Tuesday, 28 September 2010

September update - Bite back, looking forward and the gravy train...


It's been a manic few weeks and when I say manic, I mean MANIC! There has been charity balls, dying computers, video diaries, radio interviews, filming the trailer and a whole host of other exciting things so here is a bit of a run down of the last few weeks.

Last Saturday saw me returning to London for the Bite Back charity fundraising ball where I was part of the Cameras Underwater table and once again got to enjoy the hospitality and warmth afforded to me by Dave Glanfield who is truly one of life's good guys and who was kind enough to pay for my stay in the Strand Palace Hotel.

We were joined by Dave's lovely fiance Silvia and another of the Cameras Underwater team Paul Duxfield or "Duxy" as he is more commonly known. Duxy is a great guy and a well of technical knowledge on the subject of photography and film-making. What always strikes me about these guys is they really, really know their stuff and that's because they've been there and done it in the field, it's a huge pleasure to have them on board with "From the Office..."

The evening itself was fantastic, the food superb and the amount raised over the course of the night was a magnificent £11,500. Full credit to all the team at Bite Back who put in such a huge effort to raise money, not just for shark conservation but also the Marie Curie cancer charity, it is always heartening to see people putting their time and energy aside to support worthy causes and it was a pleasure to be in attendance.

The other big development this month is that filming for the trailer is now almost complete with only a couple more shots to film and I have already started editing with very pleasing results. You may ask how I can film a trailer for a film about sharks, a film which has not even had a frame shot yet, in an urban English city, you can also add on to that the fact there is no music yet and a computer which died at the precise moment editing was due to start and you will appreciate this is not an easy task, however, I am confident I have cracked it regarding the concept and I have an idea of the music also, which I will write and record. The footage is all in broadcast quality HD (thanks to Hamish kindly letting me use his camera which I am dreading having to return!) and the edit is really starting to take shape so I have high hopes. I am hoping for the finished version to be available to stream online within the next three weeks.

In regards to progress with the project as a whole, things are moving in the right direction. This blog for example is averaging around one hundred unique views every day, the website is seeing very positive traffic and meetings are being arranged all the time, there are preliminary discussions with some very high profile name organisations which I am hoping to take to the next step and I am gradually building greater media awareness of what I am doing. It is also positive to see the facebook group attracting increased numbers every day and due to requests on both that group and via email, I have now added an option to donate towards the cost of making the film, via paypal, to the website simply click on "The Project" then the link to "Contribute."

It is somewhat overwhelming to hear that ordinary people, people just like me, want to contribute in some way to the cost of this first film. People really want to see it and the feedback both on the facebook page, this blog and via email is really giving me the strength to push on and make this happen despite the obvious difficulties one encounters when without a regular income of note. I have committed to, in the event the full cost is covered by corporate sponsorship or funding, donating the full amount raised by the kind people who have so far donated, to a shark charity and a charity that works to help disadvantaged youths in inner city areas.

It puts into perspective then, the general apathy from some people already within the conservation and shark based diving industry, including some with a high media profile and those who purport to make ethical shark based films with an emphasis on fact and conservation. We have the individual who was insistent the concept of an ordinary working class man risking everything to pursue a lifelong dream was already covered because Monty Halls lived in a cottage in Scotland for a few weeks (good programme but insert laughing smiley here...) and the delightful person who informed me that if they wanted to steal my idea they would and there would be nothing I could do about it (my lawyer friend begs to differ...). 

There are also the people within the industry I want to work in, people for whom I have great respect for the work they do but are seemingly averse to a simple reply to an email. Make no mistake about it, people make a living out of working with sharks and even the conservation of sharks and the marine environment, there isn't a great deal of money in the industry though so is it a case of those already in the "inner circle" being afraid of having to share their bit of the pie with someone who isn't in their social scene? Puts a bit of a downer on things really doesn't it, particularly when the in-fighting, petty squabbles and cliquishness threatens to detract focus on what is actually important, i.e. the conservation and ethical treatment of sharks through informed film production and eco-tourism for example.

The gravy train certainly exists, as it does within every industry and as is usually the case, does very little, if any good. It's all very well bombarding us with petitions to sign and reminders of your latest documentary film etc but where you can do the most good is to inspire a feeling of community and one which supports the efforts of others to do some good in your chosen field, affording opportunities for enthusiastic individuals to make the most of their potential. When I was eight I wrote to Valerie Taylor and guess what she did, she replied straight away. This continued for a few years, she even sent me a pressing of one of her books and that explains why I am here today, doing this, it made me feel like it was possible to achieve my ambitions because the number one person in my chosen field told me I could. 

