"All my friends are monsters." - Kori Garza, French Polynesia based all round water woman proudly states. But not really a monster in her eyes.
Kori Garza, known as Koko, or “Lady Shark” is a marine biologist, shark diver, conservationist, wildlife photographer, expedition leader, adventurer and all-round legend. Like many conservationists before her, where others see monsters, she sees beauty. From Hawaii to French Polynesia, Koko’s expansive career has inspired her goal to not only further the understanding and positive perception of the world’s most misunderstood predator, but to help preserve the marine environment and inspire others to be captivated by its wild.
What is the aim of ecotourism, tell us more about the Ladyshark tours?
Ecotourism differs than just regular tourism by taking into consideration the ethics and sustainability of providing tourism centred around wildlife experiences. For my company, Ladyshark Expeditions, it’s important for me to ensure that the animals are first, always. I want to provide others with unforgettable moments in the wild with incredible animals, but not at the expense of the animal. I created these experiences to provide intimate, sustainably guided adventures with like-minded operators around the world to combine bucket list moments with education and a spark for protecting wildlife in their natural habitats. I didn’t grow up with the ocean and I wanted to create experiences open to everyone, including those who normally wouldn’t have access to them. Being able to bring others in the water alongside some of the ocean’s most impressive predators and watching them fall in love with something they’ve been told to fear their entire life is everything to me.
What inspired you to begin Mo'a Mana foundation?
I wanted to find a way to use my experience, my passion, and my efforts in a positive way that would give back to the sharks that I am so lucky to work with on a daily basis. The ecotourism helps fund part of the foundation’s projects as a thank you to the animals for being not only our passion but our means of living. I wanted to create a platform or shark research, community outreach, sustainable ecotourism training, positive human-shark coexistence promotion, and ensuring the enforcement of the protection of sharks in French Polynesia. We have been really blessed at the opportunities that have come to the foundation and the progress that has been made in the foundation’s beginning years. And we have even more exciting projects on the way!
Where did your love for the ocean begin?
I fell in love with sharks before I ever fell in love with the ocean. I was so young, maybe 5-8 years old? That was the first time I saw JAWS. I was so captivated by the beauty and the power of the shark (I also thought Hooper had the coolest job EVER). My first shark experience was actually diving inside an aquarium with sharks when I was 15. My first time truly experiencing the ocean wasn’t until I was 17 years old when I did my first ocean scuba dive and saw my first wild shark. I’m from the midwest, so the entirety of my introduction to the ocean came from documentaries and aquariums. I didn’t really understand it, I just knew that something was pulling me towards the ocean and I listened.
How do you promote shark safe interactions?
Everyone loves to ask how you can manage sharks to have a safe interaction for humans. But honestly, 99% of promoting a safe shark interaction relies on managing the HUMANS, not the sharks. I run my shark dive operation focused on safety (for both shark and human) as a priority and acting preventatively rather than reactively. I set very clear boundaries for everyone in the water and give thorough briefings on shark behaviour, clear instruction on how to conduct ourselves in the water, and always promote observation rather than “interaction”. Especially with social media taking off with shark content, I think it’s important to promote responsible standards for interacting with sharks. Sharks shouldn’t be misrepresented as sea pups or used as photo props. Although they aren’t the monsters that media has so often made them out to be, they are very capable apex predators that deserve the utmost respect. There’s no room for complacency or ignorance when sharing the water with them.
What is the biggest misconception you wish to debunk about sharks?
It used to be that sharks are monsters. But over the past decade I really feel there’s been a huge shift in the right direction for sharks in this aspect. So outside of that concept I do have a misconception that is a bit more behind the scenes. I find myself more stuck on the misconceptions and assumptions based around shark feeding. Sharks aren’t affectionate, they don’t seek out human interaction for pleasure. If you want to swim with sharks, if you want to photograph sharks, if you want to research sharks… 99% of the time it requires chumming to do so. There’s so much misconception around the practice of baiting/chumming/shark feeding. It’s a taboo topic that everyone tries to avoid (even networks don’t like to show this side of the process during docuseries). But it takes a lot of work and a lot of patience to work with sharks and it’s not at all like what most people imagine. The whole “drop of blood in an olympic size swimming pool” fact that is dropped in mainstream media over and over gives me a bit of a laugh considering the hours and hours and buckets and buckets of blood and fish bits it takes to see a single shark sometimes. And even then, sometimes they couldn’t care less and still go about their own way. I feel the majority of people imagine that a couple sardines will send sharks in an absolute blood thirsty frenzy. You’d be surprised how picky sharks are about what they eat and also how cautious and analytical they tend to be.
What are your projects and research focused on now?
Right now I’m currently assisting with the field research aspect of a blacktip reef shark genetics project here in Mo’orea for the CRIOBE (Mo’orea’s center for ocean research). I’m also working with the French Polynesian environmental protection agency on a project focused around the oceanic white tip shark. We are setting a population baseline and mapping habitat preference through photo-identification and surveys (started in 2016) done year round as well as working with whale tourism operators in training them on shark behaviour and guest safety as the oceanic white tip shark tends to show up where the whales are. Ensuring a positive human-shark relationship is important for not only the tourism here but also the culture as sharks are highly respected in Polynesian culture. I’ve also got a remote atoll tiger shark population study going on in which we just documented our 30th individual at a juvenile and sub-adult hotspot site. This site is especially unique as it is inside a lagoon and has heavy overlap with fishermen, making it especially interesting to try to understand the human-shark link in both habitat use and perception. I’ve also got some more mainstream media stuff that I’ve been working on the last few months that is set to come out later this year. I can’t really say too much about it but I’m excited to spread some love for sharks on bigger platforms and hopefully inspire the next generation that might be interested in marine research or environmental protection. Our foundation typically does a few different projects each year with the oceanic white tip and tiger shark studies continuing annually. Outside of research we do a lot of school and community presentations and awareness campaigns.
Sharks have a PR problem. Media have long cast them villains, they are actively culled and are at risk from environmental factors in every direction. In smaller economies, shark finning emerges for the high value return in foreign markets. But as Angelo Villagomez, manager of the Pew Charitable Trusts' global shark conservation campaign says, "Sharks are worth more alive. Sharks are fished because they have value in fisheries, but a lot of tropical island locations, especially holiday destinations, have found that they can get a lot more out of their resources with dive tourism." Shark ecotourism provides an opportunity to learn about sharks’ role in ocean ecosystems, and to view and interact with them in their natural environment. Transitioning local fishing areas to ecotourism is integral to the conservation of these great creatures. Koko's whale and shark expeditions are now up and running for the 2021 season, book in soon though as the spots are limited. And make sure to check out the ways to get involved with the Ma'o Mana Foundation.
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