A census hoping to help save the grey nurse shark

A census hoping to help save the grey nurse shark

Celebrated shark diver and conservationist Valerie Taylor and a coalition of citizen scientists, scuba enthusiasts, Indigenous leaders, students, scientists, and even celebrities, have united in a collective effort to safeguard the iconic grey nurse shark (Carcharias taurus) off eastern Australia.

Also known as the sand tiger shark, or spotted ragged-tooth shark in some regions, this species is a large and distinctive-looking animal found in temperate and subtropical waters around the world. While they seem menacing in appearance, they are generally not aggressive toward humans and are relatively gentle.

In the past, grey nurse sharks were often misunderstood and wrongly portrayed as aggressive, leading to negative public perceptions. This lack of awareness hindered conservation efforts, especially off eastern Australia where they were the target of intense culling efforts. Coastal development, pollution, and habitat degradation have also played a role in reducing suitable habitats. Because of this, they have experienced population declines and are listed as a “Vulnerable” species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

This species is the one which inspired Chris Hemsworth to embark on scuba diving and is now the focal point of the Disney documentary “Shark Beach,” where Taylor and Hemsworth dive alongside these majestic creatures. And while Hemsworth at times seems hesitant to swim near them, Taylor’s dedication to the grey nurse dates back to 1984, when she and her husband were amongst the first to recognize that the species should be protected.

Valerie taylor smiles at camera
Valerie Taylor / Getty Images

Before then, the Taylors were spearfishing and filming footage of great white sharks along the South Australian coastline for a young Steven Spielberg to use in “Jaws” in 1975. The movie has filmgoers take out their fear of man-eating marine creatures by killing them.

“For some reason, filmgoers believed it. There’s no shark like that alive in the world today,” Taylor said. “Ron had a saying: ‘You don’t go to New York and expect to see King Kong on the Empire State Building. Neither should you go into the water expecting to see Jaws.’”

A surge in recreational shark hunting emerged, driven by the idea that ravenous sharks lurked just beneath the water’s surface, posing a threat to humans. “People became terrified to go to the beach […] gung-ho men took it upon themselves to kill sharks.” Seeking to help quell public anxiety, Universal Studios arranged for the Taylors to journey to the United States, embarking on a talk-show circuit aimed at enlightening the masses about the true nature of sharks.

People became terrified to go to the beach.

Valerie Taylor

“I’ve been fighting for the poor old, much maligned sharks and the marine world, in general, ever since,” she laments.

Becoming advocates for this predator, the Taylors campaigned for the protection of the grey nurse sharks, marking a pioneering achievement in shark conservation as the first protected shark species in the world. “I realised if they weren’t protected, they would disappear and they were very important to the web of life in the ocean. […] It took years of letter writing and campaigning.”

Now at the age of 88, Taylor is rallying once again for the survival of a shark species, orchestrating a monumental census of grey nurse shark populations this month along the eastern coast of Australia.

In a concerted push, hundreds of scuba divers will convene on August 26 to meticulously survey the known aggregation sites of these icons.

This is the second of four censuses to be conducted, the first was hoping to identify about 2000 individuals but in fact found only 300.

“Valerie is lobbying for her ‘String of Pearls’ – that the 30 aggregation sites become Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) as her lasting legacy,” said a press release statement of the event.

MPAs are designated zones that are set aside and managed for the conservation and protection of marine ecosystems, biodiversity, and natural resources. The primary goal is to safeguard marine habitats, species, and cultural heritage while also possibly allowing for sustainable use and scientific research.

That depends on the specific regulations and management strategies assigned to an MPA. Taylor hopes that these will become no-take reserves that provide a sanctuary for these species. “Making the primary aggregation sites no take zones MPAs would significantly minimise the chances of a shark being hooked by a fisher.”

I’ve been fighting for the poor old, much maligned sharks and the marine world, in general, ever since.

Valerie Taylor

These aggregation sites are important for various aspects of the sharks’ life cycle, including mating and breeding. Aggregations are typically found near rocky reefs, caves, and underwater structures. One well-known aggregation site for grey nurse sharks is off K’gari (formerly called Fraser Island), recognized as one of the key habitats for grey nurse sharks in the region. “It is a known mating and birthing area and the marine protected area was recently expanded by the state government. Footage captured here shows mating scars and actual mating captured in the wild for the first time this year,” explains Taylor.

Each of her ‘pearls’ aims to have local figures of influence, such as NRL Sharks star Nicho Hynes, Chris Hemsworth, and Taylor herself, lend their voices and visibility to raise awareness about the plight of these sharks. And she hopes to involve First Nations people stepping in as sea rangers and custodians of these aggregation sites, ensuring the sustained survival of these animals well beyond her own lifetime.

It holds the promise of fostering a holistic approach to marine management that intertwines culture, sustainability, and economic development. Taylor is hopeful that her ocean conservation message is finally being heard: “I feel that the general public are starting to realise that the ocean is an important part of the wellbeing of the planet. But there’s a lot to be done and I’m not going to live long enough to do much more.”

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