think of Malta we think of hot sunny days spent by the beach basking in the sun. Malta also hosts some of the best diving sites in the world. With warm weather throughout the year and excellent diving conditions, it enables you to see crystal clear waters up to 30metres in depth.
But somewhere, lurking in these depths, on a never-ending mission is.... The Sharkman!!!
If Australia has the Crocodile man, Malta has its own equivalent, the Sharkman – Alex Buttigieg. Welcome to the fascinating World of our planet's most mysterious and misunderstood Creature. Welcome to the World of Alex ‘THE SHARKMAN’ Buttigieg!!!
The funny thing about the people in Malta is that almost everybody has a nickname. How did you come across the nickname 'Sharkman?'
Well it is because of the Love and Deep Passion that I share for these Magnificent Creatures. When I started working at the diving centre, and guests brought up the subject of sharks, I always opened up and once I start talking sharks, nothing stops me. Soon instead of Alex, people started to call me Shark, Sharkboy, Sharkman, etc…I liked Sharkman best, so I had it tattooed on my arm, and as they say, the rest is history.
We are aware of your deep passion for this strange creature, enough so much, that you could almost open up your own shopping outlet!!!
Yes…Sharks have always fascinated me. I live, breathe, dream, and talk nothing else but Sharks. During the past 16 years, I have put together quite a collection. Besides all the research data, which includes a Database of over 450 different species of Sharks, around 100 books, and countless number of videos from all over the world, I also collect anything that has to do with sharks or has a shark on it. I have Statues, Posters, Postage Stamps, Models, T-shirts, Soft Toys, Jewellery, Clocks, Watches, Lighters, Pegs, Mugs, Tooth Brushes, and all the stuff that I can get my hands on.
Did you formally study marine biology or any of the sciences?
No. The only marine biology courses I did, are the ones specially prepared for divers. I am not a qualified Marine Biologist or anything like that. I learned by reading, watching and asking. I also joined some research and conservation groups. In fact now I form part of BICREF - The Biological Conservation Research Foundation here in Malta.
Your passion of sharks has taken you on an adventure to other lands to try and learn the truth about them.Yes, I had the op
portunity to Dive with Sharks in the Red Sea and in South Africa, and also observed them in many Aquariums around the world.
We have been brainwashed with visions of Shark Attacks. But what are the real facts? Are Sharks truly monsters of the deep? Are they all Man-eaters? What makes them so misunderstood and why should sharks be protected?
Sharks are not the monstrous man killers that we once imagined they were. There is still a lot to learn about them and all over the World, researchers and scientists are striving to find out as much as possible. The problem is that with each new discovery, a million more questions arise.
As for protection… well there is a lot to be done. Coastal development, marine pollution, and over fishing are some of the things that are effecting shark populations all over the world leaving a bad result. If nothing is done, then I have my doubts as to whether sharks see the next millennium.
You could be considered a crusader, similar to the knights that originally inhabited Malta.
I believe that each Human has a mission in life, and mine is to do the utmost to protect Sharks and to show their true image. Since because of my work I personally cannot contribute much in the area of scientific research, I decided to do all I can to protect Sharks, and help teach those who are misinformed.
So what exactly do you do for work?
I am a professional scuba diving instructor and work in a local diving centre.
Do you teach tourists or locals; are you used in search missions?
My job involves teaching both tourists and locals how to dive, or guide experienced divers that visit our Islands.
You have done so many dives that it’s a wonder that you haven’t started to grow fins?
I have, even gills…you just cannot see them. Actually I started to dive when I was 8 years old, but have only turned professional 13 years ago.
Have you ever experienced any trouble diving? What has been your worst diving experience?
Yes I did suffer a “Bend” and had to go into the Decompression Chamber once, but it was not very serious.
What do you like best about diving?
The feeling of total relaxation and being as one with the Underwater World is something that cannot be explained in words. Diving is something that has to be experienced to be truly understood.
What do you hate most about diving?
Top of my list is Spear fishing. I just hate seeing all the “hunters” shooting on anything, no matter what size it is. Second place comes having to deal with the so-called "Experienced" Divers who pretend that they know it all. Sadly you get to see many of these too. Imagine a guy walks into the Diving Centre and flashes out his Diving Certification card and starts talking big about his 10/20 or what ever number of years he has been diving. Then you look in his logbook and find something like 40 or 50 dives in all those years!!!
What advice can you give to other divers or people in general?
