Review of documentary Sharkwater: Extinction by Rob Stewart

Rob Steward

Rob Stewart, award-winning biologist, photographer, conservationist, author and filmmaker

I just watched Sharkwater: Extinction (2018) a documentary that stars shark and ocean conservationist Rob Stewart. It’s the sequel to Sharkwater, which came out in 2007. According to the Sharkwater.com biography on Rob, his documentaries along with his activism, has saved 1/3 of the world’s sharks.

But sadly, I learned that 150 million sharks are killed a year, double the 73 million sharks a year number I heard many years ago. Sharks are killed not just for the shark fin trade anymore—shark can be found in cosmetics as squalene or squalane, in pet food or livestock feed and in the “fish” sold in stores and restaurants. Much of the fish in sold in stores is mislabeled, or in the case of shark intentionally mislabeled (maybe by the distributor or fisherman) so consumers will buy the product. It’s dangerous to eat shark because they are full of toxins like mercury. It’s recommended that pregnant women and children don’t eat shark because of that.

Rob and his cameraman got great footage of two sharks still alive in a gill net, but about to meet certain death. They were not able to save the sharks, but their footage helped convince legislators in California to ban gill nets in 2018. Gill nets can be miles long and are made of a clear monofilament that practically disappears underwater. Large animals such as sea turtles, sharks, whales and seabirds swim into the net and get stuck. All the above animals, except most sharks that need to keep swimming to get oxygen, need air to breathe. These caught animals drown before the fishermen pull the nets up.

Gill nets are used in target fisheries, such as for swordfish. Anything not a swordfish is considered bycatch. According to Oceana, an ocean conservation non-profit, up to 63 billion pounds of bycatch is caught every year and thrown back into the ocean. When Rob made Sharkwater: Extinction in 2016, it was only estimated to be 54 billion pounds. Sadly bycatch numbers are up. As is the sobering possibility that by 2050, there will be more plastic and trash in the ocean than fish.

It’s a sad documentary to watch in general, because much of the documentary is footage of shark fins or dead sharks. But there is enough footage of Rob swimming with sharks to be inspiring. The end is sad because Rob passed away before the documentary was complete, and his death completed it. He had been using a rebreather, which is advanced diving, while scuba diving off of Florida. He was looking to film a sawfish in the wild. A rebreather is great for filming wildlife because it produces no bubbles. Instead the carbon dioxide you breathe out is scrubbed out and you breathe in clean oxygen.

The ending montage made me cry, and not just because Rob had died. It’s his moving words that are inspiring. Thanks to his documentaries, his legacy will live on in shark conservationists worldwide. Please visit Sharkwater.com and read, 10 Easy Ways to Save Sharks and watch on Amazon Prime for free (if you’re a subscriber).

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Meet the Pink Manta Ray!

pink manta ray, manta ray Australia

Pink Manta Ray from Australia photo by Kristian Lane/Instagram

Yes, I’m really pink. My belly is pink, whereas in “normal” manta rays their belly is white with black spots and splotches on it. I’ve been nicknamed “Inspector Clouseau” from the movies and tv program called the Pink Panther. You clever humans!

Why am I pink? I don’t know, I think I was just born that way. You intelligent humans have ruled out stress. From a small skin sample (a biopsy) they have ruled out a diet full of red food, it’s not an infection or genetic mutation.

So now you humans guess that it’s a “unique expression of melanin” or my pigments in my skin are just “off”. Duh, I could’ve told you that! After all there are “strawberry blonde leopards,” and “fuchsia grasshoppers,” due to something called erythrism. That causes animals to appear reddish or pinkish.

I was first seen in 2015 off of Australia’s Lady Elliot Island. I’m now 11 feet wide (wingtip to wingtip) and yes, I’m a boy. I was last seen as part of a courting train, which is when a line of males (in this case 8) chases a female to try and mate with her. Her pheromones are quite irresistible! If she’s looking for unique, I’ve got all the other boys beat!

Even though I stand out in a crowd of manta rays, I’m relatively safe from killer whales and great white sharks due to my size. In fact, my biggest potential predator is you humans!

