With a menacing grin, needle-like teeth, and a sharp pointed snout, a gray nurse shark isn’t a creature that most people would want to encounter. But Shalise Leesfield isn’t most people.
The 16-year-old Australian couldn’t think of a better creature to meet when scuba diving off the coast of South West Rocks, near her home in Port Macquarie, a coastal town north of Sydney.
“I know there’s a huge stigma around how scary they can look, but I promise you they are the sweetest animals ever,” she says. “They’re so docile and so curious, they’re like the Labradors of the sea.”
The slow-moving sharks, which like to dwell near the sea floor in warm, shallow waters, are – for the most part – harmless to humans. But the gray nurse shark (also known as the sand tiger shark and the spotted ragged-tooth shark) is under threat. Populations have fragmented, habitats have been lost due to ocean warming and human development, and extensive fishing has led to a huge decline in numbers, according to the IUCN, which lists the species as critically endangered.
One area where they can still be spotted is Fish Rock, an underwater cavern with a vibrant and unique ecosystem, 40 miles up the coast from Leesfield’s home.
“A beacon of hope”
Diving in the 410-foot-long tunnel, among the pink gorgonian corals and sponge gardens, is an “adrenaline rush,” says Leesfield. As well as gray nurse sharks, whales, stingrays, grouper fish and many more marine species can be seen there.
But recreational, professional and charter fishers are allowed access within 200 meters (656 foot) of Fish Rock, so long as they use a special vegetable-derived bait. This is leading to a decline in biodiversity and increased pollution, says Leesfield. She wants to extend the no-fishing area, establishing a 1,500 meter (5,000 foot) protected “sanctuary zone,” to reflect studies that have found gray nurse sharks migrating up to that point.
Her campaign has already seen the area nominated as a Hope Spot, which is part of the Mission Blue program launched by renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle that identifies places as critically important to the ocean’s health and supports protection. This has helped to raise awareness of the fragility of both the area and gray nurse sharks, says Leesfield.