To Catch (and Release) a Predator With Rachel Graham

Photograph by Peter Bohler

The boat is pitching and reeling when the Shark Lady picks up her power drill. A Shaq-size monster is banging the shit out of the side of our vessel. There are eight onboard, but six of us are rookies – we know not what to do. Only the Shark Lady is certain. She barks orders at the men.

“Get a rope around him. Now roll him over. Now grab his ding-dong! No, grab his other ding-dong. Yeah, that’s right. Watch how docile he gets. Just like a man. He’s entering tonic immobility.”

The guys do as they’re told, and the shark is brought parallel to the boat. Rachel Graham reaches into the water and grabs the first dorsal fin of a seven-foot-long, 300-pound Caribbean reef shark. She flips on the drill. A high-pitched whine cuts through the duller sound of whitecaps slapping our boat a couple miles off the coast of Belize. The drill burrows into keratin, sending up a fine mist of eau de shark. Our aquatic friend is not amused. He regurgitates his stomach. This won’t do. The Shark Lady pushes the white lining back into the shark’s mouth like a magician disappearing a hankie.

That’s when the shark makes pleading, beady eye contact with me. Sharky, don’t look at me like that! I am not Ishmael; I am Stephen, secret puker and scarfer of Dramamine. I cannot help you. Besides, this is for your own good. Just ask the Shark Lady.

Maybe i shouldn’t call Rachel Graham the Shark Lady. Sounds reductive and sexist, even if she is the one who taught me that male sharks have two penises. Mom raised me better. The Shark Lady is a serious person: She went to Oxford, rowed crew, and has a Ph.D. in marine biology. She’s got two boys, once swam through a giant cloud of whale-shark shit, and has no problem taking a piss off the side of the boat in front of her all-male crew. And Graham isn’t drilling sharks for some weird fetish – she is giving them satellite tags so she can see where they go, what they eat, and, most important, what she can do to keep them alive.

OK, she is definitely the Shark Lady. But Graham doesn’t really mind what you call her. What I’m worried about is that she will be pissed about me describing a harmless Caribbean reef shark as a monster. That’s what got the poor sharks into their current conundrum, tarted up as mass murderers on TV, hunted for sport by fat guys on Caribbean benders, and harvested for their fins so some rich Chinese guy can serve shark-fin soup at his daughter’s blowout Beijing wedding.

Some eco groups suggest that as many as 73 million sharks are killed globally every year. Hammerheads, blue sharks, mako sharks – they’re disappearing, and they ain’t coming back.

Unless activists like Graham have a say. Most of Graham’s life is now spent trying to reverse the damage that has already been done. She tells me that because sharks are almost all cartilage, there are no skeletons to recover and study. Basic information about their lives still eludes scientists.

“We don’t even know how long they gestate – no idea,” explains Graham. “We can’t save them if we don’t know where they go and how they live.”

Graham is trying to solve the mystery by tagging sharks and following their travels. Some of the information falls into the arcane: She has learned that pregnant female reef sharks spend more time closer to the reefs feeding than do males. Other data is more depressing: Baseline surveys she’s taken since 2006 indicate that Belize has few sharks overall, compared with relatively underfished sites in more remote parts of the Pacific. The primary cause is overfishing, first by Belizean fishers and then by fishers from neighboring countries. Similar problems are depleting sharks across the globe.

One night, we’re having dinner at a restaurant on Caye Caulker, a spit of a Belizean island not far from where we cruised for sharks earlier in the day. Before we sit down, Graham points out that the chef is grilling endangered bonefish. Graham is close to six feet tall, 46 years old, with massive guns and kind blue eyes that turn ice-cold if she’s angry (a rare thing). For a minute, I think she’s going to throw down with the chef, but she just sadly shakes her head. “They’re cutting their own throats,” Graham says matter-of-factly. “The thing is, that kind of fish has a lot of bones. Their customer is not even going to want to eat it.”

After a drink to take the edge off, mostly mine, I ask her if she minds me using the term monster to describe sharks. She waves me off with a smile.

“Go ahead. Monsters make us feel alive. Monsters make us feel like we’re part of some bigger whole.”

She pops a piece of grilled pineapple into her mouth and finishes her cocktail. We walk out past the outlaw chef, and she flashes him an “I’ve got my eye on you” look. She buys an ice cream cone and returns to my original question.

“There’s a reason why we have to make sure we don’t kill all the monsters. We need our monsters.”

Admit it, you’re still reading because you want to hear about sharks doing bad things to humans. People have been getting their jollies about it since the beginning of time. Jonah? That was no white whale – according to Graham, and to biblical scholars, that was probably a whale shark, a 60-foot, 20-ton behemoth with a Kardashian-size brain.