Yes, all manta rays are at risk at being targeted and hunted by humans. Fishermen nicknamed us devil rays because our curled up head fins look like devil horns. We would often get tangled in their fishing nets and ruin them. They really didn’t like that or us.

Now us manta rays are being targeted for our gill rakers. They are thin, comb-like strings on our gills that capture all the yummy plankton from the water I strain through my gills. In other words, my gill rakers keep me alive!

Unfortunately, a new not-so-traditional controversial formula of Traditional Chinese Medicine utilizes gill rakers and humans now target us gentle and giant beings. We manta rays have the largest brain-to-body ratio of any fish, but alas, even our intelligence can keep us from being hunted, possibly someday to the point of extinction. Coupled with our lack of defense (we have no stingers) we have little hope of surviving unless humans stop targeting and killing us faster than we can reproduce. Its no wonder females have a train of males trying to court them—they only mate every two years and have pups every 2-5 years.

For more on how you can help manta rays, visit these conservation non-profits:

Manta Pacific Research Foundation

Manta Trust

Marine Megafauna Foundation

Wild Aid’s Manta Ray Program

Articles used in this blog post:

Rare pink manta ray spotted near Australia’s Lady Elliot Island

How manta rays gill rakers filter water without clogging

Manta ray reproduction

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Duffy the Sea Turtle: Children’s Picture Book Review

Duffy's Lucky Escape children's book

Duffy’s Lucky Escape children’s picture book

“Duffy’s Lucky Escape,” by Ellie Jackson and Liz Oldmeadow, is a children’s picture book about a sea turtle. She lives on a colorful coral reef. Duffy was minding her own business when a storm came and washed her out to sea. There her adventure with trash in the ocean began…unknown to her she eats some plastic (sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellies). Fortunately she is rescued, rehabilitated, and eventually released back where she belongs.

“Duffy’s Lucky Escape” is based on real events. It is a charming children’s book that gently teaches kids about garbage in the oceans and the dangers that it poses to wildlife.

The illustrations are beautiful and colorful. They are realistic, but still cartoony as you’d expect from a children’s picture book. There are facts about sea turtles at the end as well as ways children can help ocean wildlife such as Duffy. For instance, everyone can use less plastic by using a reusable water bottle instead of single use water bottles and also not use plastic straws.

I highly recommend this book for any school-aged child—it would make a great addition to any library. It teaches in a gentle way, and it has actionable tips so children feel empowered to help ocean wildlife.

There are other Wild Tribe Heroes books. “Marli’s Tangled Tale” is about a puffin who gets tangled in a balloon from a balloon release. Another is “Nelson’s Dangerous Dive” about a whale who gets trapped in fishing nets. A newly released book is “Buddy’s Rainforest Rescue” about an orangutan and palm oil.

For more information, visit Wild Tribe Heroes

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Manta Rays Have Social Lives!

manta ray, reef manta ray, Manta alfredi

Reef manta ray (manta alfredi) photo by: Shiyam ElkCloner, Wikimedia Commons

Hee, hee. Did you know manta rays have a social life? I know because I AM a manta ray. My name is Molly. Humans have only studied manta rays in depth (probably) for decades. Before we were admired for being a gentle giant, fishermen called us “devilfish.” Our curled up head fins look like devil horns, hence the name. Never mind most of the time we’re feeding and our cephalic fins are uncurled. We’d often get caught in fishermen’s nets by accident. The fishermen would get angry that not only did they have to untangle us, but they often had to repair their nets.

In any case, humans have come out with a research study showing that female reef manta rays (Manta alfredi) “show preference” to other female manta rays. I’d say we’re friends, or acquaintances at least for the short-term. We also remember our contact with each other.

We form bonds with other female manta rays over weeks and months but not necessarily longer. That’s okay as many times after a feeding frenzy, or a stop at a cleaning station, we go our separate ways. We don’t vocalize like whales, who keep in touch at long distances. When we get excited socially we can brighten the white splotches on our black backs. But we do have the largest brain-to-body ratio of any fish so it’s no wonder we can use some of our brainpower to recognize others.

