It’s a species feared by many, but not that much is really known about the great white shark. Kent Stannard has made it his mission to find a way for humans and sharks to coexist through his environmental initiative, Tag For Life.
A lifelong surfer and coastal dweller who calls the Mornington Peninsula home, Stannard’s fascination with sharks started as a small child. Learning more about them has become his fulltime job.
“I was seeing the population explosion on the land and in the water firsthand and knew surfers and divers were beginning to venture into areas previously unexplored and uninhabited,” says Stannard. “But these areas were also known to be frequented by sharks.”
After returning home from a stint living and working on Flinders Island in Bass Strait, Stannard was invited to deliver a lecture on great white sharks at the Melbourne Museum. Following the lecture, Stannard met Australia’s leading research scientist in the field, Barry Bruce. Accompanying Bruce on a series of field trips to South Australia, Stannard soon came to realise how poorly funded the marine scientific community is.
Determined to help in some capacity, Stannard started a not-for-profit environmental trust called Tag For Life. Its purpose is to help raise funds for research into sharks and, more specifically, great white sharks.
“Tag For Life now operates not only as a funding mechanism but also an education and conservation vehicle,” Stannard says. “Through our partnerships and collaboration with CSIRO and the Melbourne Aquarium, we extend scientific research findings to the broader public.”
The end goal is to protect and educate ocean users, reduce the likelihood of interactions between humans and sharks and the unwanted risks they pose to us and we to them. The team, which comprises surfers, fishermen, abalone divers and surf lifesavers from around Australia, also provides input into conservation decisions.
But fundraising alone wasn’t enough to support the fledgling initiative, and hence, White Tag was born. A coastal lifestyle label, White Tag directs a percentage of every purchase towards relevant marine projects and research. The collection of polo shirts, jackets, T-shirts and hats are created to be practical and timeless while genuinely reflecting a beachside lifestyle. “The gear is tailored more toward educated, cultured and fairly open minded people in their twenties and upward, who want to be associated with a product that is directly linked to the ocean and reinvests in the environment,” Stannard says.
One of the key projects that White Tag has invested in is that of shark tagging and satellite-tracking, which enables researchers to collect information on sharks’ movements, behaviours and breeding patterns. “Having pioneered satellite tracking and tagging of white sharks on a global scale here in Australia, Barry Bruce’s technology monitors movement patterns and is now utilised by nearly every wildlife researcher in the field.
“Signals from the tag are carried to overhead satellites and then to a base in France where the co-ordinates are relayed to CSIRO providing near time positions of the tagged animal,” explains Stannard. A highly intelligent animal, sharks are seasonal visitors and will return to an area that has been kind to them – sometimes almost to the day or within a week of its arrival the previous year.
Uncovering hoards of fascinating data each year, Stannard aims to inform people about the beast in as many ways possible.
So, why do we need to protect great white sharks? “Being top order predators, great whites hold the marine environment together - their role is to keep the other species genetically healthy and in balance,” Stannard explains. “Taking a top end predator out of the equation results in other species below becoming more prolific, then invasive. Eventually their gene pool will become weaker until they too become wiped out and this continues down the line.”
And with knowledge comes respect and understanding. The more we learn about the great white shark and its domain, the more we can happily and safely coexist. “We are custodians of this great marine estate and it is our role to look after each and every creature within it.”