Friday, September 08, 2006

Sharks are not evil!

The female great white shark in the photo has an eye the size of a silver dollar. She is gazing back, knowingly, at the swimmer photographing her. The water ripples over her snout and her mouth is slightly open.

At two tons and 17 feet, she has the ability to thrust herself completely out of the water as she captures her prey, the Cape fur seal. She also has an undeservedly bad reputation.

Neil Hammerschlag, 27, who took the photo, wants this known about her: She and the other 400 species of sharks are wantonly slaughtered, and are disappearing in the oceans of the world.
Sharks: Magnificent and Threatened is an exhibit of Hammerschlag's photos at the Miami Museum of Science and Planetarium. He is a shark researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Miami's Rosensteil School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, and has been fascinated by these animals since his childhood in South Africa.

His message, printed in large letters on the wall of the museum gallery, is this: ``Sharks are important in maintaining the ocean's health, and add excitement, richness and mystery to our planet.''

He has seen them up close and personal. He is teaching high school students in Broward and Miami-Dade counties to identify local sharks and test their habitat for clues about their lives. And he is translating the inspiration he finds in these ocean predators into an urgent sense of saving them.

Hammerschlag's family spent summer vacations on the beaches near Durban, he said, and at the end of the day the sharks caught in protective nets around the beach were hauled up and dissected.

''I'd be there every summer, in the front row, to see how big the heart was and what was in their stomachs,'' he said. ``They look like jet fighters and they swim so gracefully. They have a sense of awe and beauty. When I found that they were so threatened, all the elements came together, their size, beauty, power. I felt toward sharks like people feel toward dogs and cats.''

When he was 7, his family left South Africa's dangers and apartheid for Toronto, Canada.

At the University of Toronto, even without an ocean, Hammerschlag went into ecology and zoology with a minor in fine arts. ''That's where I got the photo thing,'' he said.

On summer breaks, he found ways to get involved in shark tagging.

And the oceans kept calling, so he moved to South Florida to get a master's degree from Nova Southeastern University's Oceanographic Institute. His master's research was on the predator/prey relationship between great white sharks and Cape fur seals. He worked on Seal Islands, in False Bay, off the South African coast.

While he was at Nova, a South Broward high school called the university saying it had students who wanted to do internships or help with master's theses data.

''I was the only one who responded,'' Hammerschlag said.

High school students in the marine magnet program at South Broward worked with white shark data. It seemed to be working so well, Hammerschlag felt, that he and the director of the marine program at South Broward, Ted Davis, put together a trip for students to South Africa to gather data themselves. They secured a grant from the American Institute of Marine Studies.

Daniell Washington, a Miamian, was among the eight students and four teachers who spent 15 days with great white sharks.

''It was the summer after I graduated from high school,'' Washington said. ``It was the best experience of my life. It was an opportunity to really be immersed in marine science and the ocean, and to be able to see nature at its prime, face to face.''

The trip erased Washington's stereotypical prejudices about sharks: that they are nothing but mindless eating machines.

''Once in the field, I realized they somehow have a personality, each shark,'' she said. ``In the afternoon, when we did identification, they would come up to the boat for bait, and each had its own tactic.''

Today Washington is a second year University of Miami marine biology student.

''Neil is an awesome teacher,'' she said. ``He has a natural ability to tell things clearly and thoroughly. He is funny. He showed us what to do in harsh conditions. He kept us together and we felt we were a team.''

Hammerschlag, who lives in Miami Beach, is a runner, a diver and used to play ice hockey in Canada. His doctoral work looks at marine life in South Florida's estuaries and the effect of sharks on the fish populations.

His high school students are producing data that point to high levels of mercury in sharks of the area, and, he says, ``has important management and conservation applications. We're looking at where specific shark species congregate, the mercury levels, and where they're getting mercury.''
Hammerschlag's website is, and he puts shark information on it, along with his stunning photographs.

So what's it like to have only a camera between you and a shark?

''There is a sense of excitement and thrill,'' he said. ``But more a feeling of awe and appreciation. I get excited, but not in a scared, roller-coaster way. I feel honored I'm sharing the water with these animals.''


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