Warning: Some images contain graphic content.
Bathed in brilliant light, she emerged out of the blue.
Deliberate in her movements and resolute in her focus, this magnificent predator swam straight toward me. As she swiftly closed the distance between us, I was captivated by her striking features: powerful, protruding jaws with rows of formidable teeth; sleek, iridescent skin covering a robust, muscular body; triangular and rigid dorsal fin; a powerful tail adapted to propel her through the water at astonishing speed. Here I was, a vulnerable human being, suspended in the path of this awe-inspiring creature.
Most people don’t get to spend time in the company of sharks for a living — especially large “predatory” sharks like the mako. This is why it may be difficult to let go of the deep-seated fear, even hatred, that inaccurate portrayals in news, movies, and TV shows have instilled in us for so long.
Mako sharks are in deep trouble.
Primarily hunters of fish that live out in the open ocean — like the commercially valuable tuna and the marlin — mako’s primary prey is heavily targeted by massive industrial fishing fleets. Unfortunately, when these boats lower their vast longlines, with thousands of razor-sharp hooks, it is not only their intended targets that are attracted. These longlines indiscriminately lure and catch a variety of other vulnerable marine life enticed by the opportunity for an easy meal. Far too often, this includes mako.
Once a mako shark has bitten the hook intended for its prey, it is nearly impossible for it to escape. Hoisted out onto the deck of the boat, often still alive, these sharks could in theory be returned safely to sea. However, strong demand for their prized fins and meat continues to drive commercial fisheries to kill and retain them. It is distressing to imagine, but it is not uncommon for the valuable fins to be cut away before the dismembered sharks are thrown back into the water alive. No longer able to swim, they sink helplessly to their deaths and slowly suffocate.
Over the past three decades, working as a diver and underwater photographer, I have been fortunate to spend time in the open water with some of the ocean’s most iconic sharks — tiger sharks, bull sharks, oceanic whitetips, great hammerheads, and even great whites. But one species had always eluded me: that most formidable predator, the mako.
The first encounter
Back in the bracing waters off the coast of Auckland, New Zealand, this was about to change.
With less than three feet between us, her rapid approach suddenly slowed. I held my breath, my knuckles white as I gripped my camera tightly. Then, in what felt like slow motion, she glided up to me, her intelligent eyes locking momentarily onto mine as her nose gently brushed across my camera dome. My pounding heart skipped a beat, and my fear was transformed. I felt only awe. Overcome, adrenaline still coursing through my veins, I was filled with deep appreciation and the utmost respect for this impressive predator.
My guide that day was Riley Elliott, a local shark scientist and conservationist. An hour earlier, it had seemed foolish for us to even consider entering the water.
I still get goosebumps when I recall that moment. I was standing on the swim step, camera in hand and ready to capture a “split shot,” when a mako turned and charged directly at me. Launching out of the water to land her head on the swim step, her razor-sharp teeth came within inches of my toes. Clumsily, I staggered back and was immediately reminded why these sharks have earned such a fearsome reputation. Exercising patience and drawing on Riley’s deep experience, we persevered and allowed this curious creature to become more comfortable with our presence.
Eventually, when Riley had signaled it was time, we dropped into the water.
I am in no way immune to feeling trepidation at the prospect of meeting a big, powerful predator in the flesh, and something about coming face-to-face with the fastest shark in the sea — capable of propelling itself forward at 18.8 meters per second — had triggered an unresolved, primal fear buried deep inside me. Earlier, Riley had told me that the mako’s sheer power and unmatchable speed allows it to jump up to nine meters out of the water.
After the thrill of that first heart-pounding approach was over — when the mako lightly touched my camera equipment — I knew this shark was capable of seriously injuring me or worse, but that was not her intention. Between 1580 and 2017, only nine shortfin mako attacks on humans have been documented, and most modern attacks are considered to have been provoked while the sharks were being hunted for sport or food.
She was behaving in the way that millions of years of evolution had conditioned her to act: establishing her territory, investigating my alien presence, and determining whether I was a competitive predator or potential prey. Deciding that I was neither, she settled down and graced us with hours of breathtaking interactions. Over several days an intelligent, curious, and cautious animal revealed itself — giving me one of the most illuminating and memorable experiences of my life.
Blood in the water
The name “mako” comes from the indigenous Māori language — meaning either “the shark” or “shark tooth” — and the mako has an ancient presence in Māori tradition. I have since had the privilege of spending time with a Māori community in New Zealand, learning from them and slowly coming to understand more about the deep relationship Māori have with the sea.
This expedition to film mako was triggered by a proposal led by the government of Mexico and submitted to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to add shortfin and longfin mako sharks to its list of protected species. One of the largest and oldest international conservation agreements in existence, CITES aims to ensure that international trade of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of those species in the wild. Since coming into force in 1975, this agreement has afforded critical protection to tens of thousands of vulnerable species. The international CITES conference — held only once every three years at a location chosen by secret ballot vote at the end of the previous conference — brings together more than 180 countries to vote on the fates of countless wild species. Winning these votes is far from guaranteed, so I jumped at the opportunity to help secure this protection for the mako.
I say “live” because I have sadly been witness to uncountable dead mako. My work has taken me to ports and markets across the globe, and at each stop I have witnessed the same tragic story unfolding for mako sharks: precipitous population declines, the disappearance of mature and breeding adults, and intensified efforts to catch the last remaining individuals. Mako are especially vulnerable to overexploitation because it takes a female at least 18 years to reach sexual maturity, and once they do, they may only give birth to between 4 and 16 pups every 18 months — if they survive the walls of longlines that riddle their passage.
