A South African Winter of Shark Research

by Madeline Jehenself 

As a freshly minted marine biology graduate from Canada with a particular fascination for sharks, you can imagine my overwhelming excitement to launch straight into three months in South Africa, one of the shark research capitals of the world! My name is Madeline Jehnself, and the following blog series will focus on the captivating and important field of marine conservation through the lens of my experiences in Mama Africa this past summer. First, I’ll take you to the scientific conference I attended in Durban, then I’ll tell you a bit about each research project I was involved in while I was studying sharks and marine ecology as an intern at the South African Shark Conservancy.

Despite booking my flights 5 months in advance, I must say that this adventure didn’t fully enter into my reality until I was holding a brandy and coke at the suave Maharani Hotel overlooking the Indian Ocean in Durban. Just over a month before I was hopped up on soy lattes, haphazardly pouring over research papers and government reports as I (somewhat desperately) tried to figure out what significance my honours research could possibly hold in the world of marine science, and perpetually freaking out about every detail of my thesis. Is ostracoda a genus name? Should I capitalize it? Italicize? What reference style guide should I use? Is CSE too simple? APA too complicated? WILL I PASS UNIVERSITY?!

Map of South Africa, with Durban circled in red

Now, don’t be fooled – schmoozing at an elegant hotel in a city reminiscent of Miami Beach was only the setting of 1 of my 13 weeks in South Africa…my life hadn’t quite taken THAT dramatic of a turn. I was at the gorgeous Maharani Hotel during the first week of June while attending the Sharks International Conference. The meeting brought together academic, governmental, and non-governmental researchers from around the world to discuss the successes, challenges, and future priorities for the study and conservation of chondrichthyes (the class of fishes comprised of sharks, skates, rays, and chimaeras). In other words, it was the prime environment to completely nerd-out about the coolest and most imperilled creatures on our planet. Sharks are very different from most of their bony fish relatives, these ancient creatures have evolved to live a long time, grow slowly, and have few offspring with long gestation periods (we refer to the combination of these traits as a ‘slow life history’). Slow life histories are part of the reason sharks have thrived in the oceans for over 420 million years, but they are also the reason sharks are extremely slow to recover from overfishing and environmental impacts.

The Great Ilanga Room at the Southern Sun Elangeni and Maharani Hotel was the larger of two rooms used for talks during Sharks International 2014.


The daily itinerary at Sharks International involved listening to a series of 15 minute talks about chondrichthyes from 8:30am – 4:30pm.and the evenings were no less shark-y! Some of the nightly gatherings included ‘Welcome Drinks’ with traditional Zulu dancers, a gala hosted by the Save Our Seas Foundation, a science communication and social media workshop by David Shiffman (Ph.D. student from the University of Miami), and a dorsal fin identification workshop by Dr. Demian Chapman (which is usually held for customs officers to help them enforce international fin trade laws). As my first international                                               conference, I was relieved to find that the week wasn’t                                                       all talk. I learned practical skills and I heard some incredible stories.

Interestingly, the most valuable lesson I learned from Sharks International was that there is no doubt in my mind about devoting my life to conserving and rebuilding the ocean. In my next entry I’ll discuss an unanticipated point of conflict at Sharks International before introducing my newly found home-away-from-home, the South African Shark Conservancy!

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