In Moby Dick, sharks get the shit beat out of them with metal spades when they try to feast on a captured sperm whale, leading one deckhand to shout, “Queequeg no care what god made him shark….Wedder Fejee god or Nantucket god; but de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin.”

Pretty sure that wasn’t a compliment.

And then there’s ‘Jaws.’ Every boy of a certain age remembers watching the flick in a dark theater. A naked young woman swims in the ocean. Something in your young loins stirs. Next thing you know, she’s yanked under, and all that remains are chunks of flesh and gore. Talk about your sexually scarring experiences.

And that brings us to Shark Week, the annual Discovery Channel gorgefest on things that go bite in the ocean. Did you know Shark Week just turned 25? Ever since Mike Tyson was champ, twentysomething dudes have microwaved nachos, popped opened Natty Lights, watched sharks do unspeakable things on TV, and whispered a billion Whoa, dudes. I swung by Shark Week’s website before my trip to see the Shark Lady, and, I have to admit, it scared the shit out of me – not so much the sharks, but the sheer stupidity of so many white people.

Some of it was benign idiocy. (Hey, Johnny Utah, I don’t recommend wearing a black wetsuit and bouncing up and down on your surfboard just like, uh, a tasty seal.) But many of the men got what they deserved. There was the “shark whisperer” who liked to kiss nurse sharks for tourists and their underwater cameras. You’ll never guess what happens next! OK, you will: One of the nurse sharks got sick of the guy’s tuna breath and bit the shit out of his face. Some 285 stitches later, the dude was back out kissing sharks. No Mensa for you, buddy.

You could argue that Shark Week is harmlessly addictive, the seaweed-tainted crack cocaine of pop culture, but it makes Rachel Graham’s job infinitely more difficult. The tags she places on sharks cost $2,500 each, and she’s tagged 800 to 900 sharks over the past decade. Do the math. Graham works for the Wildlife Conservation Society and must fundraise her tags, salary, and travel expenses – she tags sharks from Cuba to Madagascar – so she spends three-quarters of her time out of the water, fundraising. Think about it: You’re trying to raise cash to save an endangered animal. You’ve got orphaned pandas getting 3 trillion YouTube hits, and you’ve got seals being clubbed over the head by roughnecks. The money flows in. But what about the poor shark? Are you pulling out your Discover card to save some Great White just so he can flip over your kayak as you paddle off Maui and take a chunk out of your fatty calf? Not likely.

Of course, that scenario isn’t happening in real life: There were exactly seven unprovoked fatalities by sharks in the world last year. (By comparison, last year 38 Americans were killed by dogs.) But the shark has image problems Don Draper couldn’t solve.

Good thing Rachel Graham likes a challenge.

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.”

Our days begin at dawn and end after dark. In between, we bob and wobble through whitecaps, sucking on Jolly Ranchers and pissing behind the twin outboard motors. We tag two six-foot-long nurse sharks the first day, but there’s a lot of dead time onboard, which makes me appreciate the man-hours put in to get 60 minutes of footage for Shark Week. Graham tells some war stories.

“You can still a rambunctious adult male nurse shark to size and tag it by grabbing its clasper hard,” says Graham with a laugh, using the proper name for a shark’s two ding-dongs. “The only downside is that it may ejaculate on you, and the sperm is pretty darn sticky. I like to use this technique as a rite of passage for a new colleague, many of whom are dudes and are rather uncomfortable with it.”

Things pick up on day three. Hilmar and the boys pull in lines when a buoy bobs, suggesting a big one. The line is pulled up, and there’s a large Caribbean reef shark.

Tagging a shark isn’t that different from hog-tying a calf at the rodeo: The line is pulled in, a rope is slipped around the shark’s tail, and the shark is pulled up beside the boat for tagging. At least that’s how it goes in theory. Graham lets Chip and the Belizeans handle this one.

“OK, Chip, walk it back, just like a dog. Hilmar, slip the rope around the tail.”

This begins according to plan, but things quickly go sideways. One thing you’re not supposed to do to a shark is grab the top of its tail. This is exactly what Hilmar does. Smack! The shark’s tail levels Chip.

“Goddamn it, that hurt like hell.”

Chip takes a standing eight-count while Graham gently dresses down Hilmar.

“Never grab it by the top of the tail. They freak out. Always by the dorsal fin.”

Chip tries again, bringing the shark close enough for measuring, and gets the drill out. But he can’t find the right spot, hunting and pecking like a drunken teenager trying to pierce her BFF’s ears.


