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ELEMENT SERIES: RILEY ELLIOTT

 

 

Let’s start at the beginning, where did you grow up, and where are you based now?

 

I was born in Vancouver, Canada. A Canadian Dad, Kiwi Mum, ended up moving to New Zealand age 5, and replaced snow, bears and bald eagles with ocean, possums and flightless birds. I am now based 50/50 between Auckland and Tairua on the Coromandel.

 

Has the ocean always been involved in your life?

 

When we moved to NZ, I was only 30 minutes drive from the famous left handers of Raglan, and surfing became my backbone sport and an avenue for a growing spiritual connection with nature. At that age, 14, you would never attach such corny words of enlightenment, but it was in fact where my love of the ocean came from. Surfing persisted through those adolescent years of cars, girls and parties, and remained the thing that kept me fit, engaged with people and the environment, and ultimately is what ironically got me into sharks. The fear of sharks was very present while surfing for six years in Dunedin, during my BSc and MSc. I had an encounter one day with a tiny shark, shat myself to say the least, BUT, instead of believing JAWS, as a budding marine biologist, I wanted to know what the facts were. Fate would have it, that on the wall of my marine science department office, was a flyer to attend an internship in South Africa, to study the Great White shark. 

 

Tell us about your first trip to south Africa?

Day one, arrive in Mossel Bay, four hours north of Cape Town. Score some epic waves first thing, then that afternoon drive on a boat only 1km from where I was surfing, to an island covered in seals, and witness 5m Great White jump out of the water devouring seals.

Day two……don’t go surfing lol.

But in spending more time out at sea, studying the Great Whites, I learnt that there was much more to the predation tactic of a Great White. It was not all JAWs, even though in that particular location it looked very much like it. The sharks would hunt morning and night, and in the day, actually swim inshore, and sit right under the surfers, which suffice to say, scared the shit out of me. But scientific explanation made me realise that sharks need to swim to breathe. You don’t want to run and after eating, nor do sharks. So, after a seal meal, the sharks sit in the waves because they do the breathing for them, via white, oxygenated water, being pushed in a continuous cycle through wave action. The whole experience of seeing this and learning it, made me realise that the sharks knew exactly what and where the seals were, and could clearly differentiate them from us (with only six fatal encounters globally, between man and shark – it’s reflective of how good sharks are at not making mistakes).

 


When did you first encounter sharks? What was your first experience?

 

I had seen JAWs first, as a kid. I had seen sharks on TV and in Aquariums. I caught a few school sharks, and then saw that small one while surfing in NZ and freaked out. Then I had the privilege of seeing Great Whites on a daily basis in South Africa in 2009. But what really hooked me on sharks, and in what I can only describe as a first, REAL, experience with sharks, was when I went in the water with them, without a cage, on their level, face to face.

 

Shark ecotourism was born, largely, in South Africa. In one part, through cage diving, but the more, real way, to experience sharks, was born through spear fishermen who were sick of losing fish to sharks, so they learnt how to speak the sharks’ language, and ‘fight back’, so to speak. This language is body language and is very similar to ‘Jake the Muss’ from Once Were Warriors. Sharks swim parallel to each other, sizing up who’s bigger, they bend their fins down, and arch their back, grit their teeth and pop their eyes, all as signals of don’t mess with me. Reading that, think Jake the Muss in the pub, or any hardcore dude or bully you’ve ever experienced, and their body language is what you use to differing degrees with sharks to ‘speak with them’.

When you show a shark that you are not prey, but a confident predator in the sea, your bluff can win, thanks to their surprisingly cautious mentality. And this whole process was taught to me in a 30-minute safety briefing before I rolled off the side of the boat, and into the realm of the sharks.

 

When did that interest move to wanting to study them?

I have always loved learning new skills and understanding why things work the way they do. My fear of sharks turned into a fascination because I was empowered with the skills to learn why sharks did what they did. The combination of my academic path, my recreational passions and my emotional desire, resulted in the ambition to undertake a PhD on sharks, in order to fulfil all aspects of who I was. I felt it was not only a self-satisfying path, but one where I may help an animal that has no voice and has always been the demon. But furthermore, I could also play both sides of the field, represent the reality of sharks, but also, remain relatable to the other team, the surfers and water users who fear them, as I myself continued to surf, around the world, whilst simultaneously, seeking out the best shark dive spots, which oddly overlap a lot.

 

Surfing, Spear fishing and free diving is a massive passion in your life, do your shark encounters ever make you worry when you are out there in their back yard?

I don’t worry at all while spear fishing and free diving, because I am playing by the rules. By this I mean the rules of how to swim with sharks – clear water, eye contact, and a calm demeanour. All things that are possible while freediving or spearfishing. All this that are generally the polar opposite while surfing. So, to be honest, I am still fearful of sharks while surfing, likely more fearful than when I was naïve. But I think it’s better to avoid naivety and thus negligence while recreating in a wild environment – choosing where I surf and when, based on knowledge rather than indulgence surely makes more sense than climbing Mt Everest with no understanding of crevasses or avalanches. I always say to people, fear is fine, it’s how we react to fear that matters. It should be with respect, not malice.

