Hello Aiden, welcome to Sharkman’s World
Sharkman: How long have you been interested in Sharks?
Aidan: I can barely remember a time when I wasn’t interested in sharks. I have been studying sharks in a serious sort of way for over 27 years, but my interest goes back even earlier — once, when I was a teen-ager, my Mum showed me a crayon drawing of a shark I made when I was four — it was a generic carcharhinid (Whaler Shark), complete with a green cat-like eye, nostrils, five pairs of gill slits, all eight fins, upper and lower precaudal pits, and even a spiracle (which carcharhinids generally lack, but which I must have known even then was supposed to be a small opening behind the eye).
Sharkman: How did this interest start?
Aidan: I grew up along the central coast of Queensland, Australia, where we are VERY shark-conscious. Ever since I was very young, I absolutely loved to explore the beach and shallow coastal waters. But every morning, as I set out to play in the ocean, my Mum would send me off with the same stern warning: “Watch out for snakes, watch out for cars, watch out for sharks.” I got so paranoid about sharks that I could barely concentrate on enjoying my ‘explorations’ of the ocean. To exorcise this persistent fear, I started reading everything I could about sharks. I quickly discovered that sharks were a LOT less dangerous than I had been led to believe. I also discovered that they were incredibly diverse and that no one knew very much about them — how many kinds there were, how old they lived, where they went and why. From that moment onward, I was ‘Hooked!’.
Sharkman: Aidan, at this young age, you had already started experiments with Black Fin Reef sharks, Please tell us what you did.
Aidan: I wanted to test whether there was any pattern as to which individuals were dominant over which and how that dominance was worked out. I used a hand-line to catch as many juvenile Blackfin Reef sharks as I could. I marked each one in a unique way — using a single-hole paper punch, I marked males on the left pectoral fin, females on the right, recording everything in a sturdy notebook. I discovered that these little sharks were astonishingly complex socially. These early experiences laid the foundation for much of the shark research I do today.
Sharkman: As a teen, you started to take tourists for underwater safaris and introduced them to “Rosie”. Who was “Rosie”?
Aidan: Rosie was the ‘star attraction’ of my shows, a 2.75-metre (9-foot) Ornate Wobbegong. As a grand finale of my reef tours, I’d hand-feed her scraps of fish. It was a silly, teen-age stunt – but it always got me applause and big tips! Rosie is also the first shark that ever bit me, but – since that’s one of my very best shark stories – I hope you’ll forgive me if I save that for readers of Shark Smart and audiences at my talks.
Sharkman: “Shark Smart” is the book you wrote in 1995. What is this book about?
Aidan: Well, without giving too much away, it’s about 177 pages. But seriously, it’s basically an introduction to shark behaviour adapted to the interests of divers. There are also some shark stories, such as my first boyhood research project and the full story of Rosie and me, as well as sections on identification and natural history of sharks of the Caribbean region, a little about the improbability of shark attack and what to do if you or your dive buddy is attacked, and some closing thoughts on divers and shark conservation.
Sharkman: Besides being a very informative book, “Shark Smart” has a very comical touch to it. Where does this come from?
Aidan: I dunno. Growing up in Australia gives one a rather strange sense of humour. In the past, I’ve actually earned a living as a stand-up comic and Master of Ceremonies. Nowadays, I draw on my sense of humour in my teaching. I think learning is a lot of fun, so I have no qualms about livening up my talks with my own brand of off-beat humour. My basic philosophy is, that even tough science is easy to swallow, if you marinate it in enough humour!
Sharkman: Very true Aidan. In what way is your work related to sharks now?
Aidan: Almost every aspect of my work is shark-related in one way or another. In addition to conducting Shark Safaris as part of our ReefQuest Expeditions, I have just completed two new shark books (each of which has been submitted to a separate publisher, so please keep your fingers crossed for me!) and am busily working on another shark book. I am actively involved in several shark research projects, including cooperative as well as solo efforts. Most of my on-going research centres around shark behavioural ecology (body language, social organisation, predatory strategies), but I’m also actively involved in shark paleontology, systematics, functional morphology, life history (age and growth), distribution, feeding and reproductive biology. I am presently being ‘romanced’ by three or four documentary film-makers who want to film me doing my field research. Last but not least, I am presently preparing several scientific papers for publication in refereed journals.
