November 29, 2020

Connecting with Sharks

Tom Foster

I’m Tom Foster, and the experiences that I’ve had in the Great African Sea Forest have shaped and changed my life to the extent that I wouldn’t know what life is without it. In this underwater forest, my greatest teachers have been the sharks. From ones not bigger than my forearm, like the puffadder shyshark, to the prehistoric 3 meter-long seven-gill cow sharks. All of them have invoked a deep sense of gratitude and love within me.

My love for these creatures started when my dad, Craig Foster, took me diving in the sea every single weekend, and together we tried to learn the complex language of the ocean. A few dives in, a certain shy shark decided to show itself to 6-year-old me. Skimming along the bottom, it looked to me like a streamlined UFO cruising through the water column. When I learnt to dive down to the bottom, without scaring creatures away, I observed these fascinating creatures and fell in love with them.

Tom Foster exploring the kelp forest as a young boy with his father, Craig Foster.
During this time I also encountered two other species of shark; the pyjama shark (otherwise known as the striped catshark) and the spotted gully shark. The pyjama shark, named so for its distinctive striped back grows to about 1,5 meters in length, and is built of pure muscle! They are notorious octopus predators and have a powerful sense of smell which they use to search for the masters of disguise. They remain my favourite shark to this day, although the two-meter gully sharks are a close second/third due to their elegance.
The many sharks of The Great African Seaforest. Photos by Craig Foster and Ross Frylinck.
One incredible experience that will always stick with me was when two pyjama sharks were gliding around, not minding me in the slightest. One of them turned towards me in the shallow area that I was in, and did what I least expected it to – it swam into my arms! It allowed me to hold it, not even vaguely trying to swim away. If this wasn’t remarkable enough, a second one came over and nestled right next to the first, seeming as comfortable as ever. And so it was that I found myself as a young boy with two pyjama sharks under each arm.
Tom Foster as a young boy experiencing a moment in which two pajama sharks swam into his arms.

The sharks that I learnt the most from were the broadnose sevengill sharks. These incredible creatures, who are around three meters long, glide through the water as if they are elephants who just happened to have evolved to live underwater! They are particularly unique in that most sharks have 5 gill slits, however, as the name implies, these sharks have two additional gills. Ancient in appearance, it’s not hard to see that these sharks are related to some of the oldest sharks in the fossil record, dated at between 200 and 145 million years ago.

Besides looking like living fossils, these sharks get the cool description of being the wolves of the sea. They were named so, after their predation strategy which sees them hunt in packs to take down large seals, dolphins and sometimes even whales. Knowing this as a small human might seem frightening but as I observed these massive animals, I came to appreciate the feelings they gave to me, like care and calmness. This taught me that no matter how big or scary something seems, there is always a side that can be understood, as long as enough time is given to experience and learn about it safely.

As I became accustomed to them, and them to me, I started to feel a sort of acceptance from them. A few passed close to me as I clung to the kelp 8 metres down. I stretched out my hand to some as they were passing, ever so slowly brushing my hand along their rough skin. This seems crazy to most people, but over time the feeling that I experienced while in the water with them was only one of love and acceptance, not harmful in any way.

The broadnose sevengill shark is an impressive creature to see moving through the kelp canopy.
Amongst other things, sharks have taught me how to appreciate the natural world in a way I didn’t know before, and I am wholly indebted to them for it! To suggest that sharks taught me how to live an aspect of my life sounds quite odd, but it is the truth. I hope that everyone finds something in the natural world that teaches them something about themselves the same way sharks have taught me something about myself.
All photos by Craig Foster unless otherwise stated.
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