 

As a shark scientist, what are some of the misconceptions people have around sharks?

That they eat people. It’s simply not true. To make my point for those crying out bullshit, I think we can all agree that sharks are pretty capable predators. We are not exactly hard to catch prey, and there are billions of us in the sea every year, yet six on average, fatal encounters occur globally, which has to reflect the fact that sharks don’t actively eat people, or they would be chowing down at a far greater rate.

The second major point is that more sharks mean more fish in the sea. Seems odd and counter-intuitive, but it’s scientific fact. So before you agree with some salty fisherman, about to club a shark to death, or accept the drum lines and shark nets along your coast, realise that sharks are literally what make the ocean healthy, intact, and have been doing so for longer than any other animal on earth.

 

You have been able to travel the world with your conservation explorations, what are the key items you can’t leave home without?

Music. I literally have music on every second of the day, I even have sleep music. So, a wide array of moods, from Bon Iver chill times, M83 get the f%#k up times, I love how music enhances your emotional spectrum.

Then I have the heavier battle of deciding if it’s dive gear or surf gear to come with me. It’s a constant hinderance to my travel life, as it is very hard to fly with both, let alone try and jump in a Tuk-tuk in some random third world country with that much shit.

 

 Where is the best place to Surf, Freedive, and spearfish in NZ?

 

That’s tough to put all three together, as they somewhat conflict, ocean condition wise, but where I live during summer, in Tairua, on the Coromandel in NZ, has a good balance of great waves when there’s swell, and in the flat time, epic diving, fishing and for me, plenty of sharks. I feed myself here, I have employment through the Discovery Channel Shark Week shows I film here, and I recreate through surfing and diving here, so it’s a pretty good place in my books.

We noticed you were in Stewart island this month, the tiny island at the bottom of NZ, tell us about this experience?

 

Yes, I was filming a sequence for Discovery Channel Shark Week on Great Whites. Ironically, it was a show about Australian Great Whites. It will come out in December for us in the southern hemisphere, so I can’t say much more about the storyline, but there’s a link between Australian Great Whites and NZ ones, and the best place to observe them is Stewart Island. It blew me away seeing those amazing creatures once again, in the flesh, and there’s still nothing but awe when you do. Amazing creatures, insane potential, gnarly capabilities, and some very real fear, BUT, as I have said, respond to that fear with a fascination, a respect, a desire to learn more, rather than a naive malice. That’s why we got in the water surrounded by them lol.

 

How important is networking and building a following in your industry?

I hate social media. Lol. Let me just start with that. BUT it’s a necessary tool for many industries and it no different in mine believe it or not. The reason I despise aspects of social media is that it seemingly does more harm than good. The fact that ‘tits and ass’ can gain you millions of followers is not a positive direction I believe, and what’s worse about it, is those that achieve huge audiences generally don’t represent true messages or meaning which would actually help the world, our planet, nature, and thus ourselves. It goes the same for dumb males, who post stupid, jack ass videos, or examples of males being stupid, or on the other side, billionaire males objectifying everything. It sucks up so much of peoples’ time, doesn’t really result in huge pros, more usually cons, of anxiety, self-doubt, measuring against a fake reality. But there are some excellent accounts out there also, ones with meaning, empowerment, and beneficial purpose. It doesn’t get you as large or as quick a following, but at least it’s morally sound I personally believe. I use my social media account to communicate science, and it is a recipe I live by; that of using stimulating visual imagery, in modern media, laced with science, in order to improve the communication of science, beyond conventional scientific publication in journals. I feel these traits apply to myself growing industry connections, as any other person should; by being honest, true, purposeful, and ultimately ensuring that what it is that you do every day, is for a reason that benefits people, humanity, nature and the earth. If it doesn’t, perhaps some self-refection is required.

What do you miss most when you’re away from home?

My fiancé and my dog. Simple as that J

 

What does the next 5 years look like for you?

I have been trying very hard to get a factual, purposeful and educational TV series off the ground for a long time. TV has desired reality TV primarily these days, but I have a show green lit, on an international network, so I am venturing into some diluted waters, trying to blend factual and reality in a way that will retain my morals.

 

What’s your day-to-day look when you’re not at out in the ocean?

Emails, emails, emails. The fun shit doesn’t happen without a bunch of work.

 

What’s one activity on your bucket list?

Japan, snowboard, chin deep in powder.

 

Lastly finish this sentence: I like getting back outdoors into the elements because….?

It provides a reality check that nature is a system that has evolved to co-exist, work with one another, or you die. That’s poignant when you go back to work and determine what your moral grounding is. Chur

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@thelifeofrileynz

 

 


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