The best advise I always give to my divers is to “Respect all forms of Life, Shoot only photos, take only memories, and leave only bubbles behind you”.
You are affiliated to a number of both diving and shark organizations around the world.
Over the years, I have been involved in many organizations and at the moment I form part of: B.I.C.R.E.F. C.M.A.S. Federation of Underwater Activities, Malta. Professional Diving Schools Association Malta. The Cousteau Society. And the South African White Shark Research Programme.
The dreams of today are what make the future a reality. Alex, you could also be considered a man of dreams!!!
Yes, we all have dreams of what we want to be or what we want to achieve in Life. It is up to us to make those dreams come true, by working hard to get there. One of my main Dreams in life was to get the Great White Shark protected in Maltese Waters. I started as a One-man mission that was strengthened when a local conservation group approached me and offered their backing. It took us 2 years of intensive lobbying and on Sept. 24th. 1999, the Maltese Government issued a Legal Notice that put not only the Great White Shark but also the Basking Shark on Malta's list of Protected Species and THE FIRST OF MY DREAMS CAME TRUE.
My next Dream was what I considered to be the ULTIMATE DREAM at the time, to encounter the GREAT WHITE SHARK!! Until some time ago, this dream seemed Impossible, but then, with the help of a few true friends, this Dream also Came True. On 5th. February 2001, I flew over to S. Africa and there I saw and caged dived with the Great Whites of Dyer Island. This was an experience that I will never forget. Just a few days short of a year later, I was there again on my 2nd. trip.
How did your first shark experience in the Red Sea feel?
I went there specifically to dive with sharks. It is there that one can see the true beauty of these magnificent creatures. When I saw them up close, it was a beautiful experience, I was not afraid, and I went even closer. Diving with sharks is not as dangerous as some might think, but it depends on what type of sharks. Most of them are totally harmless unless they are provoked.
What would be your next dream?
Well there are many dreams on my list, but I guess the definite ultimate dream is to Free Dive with the GREAT WHITE SHARK.
Is it true that the person who influenced your shark mania was none other than a fellow Australian?
Yes I saw my first shark Movie around 1970 when I was still a young teenager. It was called “Blue Water, White Death”. One of the protagonists was Rodney Fox. In fact, to this day I am in contact with him by e-mail. Fox was my inspiration.
It is impossible to talk about Sharks without mentioning the name of Australian Rodney Fox. For the last 36 years, Rodney Fox has dedicated his life to observing, studying, and filming sharks. He is considered as the No.1 Ambassador for Sharks Protection and Conservation. All this, he did after having miraculously escaped from the jaws of Carcharodon carcharias, the Great White Shark.
After having recovered from the Shark attack, which left him with massive scars on his chest, back, and arm, Rodney decided not to go out on a vendetta against his attacker, but to learn all he could about their behaviour and to teach the world to respect sharks and protect them.
Today Rodney Fox is still being attacked, but by tourists, researchers, and filmmakers, not only for his story but also for his knowledge and experience. Rodney was the first man in Australia to start fighting for Shark Protection Laws. The Great White Shark is now a protected species in Australia. Maybe one-day, another of my Dreams will come true and Rodney Fox will introduce me to the Great White Sharks of south Australia.
You spend a lot of your time researching the sharks as well as spreading the word across the world. The web site that you have dedicated to their cause received a prestigious web award in 2001?
Yes, I spend hours on end at my Computer and my research. My love of sharks is equally matched by my love of the web. I wanted to convince people that sharks are not the man-eaters that people make them out to be. I am trying to create awareness and to fight for their protection. I started working on the website five years ago and did it simply through trial and error. It was a very nice surprise when in November 2001, I was awarded the Best Personal Website Award in the Malta DataStream Web Awards for my website www.sharkmans-world.com . When I won the award I was so excited that I practically leaped onto the stage, clutching and kissing a soft toy (of course, a shark), which I had taken with me for good luck.
I heard that even when you go to sleep at night, you take that soft toy to bed with you?
Not exactly. The shark soft toys are on a unit close to the bed, but I do sleep on my SHARK PILLOW.
It seems that you have something in common with the project Malta team - That is - get no sleep!!!
I start working on the website at 6pm and usually stay awake up to 4am or 5am answering e-mails and updating the site. I used to receive over 150 e-mails every day, but since winning the award, this number has now shot up to 400+ and it has become very popular with Maltese people.