Sharkman: Make sure you let us know when your works are published. Aidan, you have spent thousands of hours underwater observing and working with sharks. How easy is it to learn to Identify one species from the next.?
Aidan: That depends. Some species, like the Whale Shark, Sandtiger, Basking Shark, Great White, Shortfin Mako, Tiger Shark, Whitetip Reef, are pretty easy marks. Many others can be very difficult to distinguish from one another – especially underwater, where everything’s moving (you, the shark, the ocean) and lighting conditions are suboptimal. One way to ease the process is to learn which species of sharks are abundant in a given area and learn to recognise those. You may not be able to identify every species you encounter, but you should be able to get 80% or so. If you dive often enough in the same area, you’ll eventually learn most of the remaining 20%, too.
Sharkman: Was there ever a moment when you felt in danger on these dives?
Aidan: Oh sure. There have been several occasions where I remember thinking, quite clearly, “Well, mate, this is it: you are about to snuff it!” Obviously, I was mistaken. I no longer take foolish chances like I did when I was a teen-ager and believed myself virtually invulnerable to serious injury. I still take risks when diving with sharks, but nowadays they’re always calculated risks: I ask myself, “Is what I am likely to learn worth the potential danger?” If YES, I always go for it. Even after all my experience, I’m still cautious when diving with sharks, but mostly I’m fascinated. With me, fascinated usually wins.
Sharkman: I think I know that feeling quite well. Which is The “Most Memorable Moment in your Career”?
Aidan: This interview has got to be ‘up there’, Alex! But seriously, I’ll let you know when I’ve had a career. I’m still just starting out. I’ve been fortunate to have so many wonderful experiences in the sea – many of which involved sharks, many others did not. I’ve met, worked with, and learned from a lot of really terrific people. I have travelled all over the planet, exploring everything from local wildlife and exotic foods, to sharing a laugh with a total stranger with whom I have nothing in common. I have a wonderful wife and home, good friends, and just about everything I ever dreamed of. I’d hate to think that my “Most Memorable Moment in my Career” has already passed. I’d like to think my most Memorable Moment is still to be experienced.
Sharkman: Do you have a “Favourite” shark species, and why this one in particular?
Aidan: My hands-down favourite shark species is the Shortfin Mako (Isurus oxyrinchus). They are so sleek, fast, and curious. They have gorgeous lines. Like a Cheetah, every part of their anatomy is stripped down for speed. I just love them. They also scare the bejeezus out of me when diving with them. They are such bundles of nervous energy, I never allow myself to forget that one could zip in, edit any number of my favourite body parts, and zoom away — all before I could say, “Dial 911”
Sharkman: Well let’s just hope that that never happens. Recently you led a research expedition to Seal Island in False Bay, South Africa. Can you tell us about it please ?
Aidan: I had a wonderful experience with a small cadre of friends – some long-time friends, some brand new. We were privileged to watch the power, grace, curiosity, and awesome predatory prowess of wild, free-swimming Great White Sharks. We saw, photographed, and filmed nearly 70 White Shark attacks on Cape Fur Seals as well as dozens of spectacular breaches.
To be that close to a living Great White adds new perspective to one’s appreciation of this animal. It is absolutely amazing to see a tonne (ton) or more of muscle, cartilage, teeth, instincts and curiosity as a smoothly functioning wholeness. As a shark biologist and a naturalist, it is an awesome and truly humbling experience.
Sharkman: After having had a few encounters with these magnificent sharks myself, I totally agree with you. It is awesome. Anything else you would like to add ?
Aidan: Thanks for your interest in my work.
Sharkman: I have to thank you Aidan. I have learned a lot from you.
More information on Aidan Martin, Reef Quest Centre,
and of course, sharks can be found at
“Field Guide To The Great White Shark”
(2003) is a “must have” for all Shark lovers.
Click on the book image below for more details.
1965 – 2007