We spoke with the Save Our Seas Foundation CEO Michael Scholl about where his passion for sharks began and what drives it.
How did sharks become an important part of your life?
I grew up in Switzerland, and although it’s a landlocked country, I have always been drawn to the ocean. There was a natural history museum my mom would take us to a couple of times a year. Incidentally, the centrepiece of that museum is the largest stuffed great white shark in the world. It’s a six-metre long animal that was caught in the 1950s just off the coast of France. I remember walking straight past the dinosaurs and stuffed animals and standing in front of this thing and just dreaming. That shark was so huge and for me, magical.
When did you first see a shark outside of an aquarium?
I was in the Florida Keys and I went on a snorkelling trip on one of those tourist boats with 30 other people. I was the first one in the water and as I jumped in, I looked down and there was a nurse shark swimming 10 metres below me. I’ll never forget it.
How did you end up studying sharks in South Africa?
I started my studies in biology in Switzerland and then went to the University of Aberdeen to complete a marine component. I got my first field experience with sharks at the Sharklab in Bimini (the Bahamas) where I was a volunteer research assistant.
After this I returned to Switzerland. At the time, there was very little interest in sharks in the country. That meant that even though my experience was limited I was kind of a shark specialist in Switzerland. One day, in 1996, somebody called me up and said they were organising a Shark expedition to South Africa for Swiss people. They asked if I’d be interested in coming along to act as
a translator and shark guide.
The trips never materialised, but I did go down to South Africa for an exploratory trip. I quickly realised there was no one, to my knowledge, doing research on white sharks at the time. Here was a place with a massive population of great whites and no one was studying them! I returned to South Africa six months later and ended up staying for almost 10 years.