Rachel Graham may be the shark's fiercest protector – an Oxford-educated biologist who isn't afraid to wrestle a bull shark into submission.
Credit: Photograph by Peter Bohler
I met graham in october. She travels much of the year, but Belize is home to her biggest research endeavor, the Belize Shark Project. After the Great Barrier Reef, Belize's Mesoamerican Reef is the world's largest coral reef, and just a generation ago it was teeming with sharks, from the tiny to the gargantuan. Within an hour of meeting her, I was carrying a 20-pound anchor through the dirty streets of San Pedro, Belize, to a dock, where the 38-foot boat that would be my home for the next week awaited. It was piloted by Chip Petersen, a local dive instructor and boat owner, and there was a crew of three Belizeans: William, Jomael, and Hilmar. They were all fishermen, but the local grouper, snapper, and lobster had been so overfished that they'd had months with nothing to do. Hilmar had just sold his fishing boat to fix a hole in his roof.

The Belizeans were onboard to learn how to tag sharks so Graham could expand the area she covers. In the spring, that has meant getting in the water and shooting spears with tracking devices into multi-ton whale sharks. (Graham says their skin is six inches thick, and typically they feel nothing.)

At other times of the year, it's slightly simpler. She puts together a crew and longlines for sharks. It isn't much different from the way the fishermen grab sharks: Fifty hooks are baited with barracuda and dropped in the ocean. The boat sits for 90 minutes, and then you start pulling in your line to see what you've caught. The big difference is that Graham lets the sharks go after tagging them and doesn't carve them into little pieces of meat filled with enough mercury to kill Jeremy Piven. (Like many fish with long life spans, sharks absorb mercury by gorging on toxic fish. Eighty percent of shark-meat samples tested by Graham were above recommended FDA consumption limits of methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin.) "These guys love doing this – it pays better than fishing, and it's less work," joked Graham. "Or at least they think it's less work."

We headed out to sea, and Graham pulled out a tackle box and a data sheet. The tackle box held the drill and the satellite tags; the sheet was a series of columns for shark species, length, sex, and health. Once a tag is applied, it bounces information off a satellite and sends it to Graham's laptop. When she's not out tagging, she sits down at her computer and tracks the progress of her sharks, which could be anywhere from the coast of Africa to the Gulf of Mexico.

Some sharks are solitary, peripatetic creatures, and so is Graham. While the sheer logistics of her operation mean Graham sets out with a crew, she's an army of one, just like the creatures she tracks. It's always been that way. She was the only child of a restless American photographer and a dutiful British wife. One of Graham's earliest memories is of taking the ferry from Italy to Tunisia and sleeping on deck with her parents. They lived in the old-town portion of Tunis, and most of Graham's childhood friends were locals. But her best friends were animals – 12 of them, at one point – with fish, guinea pigs, ducks, and rabbits among her favorites. Then her father left her mom, and they moved to Washington, D.C., where they lived in a ramshackle house that her mother got in the divorce settlement. Her mom didn't have a visa or much of a work background, but she worked her way into an NGO that helped set up programs in the Third World teaching women how to run their own businesses. She'd go on the road to Senegal, Yemen, Somalia, and Morocco, leaving Rachel home with a family friend, where she kept busy riding horses and collecting snakes.

Graham went to Oxford to study zoology, got her degree, and wandered for years. She taught English to local kids in Morocco, then moved back to the States because she thought she wanted to be a chiropractor. That didn't work out, so she ended up in Gaza, visiting her mom, who was working for the UN. She learned how to dive in the United Kingdom, but it was a diving trip to the slightly more exotic Red Sea that sold her on the water. She resisted at first, working on Latin-American environmental programs at the UN, which eventually got her to Guatemala, where she fell in love with a scientist who was starting up a fishery project in Belize. She went along on a dive one day and saw her first whale shark, bigger than a school bus, sliding through schools of snapper. She got out of the water and, for once, was at a loss for words. "I was just blown away," she says. "That was pretty much it."

She spent the next five years in Belize, charting sharks. The relationship didn't last, but the love of sharks did. She detoured to the University of York to get a Ph.D. in marine biology, in order to make fundraising easier, but she came straight back.

Along the way, Graham fell in love again and married a Belizean fisherman named Dan – and got a front-row look at the fishing trade. Graham argued that live sharks bring far more money to Belize than dead ones do, with an estimate that revenue from visitors going to certain marine reserves to see sharks is four times what the country would make harvesting them, not to mention that tourists are a renewable resource. Graham was eventually able to persuade her husband that overfishing was slitting his own throat, but she failed to convince old-timers like Dan's father.

"He blamed fishing decline on pollution, he blamed it on fish moving on, anything but the fishing," says Graham.

Her erstwhile father-in-law also taught her a lesson in the embedded animosity that fishermen have for sharks. One night, the family was out on a boat that capsized. Another boat came to their aid, and everyone had to swim just a few yards to the rescue boat. Dan's dad refused because of his fear of sharks.

"When we finally convinced him it was the only way, he put a big knife in his teeth and swam like a madman. That's when I knew I had a lot of work to do with the fishermen."

Part of the problem wasn't with the Belizeans, but with the Guatemalan fishermen, located a hundred miles away, who routinely parked off the Belizean coast. While Graham was able to convince the Belizeans that hunting sharks was counterproductive because many of the country's tourists were coming to snorkel and scuba dive with hopes of seeing a shark, the Guatemalans didn't care. They'd throw gill nets into the water and longline-fish for sharks, clearing 4,000 pounds in a night. They'd harvest some of the meat, ship it to Honduras and Mexico, and send the fins to China.

In the 15 years Graham has been on the scene, hammerheads have nearly disappeared from the area, and she attributes that to pure fisherman greed. A few years ago, Graham tagged four adult lemon sharks, each seven feet long, off the Belize coast. Soon after, all four sharks were captured by Guatemalan fishermen, who took them under the cover of night and transported them across the border. (Just one gave the satellite tag back, and that was only after Graham offered a reward.) She filed a report on the Guatemalan poaching for the Belizean government. Then she started hearing from fishermen that it would probably be a good idea if she never returned to Guatemala. Graham is divorced now and has primary custody of her boys. She worries about their safety when she's away. "You can predict how a shark's going to act and move," Graham told me. "But humans are different. I love Guatemala, but I've got kids. I just don't go there anymore."