SUFB 104: Will The Real Great White Shark Please Stand Up with Esther Overbeeke

Speak Up For Blue Podcast

Esther Jacobs Overbeeke is living proof that you don’t need to have a Ph.D. to help save our ocean and its wildlife. A former bank manager, Esther decided that she wanted to pursue her passion for marine biology and enrolled in an internship program that focused on studying white sharks in South Africa. Five years later, she’s become a leader in the white shark conservation movement and an example of just how far passion and hard work will take you.

Without formal training in marine biology or ecology, Esther learned quickly that the ability to teach yourself and to learn on the fly are critical components of succeeding in a new career field. Like many ocean conservation enthusiasts, she initially had to take an internship on the other side of the world just go get some work experience. However, she’s leveraged her connections and worked her fin off to become the coordinator of the very internship program she participated in, the Publishing Manager for Oceans Research, and the driving force behind Keep Fin Alive, a social media marketing campaign focused on raising awareness for global shark populations.

Esther believes that one of the driving forces behind decreasing shark populations is a lack of awareness, and therefore a lack of funding and appreciation for, sharks themselves. Many people don’t know, for instance, that the shark meat industry is larger than the shark finning industry. What’s more, shark meat in many (if not all) instances is unsafe to eat. Because they’re apex predators, sharks bioaccumulate a large amount of toxins in their system (i.e. mercury) throughout their life. Consuming shark meat not only removes a critical player in marine food webs from the ecosystem, it could also prove to be harmful to your health. Many people also don’t know that sharks caught in longlines and trawl nets, two common pieces of fishing gear, are often times killed before they can be set free. By creating global and regional initiatives focused on teaching stakeholders about the importance of these predators and the numerous threats facing them, Esther hopes to foster a greater appreciation for sharks that doesn’t just focus on their ferocity. In fact, the last few years has taught Esther quite a bit about just how dynamic individual sharks can be

“I didn’t really take into account that they would possibly have have personalities; they were just sharks, they were just predators to me. I assumed that if bait were in the water that is all they would do, just go for the bait completely and that’s all their interest would be. It wasn’t until I actually came out to run the internship that I started to realize that ‘wow, each of them is completely different from the other one.’”

While some white sharks would aggressively go for the bait the divers put out, a couple other white sharks were much calmer and friendlier towards Esther and her crew. One of these sharks, named Sweetheart, used to spy hop by the back of the boat where Esther would hang out just to come by and say hi. According to Esther, “she was like a people shark, she was so curious. If there was an opportunity I probably would have jumped in the water with her.”

These types of experiences inspired Esther to start Keep Fin Alive, an awareness campaign that uses photographs of famous faces with a shark puppet (Fin) to bring attention to declining shark populations. While some other groups, like Shark Savers and yours truly, have spoken up on behalf of these predators, Esther claims that the general attitude towards sharks is still quite negative. To combat this, Keep Fin Alive is focused on conveying its message of shark protection to local schools, specifically those in impoverished areas. By educating the next generation of conservationists, policy makers, scientists, and fishers, Esther hopes to create a brighter future for sharks in her own backyard and beyond.

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