I have received probably around one hundred emails in the last two months from people who feel a kinship with what I am doing, one from a girl in America even said reading my blog had made her rethink her decision to give up trying for a career in diving and that she would keep going until she achieved her dream! I appreciate that I won't receive the volume of emails they do but nevertheless, I have replied to every single one of the emails I have received, it might mean staying up until the early hours but it's common courtesy isn't it? With regards to the shark gravy train, I will make it very clear that if I am successful with all this and force my way on there, I'll be opening the doors for others like me to do the same..."There goes the neighbourhood!"

Okay some other bits and pieces...The Dive Show in Birmingham is fast approaching, October 30th/31st to be precise and I'll be there on the Cameras Underwater stand with my own little section, please come and say hello! There will be a video diary coming soon as well as the promised "Shark feeding controversy special" and the videos don't stop there! In 2009, for a bit of a laugh really, I made a feature length video diary type film of my (rather eventful) trip to film Oceanic Whitetip Sharks in Egypt and due to persistent requests will be uploading said film in sections, to the youtube page, keep an eye out for that.

At the moment my focus is on finishing this trailer (I shouldn't really be doing a blog but it feels like ages so what the hell!) so as soon as that is finished, you can be sure I will make you aware of it and would appreciate if you could spread it far and wide on my behalf!

Homelessness is also fast approaching so if you think you can help, maybe there is an email in your inbox from me, or you might be able to offer services of some respect, printing, promotion, design etc, please feel free to contact me! This isn't manufactured television reality, this is actual cold, smelly and difficult reality so any act of kindness or benevolence, no matter how small you think it is, is always humbly and gratefully appreciated.

I'd like to give a shout as well to Mark Thorpe and www.idivesharks.com it's a great site, kind of like facebook but for people who love sharks and shark diving and without endless status updates about what people have just had for tea! Also, Cameras Underwater don't let the website put you off (it will be totally revamped soon by all accounts) if you are in the market for underwater camera equipment or even if you just want advice, look no further than these guys. Do I get paid to advertise them? Unfortunately not but if I did I'd be in Fiji now, these guys are the dog's dangly bits.

Stay safe, be nice to each other and feel free to email me direct or comment on this blog, I love hearing from you!

Friday, 10 September 2010

Blog request - Shark Conservation

Since I started all this I have received a lot of support from people all around the world, I have made new friends and received kindness and encouragement from people who relate to my story, either because of a shared love for sharks or the desire to get out and do something worthwhile with the gift of life we have been given.

I've said from the off, this is as much about people as it is about sharks and I thought it would be nice to give people the chance to suggest related topics for me to blog, I posted this suggestion on the facebook group (if you haven't already look it up, "From the Office to the Ocean") and quickly received a number of suggestions so here we are, number one in a series of requests.

A good friend of mine, Tom, has asked that I explain the details as to why shark conservation is such an important issue as, during a conversation with his girlfriend, he realised he knew very little about the ins and outs of what is a complicated subject.

So, why is shark conservation so important?

Every separate eco-system is populated with a chain of organisms that operate together, naturally, meaning the "whole" can maintain successful balance, thus ensuring a healthy environment in which all the organisms in the chain can prosper. Imagine each of these eco systems as a jigsaw piece, fix all the pieces together and you have a successful planet.

Of course, in order for each species to "operate" in the manner nature intended, it is imperative that an animal species population does not explode or alter it's behaviour to a degree where its increased number affects everything else in the chain. My friend, Jenna, is insistent that I am unable to explain anything to anybody without using an analogy of some sort...she's right as well so here goes!

Think of an eco-system as a car engine. The engine is built using various parts, fixed together in certain ways so that when petrol is added, the process starts whereby each part of the engine can then do it's job, working together, meaning your car starts to move. Your end goal is to drive your car, you need all it's parts to work together to make that happen.

What would happen if you removed some parts of the engine, put too much oil in or heaven forbid, put diesel in a petrol engine? Would your car work properly, if at all? Would it explode in a ball of flames?

It's a highly simplified analogy but one which illustrates the importance of even the smallest of components in any form of engineered or biological creation.

