Riley Elliot

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Becoming The Sharkman

What started out as fear quickly turned to fascination when waterman Riley Elliott AKA The Sharkman had his first (brief) encounter with a harmless one-metre School shark in Fiordland's Doubtful Sound.

In a three-part series we chat to Riley about his beginnings, his experiences and encounters with sharks, working for change and what the future holds.

RB: Has the ocean always been an important part of your life?

RE: I was born in Vancouver Canada, but moved to New Zealand at age 5. I grew up as inland as you can get, in Hamilton. But being a skinny island in the middle of the South Pacific, I was still only 40 minutes away from the sea – Raglan in fact, one of the world’s best left hand point breaks for surfing. Surfing was the catalyst to my interest in marine animals, and ironically the source of fear that resulted in sharks becoming my life passion.

RB: What sparked your interest in sharks?

RE: I surfed every day in Dunedin between studies on dolphins in Fiordland as part of my Honors and Masters at Otago University. Surfing in the deep south and diving in Fiordland, which is quite a 'you’re a very small person in a big natural world kind of place', meant sharks were always in the back of my mind in both of those environments. One day when I finally saw a shark while diving in Fiordland, I broke all the rules of scuba-diving and boosted to the surface. I turned around and it was a one-foot long School shark – totally harmless.

RB: Did that encounter cause you to question popular human perceptions of sharks?

RE: Yeah. I kind of laughed and then somewhat felt ashamed. I questioned why I had reacted like that because clearly in the situation it was totally unjustified. This was a harmless animal, but everything I knew about sharks up to that point was purely based on the movie Jaws and whatever we see in the media. So I basically asked myself, ‘what is a shark and is their reputation justified?’

RB: How did you get into studying sharks?

RE: I went to South Africa and I worked with the Oceans Research internship program which teaches people about how to study sharks. It changed my life. Every morning I would get up at dawn and I’d drive out to Seal Island and we would observe and study the predatory strategies of Great Whites on seals. And then in the afternoons, I would come home and surf the awesome point breaks that was like a kilometre away from this island I was just watching these apex predators hunt at. And then in the evenings I would go back to this island and see them nail seals again.

RB: So you still surfed after watching Great Whites hunting seals?

RE: Surfing is the most beautiful thing in the world. It is a huge addiction. And even if you’re standing on shore and the surf is pumping and you know there’s sharks, you’ll most likely still go out. At the end of the day it's a personal choice, the shark is like the ground is to a sky diver or the cold is to a mountaineer. It’s the harsh reality that makes the wild environment thrilling.

RB: Did your experiences in South Africa inspire your studies on Blue sharks in New Zealand?

RE: Yes 100%. I came back from South Africa with all this knowledge and passion and I said to myself, “I want to do a PHD”. I saw the film Sharkwater which is the catalyst for global awareness of shark finning. I started reading up about New Zealand and it was actually one of the top 10 exporters of shark fins in the world. We were one of the most blind nations when it came to shark sustainability and there was no scientific data to back up the amount of sharks that they were killing, which was in the hundreds of thousands a year purely for their fins.

So basically I decided I was obliged to use the skills I had acquired along with my scientific background and do my PHD in New Zealand. So I focused my study on Blue sharks which are the most exploited shark in the world for shark fins.