Dean Fessler joins the Princeton-based Shark Research Institute’s crusade to save the sharks
At 10-years old, Dean Fessler wondered about oceans and the sharks that live in them.
At that time, he’d begun taking regular fishing trips with his father. But it was the local screening in 1970 of the movie “Blue Water, White Death,” a documentary by fellow Lawrence resident Stan Waterman, that shifted his curiosity to passion as soon as he saw a massive shark glide across the screen of the drive-in theater.
Now 53, Fessler is described by his peers as a shark expert, who dives regularly and also shares his knowledge around the world.
He began his role as an educator with the Shark Research Institute almost by accident; on his visits home in between dives, he would share stories of his adventures and experiences. The more he talked about his work with sharks, the more he was asked to speak at different group meetings and schools, and before he knew it, Fessler had developed an educational curriculum.
Now the Lawrence resident travels all over the globe to speak at elementary schools, colleges, diving clubs, public aquariums, symposiums and more, teaching about the importance of sharks in the earth’s oceans and dispelling the myths that depict sharks preying on humans.
A mission that’s most personal to him is changing the public’s negative perception of sharks.
One catalyst that sparked the public’s fear of sharks was the film “Jaws,” which instilled the idea of deadly, vicious sharks poised to attack humans just a few feet off any shore.
The growing amount of shark myths led to the formation of one group whose mission was to put a stop to those lies. In July 1991, the Shark Research Institute was formed by members of the New York-based Explorers Club. Many of the club members weren’t marine biologists, or even in a shark-related field, but the cause was one that needed support from people of all fields. It was formed as an action-oriented group aimed at conservation and preservation.
“We’d seen already a dramatic drop in sharks,” said Marie Levine, the founder and executive director of SRI. “And it became worse as the years went on. But there was also so much misinformation about sharks, so much hype over nonsense, and yet they’re very critical to the health of the ocean, which is the largest ecosystem on the earth.”
Glorified Jaws-like depictions of shark attacks in the media also contribute to the misinformation about sharks, Levine said.
“A newspaper report will say ‘shark attack,’ and in people’s minds, the people are ripped apart, and sometimes it’s a cut on the toe,” Levine said. “And it will make the international press.”
Much of Fessler’s education and curriculum focuses on teaching about sharks’ vital role in the ecosystem. He teaches children, for example, to compare sharks’ eating habits to the way people recycle unwanted or unhealthy buildup in their homes.
Levine had also never viewed sharks in a negative way.
“I was pre-Jaws era, so I knew them as just magnificent beautiful fish,” Levine said. “You almost expect to hear music when you see them. They move with such grace.”
Levine began diving when she took three instructional courses at the Princeton YMCA in 1979. A Chicago native, Levine moved to Princeton because of her then-husband’s practice, and has lived there ever since.
Although SRI is technically based at Levine’s Princeton home, the organization now functions almost as an online-based group with field sites to study areas of interest around the world. With the use of email and Skype, group members can connect with each other from anywhere; currently, the SRI director was working at a field location in Africa, with other members scattered around the globe at other field locations.
She’d always wanted to explore the water, Levine said, ever since she’d seen a model of a coral reef. As a child, she told adults her dream was to be a pearl diver, because that was the only profession she knew that would dive in the coral reef she’d seen.
Now, Levine has traveled to 44 countries to explore the seas and further the cause for protecting them. Each dive always opens her eyes to something new, Levine said, whether it’s the state of the environment or the behavior of the animals.
Levine dives every few months around the world, depending on the location of field research sites.
Yet some aquatic experiences can only be memories now, she said, due to the destruction caused by overfishing and destroying habitats. She recalled the time she was diving a shipwreck off the New Jersey coast, when she was approached by a group of Atlantic bluefin tuna, which can measure several feet long, but are also extremely endangered, she said.
“These are monster fish, huge, and they surrounded my bubbles, and I was in this vortex of these giants,” Levine said. “They tried to corral the bubbles for a couple of instances, and then left. But nobody will ever see that again because they’re gone.