In every biological eco-system, there is a natural order, more commonly referred to as the food chain. Some unfortunate creature, usually the smallest, has to find itself propping up this chain, it's the vegetarian and it seems that everything else wants to eat it. Sounds a bit unfair really doesn't it but this is the clever bit, for every animal that wants to eat the tiny vegetarian, is an animal that wants to eat that animal and so on and so on until we reach the top guy, nothing messes with him, he's bigger, stronger, more aggressive and usually has really big teeth...Nothing eats him, he is what is referred to as the "Apex Predator."

The role of the Apex Predator in any eco-system is, it can be argued, the most important of all because he makes sure all the animals between him and the tiny vegetarian do not get out of control meaning an animal in the chain gets so overpopulated it devours everything in it's natural diet, removing the predators of the smaller animals meaning they grow in number, devouring everything below them and so on, until only a handful of the chain is left but they don't have anything left to eat because they've eaten it all...you can see where this ends up I presume. Ironically, the biggest, strongest, most aggressive animal in the chain, ensures the survival of everything below it, right down to the bottom of the chain, in fact, he is the vegetarian's greatest ally. Again this is a simple explanation of highly complex biodiversity but it works for this purpose.

Good examples of Apex Predators are the lion, tiger, polar bear, crocodile and of course, the oldest of them all, the most feared of all and the most iconic of them all, the Great White Shark.

Large predatory sharks are the undisputed masters of their domain. Adult Great White, Tiger, Bull and Oceanic Whitetip Sharks have an armoury of weapons which ensure they can do what they do without fear of becoming prey for another animal, unless it's another, bigger shark of course or on rare occasions, Orca.

Bare this in mind, sharks have been around longer than trees, more than 400 million years. When the oceans were created and life evolved within, they needed an apex predator, that apex predator became the large prehistoric sharks, the most famous of which was Carchardon Megalodon, the Great White's older, much bigger, brother. Since there has been widespread marine life on earth, even in its most primitive form, there has been sharks, the only animal to have survived five separate periods of extinction and they're still here...but only just.

Everybody has heard that sharks are attracted to blood, vibrations in the water and like to eat vulnerable juicy fish and mammals but why is this? One of the key roles undertaken by our finned friends is to eliminate the sick and dying in our oceans, sharks love nothing more than an easy, nutritious meal and in doing so, stop the oceans turning into a garbage dump of rotting, dead bodies which in turn causes bacteria which can lead to disease and let's face it, would you want the rain that soaks you to come from a giant cesspool of rotting animal carcasses? I didn't think so...

Another vital, yet less discussed role sharks have, is to keep the gene pool of marine animals strong. Believe it or not, sharks keep animals alive by eating them! That obviously doesn't make sense upon first view but I'll explain. By eating the weaker, sick, genetically inferior individuals of a species, the shark is picking out weak links in the genetic chain meaning the animals they eat, seals for example, who make it to sexual maturity are the smarter, quicker, more agile individuals who then pass their strong, smart genes onto their young, via a willing female. This strong chain of genes means the animals that are breeding are the ones that actually have a chance of creating more animals who stand a chance of avoiding the business end of a shark long enough to make yet more babies and so on. Clever isn't it! Schooling behaviour, camouflage, defence mechanisms, all these behaviours of every marine animal has been influenced by sharks.

As you can see, sharks play a vital role in the health of the oceans, what is it that depends most on the top of a food chain? The bottom of the food chain and in the case of the ocean, the bottom of the food chain is responsible for the oxygen you breathe and the atmosphere of our planet, you don't really want to be messing around with that.
The animals at the top of the food chain are, let's face it, cool. Sharks, lions, tigers, crocodiles, they kick ass right? What's not brilliant about being one of these bad boys?

Unfortunately, there is one big problem with apex predators, they live in a very competitive, rough world and if there were too many of them, they'd eat everything, the food chain would collapse and everything would die which is, in anybody's book, a proverbial fly in the planet's ointment. To combat this, nature ensures that apex predators give birth to few young and that's after waiting years to reach sexual maturity.