I know it can be hard to even read about this, but my stomach churns every time I think of the blood-soaked floors, the fins hacked off and stacked in piles before they are taken by the truckload to processing facilities, where they are dried and funneled into the international shark fin trade — a network tightly controlled by powerful industry barons. In the pungent dried seafood markets of Hong Kong, shark fin traders have even told me that the value and demand for mako fins has significantly increased in recent years as their fins have become more scarce.
Through the striking imagery Riley and I captured in New Zealand, I desperately hoped to give mako a voice and help reshape the misperceptions surrounding these vulnerable and heavily exploited animals. I knew it would be a huge task. Politically influential “hold-out” countries attending CITES with conflicting agendas were highly likely to cast their vote against the mako. Somehow, by joining forces with advocates around the globe, we needed to convince these decision-makers to change their vote.
We needed people to see mako in a new, compassionate light.
A collective conservation victory
In the weeks leading up to the CITES conference — this time held in Geneva, Switzerland — our team worked tirelessly around the clock to help maintain an international spotlight on the mako. We ran concerted campaigns on social media, as well as in national and international news, and continued with our efforts to shine a light on these magnificent animals and the cruel threats they face. Many of our images and stories focused on showing the mako in all their glory, thriving in their natural habitat as part of a healthy marine environment. The way it should be.
As the day of the vote drew closer, I found myself reflecting on the series of incredible and intense events that had brought me, six years earlier, to Bangkok, Thailand, to attend my first CITES conference. That year, we had been there for manta rays — a truly surreal experience, with these vast international votes usually taking place in a cavernous hall, row after row of national representatives ready to cast their votes in real time, while members of the media, and nonprofit organizations like ourselves, can only watch and wait.
On August 28, 2019, the mako’s moment of reckoning finally arrived.
This time I was, for once, at home in Boulder, Colorado. I remember standing by, heart pounding and eyes glued to my phone, desperately reloading my messenger, as word came that CITES delegates were about to vote on the proposal to protect the mako.
Then, as if to reassure me, another memory took over: my first encounter with the female mako off the coast of New Zealand. If I closed my eyes I could see it once again. Her graceful approach, her dark, curious eyes as we locked gazes. It had taken 60 million years of evolutionary perfection to create this formidable and intelligent predator. Everything had built up to this moment. Twenty-seven countries* from different regions of the world plus the European Union had already publicly supported the mako sharks proposal. And although an incredible 50,000 concerned global citizens had signed the petition calling for urgent protection for mako, I could not help asking myself, had we done enough?
Then those beautiful words appeared on my screen.
“THE MAKO PROPOSAL HAS PASSED!!!”
The tension and uncertainty suddenly became a rush of adrenaline and complete elation. I could not believe it. All of the work by our team along with a coalition of passionate organizations and individuals across the globe had succeeded against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Working in a global coalition of organizations — including Blue Sphere Foundation, SeaLegacy, Lonely Whale, Vulcan, Wildlife Conservation Society, Pew Charitable Trusts, Humane Society International, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Professional Association of Diving Instructors, Nakawe Project, and others — we had harnessed the power of striking and intimate imagery to help people see a previously feared, even reviled, creature in a new light. Various countries, including the US and Japan, still opposed the measure to protect mako sharks. But Canadian ministers Jonathan Wilkinson and Catherine McKenna were just two of the critical delegates whose votes we helped change from “no” to “yes” in support of the mako.
It was not the first campaign to succeed in this way, and it certainly will not be the last. I am so grateful to each and every one of you who signed that petition. The importance of CITES securing protection for mako sharks cannot be overstated. This designation is a vital step in affording the management and protection mako desperately need to survive and recover. It was a conservation victory, but more than that, it was a collective victory. When we as people organize ourselves and combine our voices to protect parts of broad ecosystems, we can create a monumental difference and better universal outcomes for the future.
Rewriting the future
Now we need to keep fighting for wins like this one. Not only giving each and every creature in our ocean — predator and prey alike — the respect they deserve as unique and highly evolved beings in their own right, but so that we can manage our planet’s collective marine resources to help both nature and people thrive. If we do, the ocean will be able to continue to give back to humans, and to all life on Earth, for millennia to come.
Together, we can decide enough is enough. We can speak up and demand that we find ways to end exploitative overfishing, to shut down the illegal wildlife trade that was the catalyst for the devastating Covid-19 pandemic — which has disproportionately affected some communities more than others, as has been the case with Black, Latinx, and Indingenous communities in the US — and to reverse all of the shortsighted practices that have landed us in the current global biodiversity crisis. In this moment and in the years ahead, we must do better to address racial inequity and corporate hegemony that impact on well-being and prevent us from achieving environmental health on land and in the ocean.
Approximately every seven and a half minutes, we lose another remarkable example of evolution to extinction. I find it so painful to tell this to my children. When they grow up, I want them to be able to meet the masterful and magnificent mako; to float, full of wonder, above the dazzling colors of a coral reef; and to encounter a giant manta ray, the angel of the sea.
But this is a moment of hope, not despair.
The ocean has shown itself to be remarkably resilient, if only we give it a little time and space to breathe and to recover. Together, we can raise our voices as one, and take a decisive stand for nature, for the health of our planet, and for the future of all species on Earth.
*Bangladesh, Benin, Bhutan, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Gabon, Gambia, Jordan, Lebanon, Liberia, Maldives, Mali, Mexico, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Palau, Samoa, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Togo.