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July 27, 2012

Protecting Sharks One Village At A Time

By Deborah Bassett

Photos by Deborah Bassett

It's been just over 2 weeks since I joined the crew of Operation Requiem here in the amazing land (and sea!) called Fiji. Our small team, led by Julie Andersen, spent the first few days in the capitol city of Suva sorting out bureaucratic red tape before joining the local dive vessel that would become our home over the next 10 days, while the crew of the Brigitte Bardot continued onward to Vanuatu to strengthen our diplomatic initiatives there. After several meetings at the Ministry of Education, we were pleased to receive full clearance to teach in the Fijian school system during our mission here--nothing like instant credentials!

When the campaign was planned, the shark sanctuary decision was meant to have happened months prior. I had really hoped that the decision would have already passed and that the Fijian government would consider a collaborative effort with Sea Shepherd to help enforce it. Of course we needed to remain flexible and shift gears when needed, which is the name of the game on any Sea Shepherd campaign. One of our team's main objectives in Fiji would be to visit several key villages to speak about shark conservation to those at greatest risk of experiencing extinction and it's devastating effects in their lifetime. After all, one should never doubt the importance of reaching the hearts and minds of those who will become the leaders of tomorrow.


Our first stop along the way was to the sleepy seaside village of Makogai. We were granted special permission to arrive on Sunday, the day reserved for church and family here, and the local school's headmaster invited us to present our shark outreach program to the local children and share stories with the villagers, who in turn showed us their sea turtle restoration project and clam conservation program. The elders shared stories of days past when the ocean was more plentiful, particularly amongst shark populations. The children enjoyed the shark coloring and activity book and were ecstatic for a visit from our very own shark mascot, aka "shark boy."


The next day we visited the Sawaieke School on the island of Gau. Situated on the edge of the sea with no Internet, telephone lines, or cars time seemed to, literally, stand still here. Hand line fishing is the main method of fishing in this small village known mainly for it's kava and taro farming. Our presentation and the opportunity to talk about shark conservation was truly a special and well-received occasion. Afterwards we joined the village elders in a traditional kava drinking ceremony, a medicinal root that has been an integral part of the culture's identity from the very beginning. An invitation to participate in the kava ritual holds significant symbolic representation throughout Polynesia and we all felt honored to be included. Unlike the typical bureaucratic systems in the west of which we are all very well acquainted, a lot of bona-fide progress can transpire over the kava bowl.


One of the greatest highlights of the trip for me was meeting with the parents of Seru, a native Fijian who joined the crew of The Brigitte Bardot in the Solomon Islands, in his native village of Ravi Ravi. The villagers here are best known as the custodians of Namena Marine Reserve, a successful marine protected area for over 16 years. The villagers 'rolled out the carpet', and traditional feast and ceremony, to celebrate the day's festivities. The look of pride in Seru's parents eyes when speaking about his role with The Pacific Voyagers and Sea Shepherd, tempered by a genuine sense of humility that most westerners could surely take a cue from, was more than humbling. Sitting in this remote village, completely off the beaten path, brought together by a mutual love and profound respect for the oceans, left me infused with a genuine hope for the future of our planet that I have not felt in quite some time. In that moment, cultural barriers seemed to melt away as we enjoyed one another's company, sharing stories, laughs, song and dance.


The following day we made our way to the island of Taveuni where the legend of the Shark God is most prevalent. According to ancient Fijian folklore, the Shark God is a protectorate of these villages and for that reason is revered and protected from both fishing and finning. Without a shadow of a doubt, we were amongst fellow shepherds of the sea. Of course there is still need for enforcement of certain areas and after a day of shark education with the local school children we had the great privilege of meeting with the head chief known locally as 'Tui Cakau' who shared with us his wisdom and vision for the future of a thriving oceanic system that has shaped this 'land' scape and culture from it's very beginning. A sense of ancestral reverence for the ocean and our shark kin filled the room which overlooked the most pristine view of this oceanic homeland that is so very worthy of protecting.

Meeting with local villagers and officials was a powerful experience and the opportunity to dive and explore the local reefs along the way further impacted my personal recommitment to defending and preserving our planetary ocean HOME. If I learned anything from this trip it is that Sea Shepherds come in all sizes, shapes, and forms and together we can steer the course for a sustainable and thriving future for our oceans. As the great Margaret Mead once stated “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has...” We are ready to step up to the plate, are you?


Operation Requiem is about listening, learning, and collaborating with local communities. We believe awareness and education is a key to shark conservation, so while in the South Pacific, the team is stopping at several schools in five different countries to talk to future generations about sharks. We've got handbooks, presentations, puppets, props and even a shark costume (!) - and it is proving to be a great exchange. We're learning as much as we are teaching - and of course, becoming inspired along the way.