A version of this story appears in the July 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
They are on a boat dock, hands coated with the innards of a yellowfin tuna, when Konini Rongo and Bella Smith learn that they live in one of the world’s largest shark sanctuaries.
The girls, both 17, are chopping up scraps next to a row of fishing boats at a port on Rarotonga, the biggest of the 15 Cook Islands. They volunteered to help American marine biologist Jessica Cramp place underwater cameras to spot sharks. But first comes the messy task of making bait, as Cramp, a veteran National Geographic explorer, tells them the story of the 484-million-acre protected area.
In 2011 Cramp moved to the South Pacific islands, where the reefs teem with sharks, to help launch a campaign for the sanctuary. Eighteen months later it was law, with a minimum $73,000 fine levied on any boat found selling or transporting shark parts in the Cook Islands’ exclusive economic zone.
She now lives in a stilt house on Rarotonga, an island of jagged peaks encircled by a ring of white sand. It has a little more than 10,000 residents and two buses—one labeled “Clockwise” and the other “Anti-Clockwise”—that transport them on the road wrapping around the island.
Now Cramp plans to insert satellite tags into the backs of 28 sharks so she can follow their movements. Little is known about the region’s sharks, and Cramp wants to find out where and how far they’re traveling—vital data for designing better protections.
Wrangling Sharks for Science
Cramp loads a fish-filled cooler, shark hooks, and a carefully wrapped satellite tag onto the boat. Then she shows the teens the drill: how to attach a GoPro camera and bait stick to a device that will moor them to the ocean floor and how to log the GPS coordinates so they can pull it up later. For her research project tagging sharks, she explains, they’d hook the animal, rope it to the side of the boat, cut a slit at the base of its dorsal fin, and slide in a satellite tag. Then every time it broke the surface, Cramp would be able to follow the shark’s migration. The girls look horrified.
“It sounds brutal, but it’s going to give us information to make policies that protect them,” Cramp says. “One of the reasons we’re studying sharks is because they’re in trouble, and we want to know if the laws we have in the Cook Islands work.”
Before the sanctuary was created, a vessel could easily catch five or six sharks a day, says Josh Mitchell, who oversaw commercial fisheries for the Ministry of Marine Resources. His inspectors could smell ammonia, which seeps out of sharks’ skin, as soon as they boarded a boat. Often the crew would sell the fins in parts of Asia where shark-fin soup is a delicacy.
When the zero-tolerance policy went into force in 2012, the inspectors were relieved, Mitchell says, because it left no room for interpretation. Since then four boats have paid a total of $247,000 in fines (one lower fine was levied on a local boat).
A college professor once told Cramp that the best scientists spend their entire lives trying to disprove their own theories. So for three years Cramp has been crunching global data to evaluate whether large-scale protected areas like the one she helped design are keeping sharks alive. She hopes this information will instruct conservationists and lawmakers on developing more effective policies.
“I just know sharks are still dying within sanctuaries,” says Cramp. “And if they don’t work, then all the political will, all the kudos, all the momentum, is for nothing.”
She’s come to realize that even when the law seems absolute, there are gray areas. In multiple instances Cook Islands authorities haven’t fined a boat with shark parts on board because it was just passing through the nation’s waters or had entered to request medical assistance. (Look inside a shark feeding frenzy.)
Engaging the Community
Traditionally sharks were an animal guardian, a taura atua, to Cook Islanders. But to modern-day commercial fishermen, they’re the competition. Fishermen lure their catch with debris and rope that dangle under buoys a few miles offshore—but this also attracts hungry sharks. This has become a battlefield for Cramp’s conservation efforts. “The mentality here is, if you’re getting sharked, go catch a shark,” says a local skipper.
A few days before the camera-drop trip, Cramp stops by the port looking for bait. “You guys catching anything today?” she asks a group of fishermen gathered around a picnic table. “Seen any sharks?” The answer is no to both, but Cramp has heard that one of them recently killed a shark, and she confronts him. “It was messing with me!” he hollers back.
Cramp has a reputation in the port; fishermen call her the shark lady. She tries not to lecture this one about the kill—just say enough that it sticks in his head. “He will start to kill fewer sharks,” she says, “because he’ll feel bad.”
Later Cramp notes the long hours that go into community-centric research. “It would be a lot easier to fly in, do some research, and make it seem like I made a big difference,” she says. But in those cases “you leave with success and come back and nothing’s changed.” Instead she’s made getting local buy-in the backbone of her efforts—and that’s why she’s trying to inspire young Cook Islanders to pursue marine biology.
On boat rides to place and retrieve the GoPros, Cramp’s young helpers don’t see any sharks to tag. The next day they watch the GoPro footage: fish sucking on the bait stick, eels battling in front of the camera. Two hours in, Cramp spots something circling in the background: “There’s a shark!” High fives all around. “That was my camera drop,” Rongo says proudly.
Cramp keeps a short list in her head of young Cook Islanders with the interest and motivation to do this type of conservation and envisions someday passing her work on. Rongo and Smith, both high school seniors, are considering going to college for marine biology.
“Instead of saying, ‘I work in an office,’ you’d be like, ‘I’m a shark lady,’” Smith muses. “That’d be such a cool name to have.”
The reporting and photography on this assignment was supported by the new partnership that longtime allies Rolex and National Geographic formed in 2017. Its motto, “Committed to a Perpetual Planet,” reflects its mission: to promote conservation and exploration of Earth’s oceans, poles, and mountains. Learn more at nationalgeographic.com/environment/perpetual-planet.