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Seeing the world we fight to protect

If you ever come to the Zoo, chances are you are going to learn something about conservation and the natural world. Whether it be through signs you were interested in, a keeper or educator who happened to be around a habitat, or even formal presentations, our purpose is to educate you all about the world around you and how to protect it.

As team members of the Zoo, we share a passion for wildlife and enjoy getting out to see what we are teaching just as much as you do! Personally, nothing makes me happier than going off in the woods or swimming in a lake or ocean and seeing all the wonders that Earth as to offer. So, when the opportunity came up for me to fulfill a childhood dream of mine, I had to jump on it! I swam with sharks!

I took a trip down to Florida and was taken out to open water to free dive with these amazing creatures. I specifically went during hammerhead migration in hopes to swim with a hammerhead, but unfortunately, we only saw bull sharks. Nonetheless, it was incredible! I spent nearly an hour in the water watching them glide through the water like a bird in the sky. I observed them interacting with each other in almost a social hierarchy based on size. I witnessed how other fish utilize sharks as food sources by munching on the food the sharks may drop. I could clearly see how intelligent they were as they investigated the environment and even investigating me.

Now I know it sounds crazy; why would he do that? Also, there aren’t even sharks at the Zoo. Firstly, I have always been obsessed with the ocean and everything that comes with it. As soon I learned what a marine biologist was, I wanted to be one! And while there may not be sharks at the Zoo, sharks face many of the same crises that our terrestrial animals face on land. Misunderstood fear and over-hunting (or fishing) are perfect examples. Sharks are extremely misunderstood predators. Most shark incidents are cases of mistaken identity on the shark’s part. The human is doing something that makes them look like natural prey or it is murky water when the shark cannot rely on its eyesight. Bull sharks in particular, get an “aggressive” rep because of the higher frequency of incidents. However, this is likely due to the fact that bull sharks can inhabit murky waters and even venture into fresh waters, which puts them in contact with humans much more often. In some cases, they may be relying on their sense of hearing instead of sight which can allow them to mistake us as large prey. While I was in crystal clear water, they had no interest in me as a food source at all. It was clear that they were more cautious of me than anything.

Overfishing and accidental takes are also greatly reducing shark numbers. Many sharks are specifically targeted for their fins as a culinary delicacy or they are accidentally caught in fishing nets. Like all predators, they are crucial to a balanced ecosystem and must be protected.

Even if it’s not swimming with sharks, animal caretakers and conservationists love getting out in nature. When we venture out, it truly is seeing the fruits of our labor. I encourage all of you to take a moment to do this. It can be as simple as looking out window or walking down the street; it’s all around you. Use it as a reward for all the hard work you do to make the world better. Enjoy it!

Justin E.
Lead Keeper, Ambassador Animals

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl