A boat carrying nine people anchored to the oddly named “Shark Island” off Serangan on Bali’s southeastern shore.
The “island” is not actually an island -- it is a marine conservation project called “Bali Sharks” that focuses on saving sharks and taking care of them inside a pontoon that acts as a shark nursery until they are ready to be released into their natural habitat.
Aboard the boat was Paul Friese, the founder of Bali Sharks, and his guests, activists from the Gili Shark Foundation.
With them were six sharks -- two white-tip reef sharks and four black-tip pups -- ready to join twenty others on this “island”.
Friese said the project was initiated while he was working on a shark cage off Nusa Dua in 2010. It was there where he learned that a tiger shark accidently caught was later killed.
Saddened, he decided to take the initiative to rescue sharks.
“I looked up online ‘how to create a shark orphanage or nursery’. Nobody had ever made one,” he recalled. “So that’s when we decided to build a pontoon or a nursery and chose Serangan for its location.”
Realizing the idea, however, was no easy feat.
Based on a 2010 survey from the fisheries department of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Indonesia was the largest supplier of sharks in the world, with 109,248 tons of sharks caught per year. India ranked second with 74,050 tons and Spain with 59,777 tons.
The number has grown significantly since 2000, when shark fishing really took off in Indonesia. At that time, Indonesia caught around 70,000 tons of sharks.
There is high demand in the international market for shark fins, especially from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. According to the National Statistics Agency (BPS), Indonesia’s shark fin exports reached 434 tons, worth about US$6 million in 2012.
Bali fishermen are among those suppliers.
Aware that it would be impossible to completely stop fishermen from earning their livelihood, Friese offered fishermen a fair payoff to keep caught sharks alive.
At the humble pontoon -- made of piles of woods, floating drums and nets where the sharks are taken care of, tourists can swim and snorkel with this top predator and get to know them better.
Up close: A tourist is snorkeling with a black tip shark in Bali. Courtesy of Bali Sharks
Friese assured that it was completely safe to swim with the sharks. The sharks in the nursery are mostly young, less than 1.2m long and are mostly reef sharks.
“They’re more afraid of us than we are of them. When you go swimming with them, they’ll swim away to the other side of the pen,” Friese said.
He said the concept that he created was a perfect eco-tourism model that could save the sharks --- that they are much more valuable alive than dead -- while at the same time, could educate tourists about sharks and their role in the ecosystem -- without having to sacrifice the fishermen’s livelihood in the process.
Bali Sharks has so far succeeded in rescuing 68 sharks, including a big pregnant shark called ibu hiu or mama shark. The shark was released into Bali waters soon after it gave birth to three pups.
Thus far, Bali Sharks has released 40 to 50 sharks into Bali waters and has now teamed up with the Gili Shark Foundation, a marine conservation project founded by English marine photographer Steve Woods, to release the sharks into Gili’s marine protected areas.
“On the Gili Islands, we have very good marine protected areas (MPAs) that cover some 3,000 hectares,” said Woods.
“You can’t snorkel there, you can’t dive there and you can’t fish there. (its main purpose is) purely to regenerate the reef and to let marine life get on with without us interfering.”
Feeding time: Visitors get up close with the young sharks. JP/Intan Tanjung
Woods said he planned to create a conservation model on four key areas to ensure the program’s success.
The first step, he said, was to create awareness among tourists, locals and the diving community through social media. He also offered a free shark awareness dive for every instructor on the Gili Islands, located in neighboring West Nusa Tenggara (NTB) province, in hopes they could pass on their knowledge to other divers visiting the island and get people to dive with the sharks.
Protection, he said, could be accomplished by installing a sanctuary and protecting the MPA to ensure that sharks did not get fished out.
He also plans to build a rehabilitation tank for young sharks that have been rescued from all across Bali and Lombok to allow tourists to see these sharks and get information about the ocean’s top predator before they are released back into the sea.
Safe with me: Saved white tip shark waits to be released to the nursery. Courtesy of Bali Sharks
The last important step was research, he said, as they planned to work with dive communities on the Gili Islands to monitor every single shark sighted in the surrounding waters.
Each time a shark is released back into sea, it will be tagged to allow the team to monitor where it is, its behavior and health.
“By doing research, we can understand what’s going on. By understanding what’s going on, we can protect them better. By protecting better, we can rehabilitate better, by rehabilitating better it means we really create awareness by showing everyone what’s going on,” he explained.
“Hopefully the island will be viewed as shark sanctuary, so more people come to the island and want to dive there.”
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