The boys, well they’re on their own unless they group with other males, females and juveniles. The main times we all come together are for feeding (plankton for all!), at cleaning stations (ahh…), and for mating. A train of males will trail a female for a long time until she gives in and mates with one. It’s fun, up to a certain point. Who doesn’t like all that attention?

We are in trouble nowadays because of our gill rakers. The very body parts that keep us alive are now threatening our lives. Gill rakers are a covering on my gills, which not only help me breathe, but also feed. The gill rakers act like strainers. They filter ocean water as I swim. Plankton in the water stick to the gill rakers. Plankton are the tiny plants and animals that live in the ocean and are at the bottom of the food chain. The plankton builds up on my gill rakers and yum, time to swallow!

Unfortunately many humans covet our gill rakers for the Traditional Chinese Medicine market. There is no traditional formula that contains manta ray gill rakers, just a controversial new one.

I only have 1-2 pups every 2-5 years. That’s not very often, and we certainly can’t keep up with the fishermen killing us.

Other threats to manta rays, which are making us become endangered, are injuries from being entangled in discarded fishing nets, pollution (especially microplastics) and habitat destruction.

For more information on how you can help visit:

Marine Megafauna Foundation’s work with manta rays

Manta Trust and threats to manta rays

Wild Aid’s work in China to save manta rays

Paper published on 22 August 2019: Rob Perryman et al, “Social preferences and network structure in a population of reef manta rays” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

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Interview with Shark Scientist Melissa Cristina Marquez

Melissa Cristina Marquez portrait

Shark Scientist Melissa Cristina Marquez

Melissa Cristina Marquez is a Marine Biologist, Wildlife Educator, TV Presenter, TEDx speaker, Podcast Host & Author from Sydney, Australia.

Tell me more about Fins United Initiative-how you got started, what you do, and how people can get involved-what are some ways people can help save sharks?

The organization was first established in 2013 in sunny Florida, and was dubbed as “Sarasota Fins.” Inspired by the lack of shark education and conservation integrated into school curriculum’s, I began creating the tools and products I believed will help inspire understanding of these beautiful creatures. As the program’s popularity grew, its educational outreach expanded and the need for a more encompassing name became clear: thus, The Fins United Initiative was born.

The Fins United Initiative is a shark, skate, ray and chimaera education and conservation program aiming to unite fin lovers worldwide. Our mission is to provide easy-to-access information on all sharks and their relatives worldwide through partnerships with educational institutions and other programs.

We are looking for representatives worldwide – and you don’t have to have a background in marine biology, just a passion for sharks and their relatives – to volunteer their time and go to classrooms, clubs, events, etc and give a #SharkTalk! Contact us here.

How do other cultures perceive sharks (other than as scary or dangerous)?

It really varies on the relationship a culture has with the ocean. Some cultures see sharks as these scary monsters will others perceive them as shapers of the land that are to be respected. I’m hoping to publish more information about this in the near future.

How has your cultural background affected your career?

It has made me a strong advocate for not just diversity in science and science communication but also inclusion. Many people think those terms are interchangeable but they are not the same thing. While science and science communication has become more diverse in the past decade, they still are not inclusive. Science, in general, is a very expensive industry to get into, leaving many at a disadvantage. My career has been shaped by my mission of giving my platform to others to speak their truth and their science.

Tell me more about your books and/or podcast-what are they about and how can we find them?

Joining forces with Speak Up for The Blue podcast, the ConCiencia Azul podcast is COMPLETELY IN SPANISH and interviews Spanish-speaking marine scientists, conservationists, grad students, photographers, and more from around the world. We discuss their studies and some of the unique challenges they face (such as racism, poverty, government corruption, etc).

There are people out there who are doing incredible work that doesn’t get highlighted, which is unfortunate. In many cases, they overcame obstacles, including racism and sexism, poverty, cultural and family expectations, and lack of mathematics background, in order to work and excel in the fields that they love. We Latinos y Latinas have the talent, and we often just lack the opportunity. This is my way of providing that opportunity to shine a light on them.

As for the books, I can’t talk too much about them other than it features an Afro-Latinx family that dedicate their lives to wildlife conservation and education. The series pulls from my life experiences, especially with what the main character (a young female) goes through. More information will be available in the next few months!

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