Most people’s knowledge of sharks have been taken from Hollywood movies such as jaws. Is there any truth or reality in these Hollywood adaptations?
If we take the movie ‘Jaws’ for example, it was not realistic at all, it was a story based on certain facts that happened in 1916 but no one is 100 per cent sure that these attacks were caused by just one shark. However, sharks can come close to land and even in shallow water.
What sorts of sharks are we talking about?
Sharks can be found all over the world, and there are over 450 different species. Around 70% of them do not grow more than 1.5mtrs. and are totally harmless The three most dangerous species are the Great White, the Bull Shark and the Tiger Shark. These are the species that are responsible for most of the attacks, but I must point out that people have dived with them even without cages.
Sure there are risks, and every shark can Bite when it feels provoked or because it feels its territory is being invaded, Excessive movements also attracts a sharks attention. When we swim we cause vibrations and a shark senses this and wants to investigates, but not because they attack humans per as part of their menu. Then there are also the incidents that involve spear fishing when a lot of fish blood is left in the water and that is the biggest invitation for a shark.
Why would someone want to hunt down the sharks?
Following the “Jaws” mania, Sharks were hunted simply for vengeance and to give the hunter a Macho image.
We admire you Alex because we know ourselves that maybe people can do something just from the heart without any material gains and very little recognition!!!
It is never easy to convince the people that sharks are not that dangerous. It took us many, many months of meetings, discussions and political lobbying, before the Government passed the law to protect THE GREAT WHITE SHARK (Carcharodon carcharias) and THE BASKING SHARK (Cetorhinus maximus) along with THE DEVIL RAY (Mobula mobular).
This makes this Island the FIRST in all of EUROPE to protect the GREAT WHITE SHARK. South Africa was the first country to give protection to sharks in 1991. These 3 species, which are listed as endangered, cannot be shot, hunted or fished and they cannot be sold as merchandise, nor can their jaws or teeth.
In the case of the Great White, members responsible for public security and civil protection may take any necessary steps to ensure that there are no risks for bathers and for any other person in or at sea.
Why do we need to protect the sharks?
Despite the shark's position as the top predator in the marine food chain, some of the species are considered vulnerable. Although sharks exist all around the world, the total population of some species is getting dangerously low.
In some regions sharks are hunted for their curiosity value—the jaws and teeth are sold to tourists—and for their meat. Sharks are now facing huge problems that unless something is done, they will not see the next millennium. Pollution of our oceans is a big problem for sharks, but it is not the biggest. The worst is over-fishing. Sharks have always been hunted for many reasons mainly revenge, souvenirs, clothing.... etc.... but now they are also being hunted in massive amounts for food.
Millions of Sharks are being massacred every year just for the sake of having their fins cut off for an oriental dish called "Shark Fin Soup". The process is that when the Shark is caught, the fins and tail are chopped off and the mutilated Shark is thrown back into the water to die a slow painful death, or be savagely attacked by other hungry predators.
Indonesia, Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, are the largest producers of Shark Fin Soup, killing over 700,000 sharks every year and slowly their Ships are invading all the Oceans of the World, even here in the Mediterranean. As soon as one area is considered to have no more sharks around, they move off to another location. This trade in the orient has grown to such extent that the Gang Wars by traders have out grown those of the Mafia.
Last year, over 150,000 Sharks were massacred in Hawaii alone. This figure is about 200 times more than it was in 1995. Just for the sake of this so-called aphrodisiac dish that costs around $30. So whilst those hunting the Sharks are getting very rich, the sharks are being wiped out. In Far Eastern countries such as China, the fins are used not only in soups, but also as ornaments outside restaurants.
Records show that the average number of Shark attacks in one year is less than hundred worldwide, and of these, less than 10% are fatal. So Sharks are not the monsters that our ancestors claimed them to be.
Looking back at the Statistics, 6.5 Million sharks are killed by humans for every 1 human that Dies from a Shark attack in a year!!!
Who is currently protecting the sharks?
South Africa was the first Nation in the world to offer protection to Great Whites in 1991. This was followed by Namibia, parts of the USA, Australia, and Malta. Other Sharks species are also protected in various other parts of the world.
Now I believe that a shark would clock up a huge bill if they visited the dentist?
I would not like to be that Dentist in case the Shark is not satisfied with the work!!! Sharks can have as many as 15 rows of Teeth, all lined up behind each other.
Has anyone actually ever been killed in Malta by a shark?
