Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - October 14, 2011

Swimming with the sharks

Sharks are more endangered than dangerous, says woman who is working to save them

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Just how dangerous are sharks?

"Thirty-eight people die every year from lightning in the United States -- by sharks, it's one person every two years," said Pleasanton resident Kristin Walovich. "More people die by being electrocuted by their toasters."

Walovich, who studied marine biology at UC Santa Barbara, gathered these statistics as part of the shark research she did the first eight months of this year in South Africa.

Now she is on a mission to save sharks from extinction, not just because of her love for the magnificent creatures but due to their importance to the ecosystem.

Walovich vividly remembers spotting her first great white shark in the wild. She was interning on a research project east of Capetown, where she spent hours each day in Mossel Bay on a 26-foot boat named "Lamnidae" after the taxonomic family name of the great white shark.

"The first one I saw was 3 meters (almost 10 feet)," she recalled. "They're predators but they're beautiful -- they're magnificent."

The crew was "chumming," that is, dishing sardines and fish oils into the water to attract the sharks.

"The shark will come to the boat because it smells your fish. It will investigate and circle the boat," Walovich explained. "They're very curious creatures. Generally it was one at a time but sometimes we had three or four at a time. It depends on where you're anchored."

"Some days I would spend four hours on the boat and didn't see one. Some days I would see one, some days 20. Some days I'd wait hours; some days, minutes," she added. "White sharks are wild animals, you don't snap your fingers and they come."

No matter how many she sighted, each time was thrilling.

"People ask, 'Do you get tired of seeing sharks?'" she said. "Absolutely not. Each time you're as amazed and excited. You see its length and see its girth -- that's the most amazing thing: They are very, very wide."

Her job was to photograph the sharks' dorsal fins.

"It's like a thumbprint -- it's unique to each shark," she said. "It does change over time and you can chart those changes.

"We would take pictures and data so we could ultimately tell how many sharks were in the bay. We were charting their progress and trying to find global populations."

Other researchers have tagged sharks to be tracked via GPS.

"In 2005 they tagged a shark named Nicole in South Africa, and she traveled all the way to Australia and back," Walovich said. "It took her nine months to travel 12,400 miles."

Sharks are generally solitary animals, Walovich noted.

"They don't travel in packs or schools," she said. "If there's a whale carcass they will feed together on that."

After four months at Mossel Bay, Walovich moved outside Capetown for another four months.

"I didn't want to leave South Africa. It's an amazing country with amazing people," she said. "I was living with a few of the interns from Mossel Bay -- they were working on a cage diving boat."

This gave her the chance to work as an on-deck naturalist and to get into the water with the sharks in a cage rather than just view them from the boat.

"It was a very different experience to be so close to a shark," Walovich said. "I was sitting at the bottom of a cage and a white shark came by and looked at me. They have black eyes but there's life and intelligence."

She also traveled to Aliwal Shoal near Durban on the east coast and was able to go diving with tiger sharks, bull sharks and blacktip sharks. And she spent time at False Bay in Durban, where the great white sharks are famous for breaching out of the water to catch baby seals coming off the islands.

"They literally jump out of the water -- 10- to 15-foot sharks that weigh 500-750 kilos, close to a ton, so it's a huge mass of shark that jumps out of the water," Walovich said. "As the seals are swimming by they make an ambush -- swim upwards and attack the seals. It's an amazing sight to see."

So how did a nice Pleasanton girl become so interested in sharks?

"I went to Amador Valley High School here and I always loved biology class," Walovich said. "Santa Barbara has up to six degrees in biology so I knew that was a diverse place to go."

She took biology classes as well as ichthyology and zoology courses plus herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians.

"I really enjoyed the classes with lab portions, touching things and dissecting things and getting my hands dirty," she recalled.

She quickly realized that she wanted to work in the field rather than behind a microscope. After graduating from UC Santa Barbara in 2010 she became an intern with Oceans Research, which paid her way to French Polynesia.

"I was in the ocean for the most part, helping do research on sea urchins," she said. "It was mostly free diving, some scuba diving."

From a lagoon inside a coral reef she helped sort through coral rubble, bringing baby urchins to the surface to measure them.

"The coral reefs are really in trouble, they're very sensitive to temperature differences and differences in acidity," she said, explaining that as humans release carbon dioxide in to the air it enters the oceans and changes the acidity of the water.

"Everything is related because the coral reefs act as a place for organisms to live and urchins live within those coral reefs," she said. "When you change one condition, whether quickly or slowly, it will affect other systems within the oceans -- it transfers all the way up to the sharks."

Her main mission is saving the shark. Walovich said she was pleased that California passed the ban on shark fin soup last week.

"They catch the shark, slice off their fins and throw them overboard," she said. "They are still alive but because they can't swim, they drown. It's a very inhumane, cruel, awful thing."

From 73 million to 100 million sharks are killed every year, she noted.

While she is in Pleasanton applying to graduate school, Walovich is willing to talk to classes or groups about her research with the sharks, their magnificence and the fact that they are endangered.

"People think they're mindless killers but that's absolutely not true," she said. "I hope I can change people's opinions by telling them my experiences."

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