Graham taps him gently on the shoulder.

“Chip, harmony and good thoughts. That’ll calm you and the shark.”

The tag’s implanted, and Graham cuts the hook from the shark’s mouth; it swims off.

Not everyone in the save-the-shark movement is as comfortable with hooking and tagging sharks as Graham. She put one photo of crew members holding a juvenile shark on her Facebook page, and it was greeted with comments like “Plz tell me u put that baby shark back???” This drives Graham a little crazy. “Look, I love sharks, but I’m not a shark hugger – you have to catch them to get the data. It’s the long game.”

Graham brags that she’s had very few sharks die on her in her seven years of hooking and tagging. If that’s true, I was the ultimate bad luck. In a one-hour period, Graham hooked two small sharks that swallowed their hooks. While she skillfully cut out as much of the metal as she could, both of them left her hands and started a slow death spiral down to the bottom of the ocean. She slammed her pliers back into the tackle box.

“I’m going to have nightmares about that.”

But that isn’t the bleakest endgame.

Belize has established no-take marine reserves around its islands, but Graham’s research shows that the so-called reserves around Belize have no more sharks than do unprotected waters. This is likely due to a couple of factors: Sharks are highly mobile and readily move beyond boundaries, and, more depressing, there’s been a lack of effective enforcement in the protected zones. During my six-day trip, we ran into exactly two Belizean police boats, manned by personnel whose sleepy torpor suggested Paul Blart with an outboard motor.

“We need to know more,” Graham tells me over breakfast one morning, as a nearby tour boat takes divers out in search of manta rays, coral reef, and mostly vanishing sharks. “If we want to save them, we have to know more. And do much more.”

I pushed back my departure a day, in the hopes of seeing a hammerhead or a tiger shark, two of the larger sharks that used to roam around Belize, but we laid line for hours off Caye Caulker without a bite of any kind. Statistically, the news isn’t good. All of Graham’s work points to the need for regionally harmonized protective measures, much like the international laws passed in the 1980s to protect whales. In March, there’s a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species that could help to regulate the trade in a range of sharks, especially two hammerhead species that have declined precipitously in Belize.

“It’s worse here than even I thought,” says Graham. “Or maybe we just hit bad luck. I’m a scientist, so I don’t want to make a big deal out of a couple bad days of sample. But this is more and more how the days go.”

We headed back to shore, where Graham has other, human problems – her children’s education chief among them. “I’m not one of those crazy scientists,” she says. “I love sharks, but my kids come first.”

I half-believe her. It was time for William, Hilmar, and Jomael to take the ferry back to their families. Graham and her three amigos trucked down the dock, coolers and gear on their shoulders – Graham was carrying more of the weight than the three men combined.

I was staying over in Caye Caulker and rode the boat back with Chip. His family was in town, and he was taking them out in the boat later to Shark Ray Alley, a shallow cove where sharks were known to hang out and wait for tourists to feed them fish or chips or other tasty treats.

“You should come. Rachel doesn’t love it, but she says, ‘I’d rather people be feeding sharks than killing sharks.'”

I was torn for a second or so, feeling guilty remembering Graham’s tsk-tsking about feeding sharks in their natural habitat. But a second beer ended the doubt. I’d come 3,000 miles: I wanted to swim with a goddamn shark. It was now near sunset; a magic glow bounced off the water as we headed out with mothers-in-law, wives, brothers, and a half-dozen local kids. We dropped anchor a half-mile or so offshore, and the gaggle of us jumped in: drunken dive masters, mommas clutching toddlers in their life vests, and me.

I floated for a while, trying to chase away the nausea of 60 hours spent on a boat in the past six days. Then I felt something slithering around my feet. I looked down, and the ground moved, but it wasn’t really the ground: It was two nurse sharks, maybe six feet each, feeding on the bottom. I could see their beady eyes. They circled back, but they couldn’t have cared less about my presence. Before I could focus, there was a crashing splash above me. I thought it might be one of Chip’s numbskull co-workers doing a cannonball, but it wasn’t. It was Chip’s retriever, Argos. Turns out the dog could swim better than a fleet of Belizean fishermen.

For a moment, I stayed under and looked through my mask. I could see sharks cruising, babies kicking, and a dog paddling. And for that moment, Graham’s dream had come true: man, child, pet, and shark co-existing. My nausea disappeared, replaced with a giant smile.

But then the sharks were gone, and I wondered if anyone would believe me when I told them about it back home. And then I thought, If I brought my kids here in 10 years, would there be any sharks to step on? Maybe they would just think I was an old man telling a fish story.

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