Samantha Whitcraft was halfway around the world in the Pacific Ocean, investigating a lagoon at Kure Atoll off of northwest Hawaii, when a curious tiger shark bumped into her kayak—and literally awoke in her a love for the sea’s most feared, least understood creatures: sharks. That led to advocacy work that has had major impact in Miami: In 2011, Whitcraft, a Florida native, was part of a coalition of scientists and activists who helped push through regulation reforms protecting the state’s critically endangered lemon, tiger and hammerhead sharks, which were being fished in state waters. Now, whether she’s leading eco-tours with Oceanic Society or helping direct WildAid’s Shark Saver program or teaching marine conservation and local natural history at Miami Dade College, she’s inspiring a new generation of Floridians to love and preserve one of our biggest assets—the ocean and all the life within it.
How did you become interested in oceans and in sharks in particular? I preferred water to land from day one. I could swim before I could walk. Something about it being a whole other world keeps me engaged and fascinated. When it comes to sharks, I have a soft spot for underdogs, anyone or anything not getting a fair deal. Mosquitoes kill more people every year than sharks do—by a lot.
Why are they worth saving? We need sharks as apex predators who help maintain a balance between predator and prey, which helps preserve a healthy ecosystem.
How would you rate South Florida’s efforts to protect sharks? Florida is one of the sharkiest places in the world and it has a very strong shark conservation record. There are quite a few non-profits that get the word out about the importance of sharks and the truth about them, rather than the unfounded fear. There are major universities that have shark research. Research, when done correctly, leads to conservation policy.
Are your students receptive to marine conservation? Students who have grown up in Florida and are in love with the ocean are ready for the message that more needs to be done. Students who haven’t really thought about it come on board quickly. It just makes sense. Sharks aren’t these big scary monsters from the movies. They are beautiful and critically important.
How crucial are shark dives in winning hearts and minds? The minute I put somebody in scuba gear and take them into the water with sharks, it begins with: “I’m so scared.” And it ends back on the deck with, “That was the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I love sharks.” People realize they’re looking in the eye of an intelligent, curious animal, not some mindless killing machine. And that goes to the importance of sustainable, responsible eco-tourism for shark conservation. Not only are sharks more valuable alive than dead, but there’s no better communicator of how cool sharks are than sharks. It’s an incredibly enlightening experience.
Want to help? Visit www.wildaid.org and www.sharksavers.org to find a wealth of information on sharks, start a local conservation project, find shark dive opportunities and join the effort to ban the billion-dollar shark fin soup industry worldwide