In Memoriam to Finned Sharks

Posted on May 25, 2011
Written by: Ila France Porcher

I wrote the Ode to Madonna while I was waiting for the sharks of Polynesia to be protected by law, which took an extraordinarily long time. I am republishing it here to honor not only Madonna but all the sharks who are being yanked brutally onto ships, having their tails and fins sliced off, and being thrown roughly back into the ocean, to face the end of everything they have known, as consciousness fades and they sink, sink, and, writhing, sink into the abyss. Almost all of the sharks I had befriended during my seven-year study were finned, which was a devastating blow to the reef ecosystem and to me personally. You can read the complete account in my book, My Sunset Rendezvous: Crisis in Tahiti.

Ode to Madonna

In just the last couple of months, waiting for the law to be passed to protect the sharks, the last of the older, mature females I first met some years ago have vanished from my part of the lagoon. This includes my number one shark, Madonna.

Madonna was the first shark to meet my kayak when I arrived in the lagoon in the mornings. She was nearly six feet long, steel grey, and heavily built. When I dove down and swam to her, she would come to me and look into my mask.

Meeting her by chance in the lagoon, she would swim to me when I called her, and circle, spiraling toward me until she was within arms' reach. But she did not like me to swim with her. She would set off on a sinuous path, and when I followed, she would come back, often turn sideways, accelerate and stop, or just vanish into the blue, but usually not before we had gone to meet up with one or two of her friends. Never could I detect the slightest sign between them as they passed, but I didn't think it could be chance that we had met up with them, knowing that they were her friends.

Beautiful Madonna was not one of our brightest lights. When I brought a treat for her, as I always did when she returned to her home range after breeding or birthing, I would sometimes have to throw it to her time after time before she could locate it, and often one of her friends would coil through the water to snatch it the moment it left my hand, a trick poor Madonna could never manage. Once I spent 45 minutes in terrible current just trying to get her treat to her.


Nevertheless, she would hopefully come to me for a fish scrap. When I had nothing to feed her, and was actually promenading in the lagoon with her friend Martha, she would come charging in. I would fin backward, till we were swimming nose to nose, me on my back and her on top of me, while Martha circled us, watching. Madonna would finally give up when she realized I had nothing with me, and Martha and I would go on alone.

Madonna did this once when it was almost too dark to see, having arrived with a group of rather macho males from the ocean. She behaved as if she were starving to death, having just had her babies. When she soared up to my face all her companions did too, and while I could guide her around me with my hand, I didn't have enough hands to push away half a dozen sharks at once, and didn't want to be rammed by the strangers or have my mask knocked off in the dark.

Feeling sorry for my poor shark, who did look awfully emaciated after birthing, I returned as soon as conditions permitted, and trailed scent through her home range. I was followed by a tiny juvenile shark who always accompanied me, just out of sight. Finally, Madonna glided in, the juvenile now flitting excitedly at her side, apparently more confident in the presence of the big shark.

As she circled, I tossed the food so it fell to the side of her swimway, and saw her target it, but she slowed, allowing the excited juvenile to get it first. Luckily I had brought enough for both.

Over the years, I spent so much time with Madonna, I can remember every gesture, every movement she would make in different moods.

We all read all the time about thousands of sharks being finned all over the world, but when the sharks meeting this shocking end are ones you have come to know, and with whom you have spent time with over many years, sharks of whom you have grown fond, the psychological effect is more intense.

Just as it is disturbing to read in the paper that some dogs elsewhere were poisoned -- but if it is your dogs who were poisoned and died, you reel.

Nothing can bring back Martha and Madonna, but your donations support Shark Savers programs to end shark finning and ban the use of shark products. Even $10 helps.

Ila France Porcher
My Sunset Rendezvous: Crisis in Tahiti


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