Although Big Sharks have been caught around the Maltese Islands, there is only one officially listed fatal shark attack. And this happened in 1956.
Should tourists or locals be concerned about swimming in the local beaches and how far out would they need to go to start worrying?
No. Definitely not. There is no danger at all. I have dived these waters all my life and I have still not seen a “Live” shark underwater. Also, It is particularly noteworthy that no further injurious encounters between sharks and humans have been reported from Malta despite an enormous increase in the number of people seeking recreation in the sea post-1956, including both foreign tourists and the sport diving community.
How does your family handle the commitment that you give? Do they see it as an obsession or an eccentricity?
I am very lucky that my family is very supportive of what I do, and appreciate that I need to spend so many hours on the computer. My home is like a shark museum. My wife will throw me out soon, because sharks are everywhere!!!
Do you have any personal projects on the run at the moment? Who knows maybe in the future you could start a tour group for shark watchers!!!
At present I am working on various other projects involving the underwater environment in general and also taking part in International Shark protection campaigns, I would also like to lead a group expedition to South Africa or Australia to get more people to see the true image of sharks.
Please give us a few thoughts regarding the danger of sharks.
In the year 2000 - 85 people were bitten by sharks. From this quantity, 12 were killed. But that same year in New York City alone, 1600 people were bitten by other people!!!
Also for all you Australians - I came across this comment from Brent Escott, managing director of Club Direct. “Coconuts kill around 150 people worldwide each year, which makes them about ten times more dangerous than sharks”; “People may worry about being bitten by sharks when visiting Australia, but I would suggest that we would be better advised not to sit under coconut trees!!!”
If you were to think of one place in Malta that best describes your personality where would it be?
One final question, "How does the world look from where you stand?"
Whoever came out with the “Seven Wonders of the World” was totally wrong. This World is one huge wonder - fascinating whichever direction you look. It is only spoilt by the actions taken by some of us humans, and they are destroying it. It is up to us to fight to protect what we have and save this World for future generations.
Alex, you are a man much worthy of the same respect that can be given to the sharks, you are humble but brave enough to risk everything for the sake of saving a great species.
We would like to thank Alex ‘the Sharkman’ Buttigieg for his inspiration and for all the hard work that he has done in protecting the creatures of our oceans. Alex acts as an inspiration to all of us, because we live in a world where we believe that only the politicians or multi million dollar corporations can change anything. Alex is but one man who not only thought that he could make a difference, but one man that did make a difference.
The Project Malta Team.
5 th. Dec. 2001
SHARKMAN`S WORLD WINS MALTA WEB AWARD !
The DataStream Malta Web Awards 2001
Top Story - 05/12/01
The DataStream Web Awards 2001 was organised by DataStream, a member of the Maltacom Group and sponsored by Maltacom, KPMG and Alcatel.
The winners of the DataStream Web Awards 2001 were announced on Friday 30th November 2001 at a ceremony held at Hilton Malta. This high profile event was televised on PBS the following day, hosted by Stephanie Spiteri together with the participation of Martin Sapiano and live entertainment.
Each winner was presented with an original sculpture designed by renowned local artist, Sina Farrugia. Web sites were judged on the following criteria: Content, Structure, Navigation and Ease-of-Use, Visual Design, Functionality and Use of Technology, Interactivity, Broadband Suitability and the Overall Browsing Experience.
BEST PERSONAL WEBSITE:
WINNER Sharkman's World
About Friday night and the Awards..... I still am trying to wake up from what looks like a dream. My Award for Best Personal Homepage was the last one of the 13, and by that time I was very much on edge. I think I have never felt more nervous in my life, not even when shark diving!! I was much more relaxed when face to face with a Great White Shark.
Although there are a few points that need to be improved, it was the first time and I give the organisers my congratulations for a job very well done. From here, I know that they can only get better.
My website takes a lot of my free time and sometimes I am up till 5 a.m. researching info, updating, or answering the hundreds of e-mails I get daily. I do not mind at all and I love it. At least I know, that I am doing a little something to help change the mistaken view that people have of sharks. This is my mission in life.
30th. Nov. 2001,
Sharkman Wins Personal Category
The DataStream Malta Web Awards 2001
Friday November 30, @ 05:37PM
Sharkmans-World. Definitely the most extensive personal site out there. Well done goes out to Sharkman who won the Personal Category tonight at the MaltaWeb Awards.
Keep it up Alex!