Kiwi wrangles sharks with renowned explorer Mike Horn

Kiwi wrangles sharks with renowned explorer Mike Horn

It's no wonder sharks are one of the most feared creatures of the waters, with movies such as Jaws and The Shallows, not to mention numerous reports of surfers, swimmers or divers being mauled.

But despite being apex predators, they're at serious risk, even in their own habitat.

Aucklander Shruthi Vijayakumar was the only Kiwi to join renowned explorer and environmentalist Mike Horn for a trip in South Africa earlier this month to catch and tag sharks, clean beaches, and learn about the animals' effect in the ecosystem.

"I think one of the highlights was definitely holding the shark - and often I was the one with the pipe feeding it with water, so it could keep breathing while we took the data we needed," Ms Vijayakumar told Newshub.

The 24-year-old was one of 10 young people from across the world who took part in Horn's Shark Awareness project in Capetown.

It was a team picked from people who he had worked with in previous programmes - Ms Vijayakumar went to the Amazon with him several years ago and says he's a "crazy explorer".

"And it was really just the most crazy, life-changing experience to be in that environment, but also be really pushed and challenged by Mike, and really learn about the importance of nature and what we can do about it."

But in October it wasn't about the rainforest. It was about the ocean, and the team got incredibly up close with the sharks, fishing them up to tag, take samples, and release them.

"The first few sharks we brought on deck I was standing back with a few others, watching in a bit of nervousness and a bit of anticipation," Ms Vijayakumar said. It was the negative media perception of them that held her back.

"Absolutely [I was afraid], from the moment I applied to take part," she said. "There are a lot of fears and I even wrote in my application, 'I too am scared of sharks so I hope this experience will help me overcome that and share a positive message about them'.

"But to be up so close, it really made me respect and awe them in such a beautiful way, that was quite a highlight."

Most of the sharks they wrestled were around two metres long and the biggest was a pregnant female at 2.5 metres.

She was so big they had to let her go and get a bigger net before trying to drag her back onto the boat.

"It was just a moment of, 'Are we really going to be able to handle this shark of this size on deck?'," Ms Vijayakumar said.

But they managed to get her on board and tag her.

"[There was] a moment of nervousness and fear, but quickly replaced by excitement," Ms Vijayakumar said.

The experience taught the Aucklander sharks are just like any other fish trying to do their best in the ocean, and don't deserve their bad reputation.

"One of the really interesting things I learnt actually was sharks being apex predators of the ecosystem basically - if we keep fishing them in the way we are, it means the fish below them in the food chain, there's too many of them and it kind of messes up the whole ecosystem."

In the food chain, sharks are pretty much at the top when it comes to the water. But when they're being fished up, finned and dumped, their numbers go down.

It throws all the other fish out of whack and ultimately can even affect the air we breathe.

"The oceans provide two-thirds of the oxygen we breathe, so directly by fishing sharks we're having an impact on the oxygen you and I breathe every day [by disrupting the ecosystem]," Ms Vijayakumar said.

"To kind of really realise the interconnectedness of everything, and to see how sharks and fish and humans interplay and are so reliant on each other was certainly a huge learning that was new and quite amazing."

Having herself overcome the ingrained fear sharks can bring, Ms Vijayakumar wants to see more people try and learn about them and appreciate them.

"I think from that space of appreciation and respect, naturally we'll want to look after them and do our bit to take care of sharks but also everything in our ecosystem," she said.

"A huge challenge that sharks face is just the incredible amount of fishing and finning that happens. It's huge and horrific - the way humans bring these sharks on board, cut their fin and let them out again.

"Just being in the water reminded me of how perfect nature really is, and if we can kind of let it be and learn from it, our world would actually become a much more sustainable place."