If we take the example of the Great White, he's born and although larger than a lot of fish at around two to four feet in length, there are still plenty of bigger fish, including older Great White Sharks who wouldn't think twice about eating him. Junior has to spend the first few years of his life avoiding bigger sharks, learning to hunt fish and other smaller sharks until he's old enough to start having a go at seals and sea lions. As prey goes, pinnipeds (the aforementioned seals and sea lions) are a different ball game all together, fast, agile and clever, Junior better get good at catching them because if he doesn't he's had it. Assuming our young friend manages to get the hang of this pinniped catching business, he's now coming up to the surly, moody teenager stage and about 2.5 - 3.5 metres in length, he spends the first stages of adolescence gorging on blubber rich mammals and learning, sometimes the hard way, that the bigger, older sharks eat first.

Junior is now in his mid to late teens and if he's anything like I was, he's got one thing on his mind and that's the ladies. It's not that easy though because as most ladies will tell you, they often prefer a more mature, stronger male with whom to do the business so he's got to fight his way to the front of the queue somehow and show he's up to the task. It's a good job he's a big strapping lad and he manages it but now he's got to hope his new girlfriend can survive the twelve months she's carrying his pups or it will all be for nothing and he has to do it all again in eighteen months to two years, presuming he's still around then.

So our young friend has had to combat other sharks wanting to eat him, faster prey than him that doesn't want to be eaten by him, bigger sharks warning him to stay away "or else..." and the most dangerous dating scene in the ocean, waiting sometimes up to twenty years just to get his end away and hopefully make some babies of his own! This doesn't even take into account genitally challenged "sport" fishermen, longlines, the floating death traps that are damaged commercial fishing nets, the Chinese, or anti-shark nets, in which the majority of sharks, approximately 90%, are caught inside the netting area meaning they have been swimming amongst bathers and have been caught when trying to return to the open ocean, but hey, I guess we need our shark fins from somewhere right? Yep, I went there...

So what have we learned? In short, that sharks are responsible for ensuring the oceans maintain a healthy balance meaning the oxygen you breathe is coming from a healthy source so in simple terms, not enough sharks means what you rely on to live is being messed with in a very, very dangerous way.

Sharks have a very dangerous enemy, one which doesn't harvest, it devastates, its only intention is seemingly to take every single last living animal on the planet and sell a tiny portion of it's overall mass for large sums of money. This enemy, for arguments sake we'll call it "China," really has it in for sharks. The reason? so they can use their fins to add texture and the cancer causing chemical, mercury, to a bowl of pork or chicken soup, yummy. It is a glib remark above, that which places the blame solely on China, indeed some of the very worst offenders in this mafia funded, blood soaked trade, include Spain, France, America and the UK, however, the fins are provided for what is an Asian delicacy, if shark fin soup did not exist, sharks would not be harvested solely for their fins to the tune of an estimated 40 - 100 million every year. The "culture" excuse doesn't wash with me either, if that were the case, lets bring back slavery, institutionalised murder, rape, torture, incest and all the other groovy cultures that have been eradicated from civilised society yes?

The commercial harvesting of sharks in the last thirty five or so years has led to over one third of all shark species being listed as endangered to critically endangered. Shark fin, shark cartilage and squaline (ladies, check your make up and see if you're smearing dead shark all over your mush) are all by-products of an unsustainable marine annihilation which, if left to continue as it is, will eradicate many shark species and could realistically be the thing that does us all in once and for all, for a bowl of soup, some make up or a cancer cure which doesn't even work because, surprise, surprise sharks do get cancer.

I saw a brilliant T-Shirt the other day which said something along the lines of "Only when we have eaten the last remaining fish on earth and there are no more, will we realise you can't eat money" and it's hit the nail on the head. Organised shark diving operations make more money for local communities than commercial fishing and rely on healthy shark populations. The ocean is healthier, shark numbers can increase and indigenous people make money and can live better lives, what's not to like about that!?

I'm going to put it in the simplest terms. We need a healthy ocean to survive, a healthy ocean needs plenty of sharks. There isn't anywhere near plenty of sharks anymore.

The final thing I will say is that the shark is an icon, sharks are mysterious, beautiful and enigmatic, nature at it's most fascinating and awesome best, do you want to live in a world where you explain to your children that we robbed them of the chance to see these most amazing of animals so some rich people can have some poisonous texture in their chicken soup?

If it's good enough for Slash then it's good enough for you!

If you want advice on how you can help, visit www.officetoocean.com and go to "The Project" and click on "Shark Conservation" and "Name and Shame"

By the way, I will be appearing on the radio tomorrow, Friday 10th, between 4-6pm UK time. The show can also be streamed online from here!

Tom, I hope that's answered your question!