Photograph by Mark Frapwell
Birthplace: White Plains, New York
Current City: White Plains, New York
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be a professional soccer player.
How did you get started in your field of work?
While a teacher of marine biology on a square rig sailboat, I asked a shark researcher to give a talk to my class. He was impressed with me and asked me to become a graduate student under his mentorship. He was a prize student of Konrad Lorenz and was excited that I too was interested in the field of ethology, studying animals in their own environment.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to sharks?
I was fascinated with sharks as a teenager, and wanted to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey, who managed to study mountain gorillas. I wanted to get in the water with sharks, and learn about them by swimming among them. Fossey had been able to approach gorillas by mimicking their submissive behaviors. I felt that I could get closer to sharks if I knew when they were defensive versus when they were aggressive. I started modestly by getting in the water with small sharks in an aquarium, and then moved on to larger sharks—blue sharks and scalloped hammerhead sharks.
What's a normal day like for you?
Now I am the director of the Biotelemetry Laboratory, and in this position supervise a dozen graduate students and staff members. I spend much of my time working with them on their animal tracking projects, whose subjects range from anteaters to white sharks. I often accompany them into the field and help them tag sharks with a variety of electronic tags.
Do you have a hero?
My hero was Konrad Lorenz. They say that he could talk to the animals. I have tried to gain an intimate knowledge of the behavior of sharks in their own habitats.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
My most exciting experience was to first dive downward through massive schools of hammerhead sharks. They were visible as vague shapes underneath, and I took a large breath and descended 20 meters through the school, with individuals swimming on either side of me, and then above me so they were silhouetted against the bright surface, and then returned to the surface. I have spent many days swimming among sharks, describing their social behavior, and have also dived downward and placed on the sharks electronic tags that provide information to us about their behavior at nighttime.
What are your other passions?
I am an explorer at heart, and find both the oceans and mountains invite exploration. When a child in Europe, my parents first took me over the Alps and then to the Mediterranean. Hence, my last impression led to my becoming a marine biologist. However, I rediscovered a passion in the mountains in midlife, and am an avid skier, sharing my time between skiing at my place in Kirkwood and writing a textbook/reference book on sharks.
What do you do in your free time?
I am an avid gardner, growing everything from garlic to corn.
If you could have people do one thing to help save sharks, what would it be?
I have devoted much of my life to teaching the public that sharks and rays are not dumb feeding machines but possess a diverse repertoire of behaviors from defensive displays to mating foreplay to amazing abilities to navigate. Yet they are very vulnerable to fishing because they grow slowly and have few young. Whenever humans have targeted them with fisheries, it has collapsed. I am hoping that the new trend of ecotourism for sharks will motivate humans to protect sharks at "hot spots" like the Galápagos Islands so that the public can enjoy viewing them in their own world.
Latest Explorer News
- Close Call: Explorers Nearly Crushed By Flipping Iceberg
- The legend of Babakoto
- Anja on fire
- Patience Makes Perfect: Nailing the Shot of a Bear Catching Salmon
- African Lions on the Brink: A Conversation with Lion Expert Craig Packer
- Getting Stung for Science in the Rain Forest
- A Big Day at CITES: No Ivory or Rhino Horn Trade
- How Forensic Technology Can Help Fight the Ivory Trade
- Environmental Forensics: Drones and Advanced Technologies to Track Eco-criminals
- Biotherm & Mission Blue to Collaborate on Hope Spot Expedition in Balearic Islands
Inside National Geographic Magazine
This article was originally published in the June 1991 National Geographic.
Israel Ritchie, known as Tolon, is a 37-year-old shark fisher from López Mateos, Mexico. His family has hunted sharks off the Pacific side of the Baja California peninsula for generations, selling the meat these days for around U.S. 70 cents a kilogram (2.2 pounds) and the shark fins for 50 to 100 U.S. dollars a kilogram.
Sharks follow well-traveled "superhighways" among feeding hot spots, new research suggests. The discovery should allow scientists to create better conservation strategies for the fish.
Prehistoric megalodon—literally "megatooth"—sharks had the most powerful bite of any creature that has ever lived, according to a new model.
According to a witness, the whale carcass was methodically stripped by at least 30 great whites—but without a violent feeding frenzy that can sometimes occur.
In Their Words
I am hoping that the new trend of ecotourism for sharks will motivate humans to protect sharks at "hot spots" like the Galápagos Islands so that the public can enjoy viewing them in their own world.
Our Explorers in Action
Meet female explorers who have pushed the limits in adventure, science, and more.