A large part of SRI’s work includes legislation against shark finning and overfishing.
In some countries, shark fin soup is seen as a prestigious dish often served as a way of showing high class and wealth, Fessler said, and yet, shark flesh is really an unhealthy food to ingest. Shark flesh absorbs all the ocean pollution, and because of its position at the top of the food chain, the shark also consumes all the toxins and pollution from its food sources. A shark’s digestion process is actually quite slow, meaning those toxins are present for a substantially long period of time.
Yet shark fin soup continues to be touted in other countries as a delicacy, Fessler said, and its prestigious reputation is one that’s proved difficult to shake.
That’s where SRI’s mission comes into play. SRI’s efforts have only increased over the years, through establishing and enacting legislation and working with governments and fisherman to curb shark finning. One of the ways SRI has been able to enforce shark-protecting legislation, Levine said, is finding ways to prove sharks are more valuable alive than dead.
“Shark ecotourism” has proved to be one valuable source of revenue. Depending on the location and conditions, individuals can pay to go out on a boat to view or even dive with sharks.
Ecotourism also helps to shake the stereotypes of sharks being constantly on the attack. Some sharks, Levine said, like the whale shark, are some of the most friendly and docile creatures a human could meet underwater. The whale shark doesn’t even eat other fish or large animals — it gulps plankton and other materials at the ocean surface. Its large size, however, often intimidates humans and makes it increasingly valuable to the shark fin trade.
To Fessler, sharks are creatures to admire and revere. He still remembers when he began diving off the coast of South Africa, and felt the magic of a live shark sighting.
His schooling and career had led him from New Jersey to Florida to California, where he continued gaining diving experience. He’d traveled to South Africa for what was supposed to be a two-week educational program, though he’d wind up staying about two years before returning home.
As he prepared for a dive that day, floating off the coast of South Africa, a shark surfaced, its size dwarfing the 17-foot boat, and positioned itself to gaze up at the crew.
“I had that exact feeling of awe and feeling extremely small and insignificant,” Fessler said. “Everything I thought I knew and everything I thought I prepared for just became irrelevant. And that was similar to how I felt when I was a boy.”
Since he first took on his teaching role, Fessler has been asked countless questions about sharks. But he said there are two questions he can always count on. The first is, “Have you ever been bitten by a shark?” and the second, “How did you get into this field?”
In all his diving endeavors in ocean terrain with massive sharks, Fessler’s one and only shark bite came from a 3-foot leopard shark during a feeding demonstration at a public aquarium. He was diving in the shark tank, interacting with a captive audience as he fed a shark.
When Fessler turned to answer a question, he made the mistake of breaking eye contact with the shark as he offered its food, and the shark instead bit Fessler on the side of his face.
But Fessler has still never developed a fear of swimming in shark-infested waters.
In fact, it’s the time spent on the boat he sometimes dreads, when the experienced diver occassionally suffers bouts with seasickness, he said. There have even been times when other divers have had to push Fessler into the water, where he instantly has to shift his focus.
“It’s like somebody turns the switch,” Fessler said. “As soon as you’re off the gyration of the boat and you’re suspended in that water, not only does the gravity and the heat go away, but your focus completely changes.”
In all her years of diving, Levine said, the only dangerous situations she found herself in were the ones she created in her mind.
Levine had been sitting underwater where sharks were swimming in a loop, waiting to shoot some photos, when she felt a nudge from another diver behind her. She ignored it, but after a second nudge, Levine whipped herself around only to accidentally collide with a curious shark. Each of them frightened, Levine and the shark took off in different directions.
“The divers that were in back said he was just looking over my shoulder to see what I was looking at,” Levine said.
Fessler and Levine still continue to fight on sharks’ behalf, whether it’s enacting new shark protection legislation or speaking about the power and beauty of the animal.
For more information about the Shark Research Institute, go online to sharks.org.