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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Connecting With Ancient Sharks

Air Date: Week of

When cage-free diving with Caribbean reef sharks, one must wear a chain mail suit to protect against accidents. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

Though humans and sharks are separated by 420 million years of evolution, Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender was awestruck by just how similar we are on a recent shark encounter with no cage in the Caribbean.


CURWOOD: It’s the Living on Earth Earth Day special, I’m Steve Curwood.

BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb.

Mark Seth Lender is our explorer in residence who has brought us many thoughtful essays about his interactions with wildlife. And his beautiful photographs can be seen on our website, LOE.org. As we celebrate Earth Day he says we are also celebrating ourselves:

LENDER: I think we're all sort of aware of how beautiful nature is. Anyone who's seen the sunrise on a winter day or seen a flock of birds in a murmuration, making all those patterns in the sky, you know, we're all kind of aware of that.

But we sort of tend to slip into this thing of thinking of it being different from us, you know, apart from us, particularly wild animals. But the thing that really astounds me, and continues to astound me after 35 years, is how much like us wild animals can be. So one of the few things I hadn't done was diving with sharks.

​​The sharks are curious about Mark, the unfamiliar diver in their midst. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

And these are cage free dives. They're with sharks called Caribbean reef sharks that are, you know, 7, 8, 9 feet long, 150, 170 pounds. And we are three divers, all of us in chainmail suits made out of stainless steel, which is not because you expect to get eaten, but it's a protection against mistakes, really. So for all intents and purposes, if you're a shark, you would think we all look alike. But no, the sharks figured out they hadn't seen me before. Two of the divers, the sharks are familiar with.

​​The animals investigate Mark by swimming over, under, and beside him. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

And they paid a fair amount of attention to the other two, but the person they really came to and surrounded and swam around was me, with a regulator in the middle of my face, and a mask covering my eyes, and brow ridge, and my nose, and you know, all of the things that give our faces their features and their singularity. And yet, they knew I was different. And they were interested in me. And they came up to me and they surrounded me. And when they went all around and over me and down beside me, and they looked me in the eye. So when you put all that together, I mean, I have goosebumps talking about it. You know, you expect to be recognized and understood by elephants.

​​Sharks are some of our most distant relatives. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

I've had polar bears come up to me and look at me and stand there with their paws in front of their chests, just like a squirrel looking at you going, what are you guys? But to have it with sharks--we don't have a common genetic ancestor with a shark for 420 million years. They're almost as far from us as insects. And yet they saw me, and they knew me. And they understood I was a being and different from the other beings who for all intents and purposes looked just like me. And I think there can be no greater testimony to the magnificence and unity of life on Earth than that.

BASCOMB: Living Earth’s explorer in residence, Mark Seth Lender.



Mark Seth Lender’s website


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