Having come fresh out of a week of reviewing Discovery Channel UK’s Shark Week, I have to say that I was feeling pretty sick of shark documentaries – coming from someone who has dedicated their life to the study and conservation of sharks, that’s saying quite a bit! When I was asked to review Of Shark and Man, I was feeling jaded, somewhat despondent and more than a little skeptical of shark documentaries. Then I watched it, and my faith was restored.
David Diley has managed to combine a personal journey with the opportunity to share, through stunning imagery and frank commentary, a true depiction of how shark ecotourism can work and how it feels to dive with bull sharks. There is a beauty in the underwater footage that is at once mesmerising, immersive and raw and this, coupled with a masterful soundtrack and Diley’s touchingly heartfelt words, make it hard not to feel like you are on his personal journey with him.
The first thing that I appreciated and applauded this documentary for was that the sharks are portrayed exactly as they are – not sweet and harmless puppies desperate for a cuddle nor vicious and malignant monsters hell bent on devouring any human that happens into their path. Through Diley’s narration, interviews with the various documentary participants and unwaveringly honest footage, this film portrayed bull sharks as the majestic, graceful, powerful, awe-inspiring predators that they truly are. Inclusion of several other species was a welcomed surprise – too often documentaries focus entirely on a single iconic species to the exclusion and detriment of others.
Sharks are not the only stars of this show, and this was another refreshing facet that is grossly underrepresented in the majority of shark documentaries. Beqa Adventure Dives in Fiji, set up and owned by Mike Neumann, a carbon neutral dive centre that runs youth programs, plants mangroves, trains and employs local staff and has been integral in setting up and then extending the Shark Reef Marine Reserve to encompass a 30 mile stretch of water deserves considerable amounts of respect for the incredible work that they continue to do. Interviews with staff members, from the boss to the newly initiated, tell the story of how dedicated and passionate these people are about what they do.
Of Shark and Man’s emphasis on the importance of engaging the local community into shark conservation is extremely well made, clearly illustrating how various community members are fervently engaged in the shark ecotourism and the benefits it brings to them – increased fish catches thanks to marine reserves and an ecosystem that is being restored, revenue for those employed in the industry, increases in tourism which brings revenue to other local businesses, and spiritual benefits harking back to age old customs and beliefs that are still cherished by many. To quote Diley; “This is as much a story about Fijian people as it is Fijian sharks.”
I greatly appreciated the very direct approach Diley took to addressing and discussing the often controversial topic of shark feeding for ecotourism. Not only was the subject forthrightly broached, the strongest opponent to shark feeding in Fiji, marine biologist and ecologist Helen Sykes, was interviewed at length and given the opportunity to provide her frank opinion on the subject. Points were openly countered in an equally open and respectful manner by Neumann. The fact that Sykes had such clear respect for Beqa Adevnture Dives, commended them on their operational protocols and acknowledged the positive aspects of their ecotourism work speaks volumes.
In a time when it feels as though the news, social media and scientific reports are full of stories of ecological disaster, species losses, human-wildlife conflict and more, it was invigorating to be invited into this love story of shark and man, to see that dreams can attained if worked for, to know that progress and conservation success is possible and to share joy that the natural world still inspires such strength of feeling.
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