But these formidable fish now swim into an uncertain future, with a third of all shark species considered either vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
To raise awareness of the plight of sharks, and bust some of the unhelpful myths that surround them, German expats Holger Schwab and Alex Loew launched The Fin Arts in 2017. The Phuket-based social enterprise displays and sells shark sculptures, each one handpainted by its growing network of local and international artists, with 20% of proceeds going to shark and marine conservation projects.
As keen, experienced divers – Holger as owner of Sea Bees Diving since 1995 and Alex as a diving instructor on the island since 2005 – the pair have seen the decline of shark populations in Phuket firsthand.
“The most significant species we’ve seen disappear are leopard sharks. When I started diving, around Shark Point and at other sites near Phi Phi Island, I’d see schools of leopard sharks at least 50% of the time. But by 2010, there were seasons where I’d see only one or two the entire time,” explains Alex.
Phuket waters are also home to blacktip reef, whitetip reef, grey reef, bamboo, nurse, bull and whale sharks, and their diminishing numbers can be attributed to unregulated fishing, bycatch, a continued demand for shark fins for soup and teeth and jaws for souvenirs, and contact with marine debris, such as plastics and discarded “ghost nets”.
Holger and Alex had wanted to set up a conservation project on the island for some time, and seeing Elephant Parade on display in Chiang Mai two years ago gave them the inspiration they needed. In a similar vein to The Fin Arts, Elephant Parade exhibits decorated elephant statues to raise awareness of the need for elephant conservation.
Alex connected with Elephant Parade’s regional manager to learn more, and before long he was back in Phuket undertaking an apprenticeship at a local arts studio creating moulds for his own shark sculptures.
The sculptures come in three sizes: 30-centimetre sharks cast in polyresin to decorate desks and shelves; and 100- and 150-centimetre sharks made from fibreglass, statement pieces that The Fin Arts uses to catch eyes at conventions. A host of talented artists are on hand to decorate the sculptures – including Alex, an art school graduate – or customers can opt to paint them themselves. In this way, no two art pieces are ever truly the same.
“Sharks are one of the oldest species on the planet. They’re a success story by nature,” says Alex. “For us, sharks are art made by nature and we want to convey that to people with our sculptures. It can be difficult to start up a conversation about marine conservation, but I think our sculptures help.”
Shark Guardian, the main conservation project The Fin Arts supports, is also firmly focused on opening up a dialogue about these important creatures. The UK-registered charity, founded by PADI Course Director Brendan Sing and his wife PADI instructor Liz Ward- Sing in 2009, collaborates with marine biologists and shark experts to share data and research, visits schools across the world to educate the next generation about the plight of sharks, and petitions and lobbies governments. Through their presentations alone, they reach out to approximately 20,000 people each year.
Awareness campaigns like Shark Guardian’s have certainly made their mark. Consumption of shark fin soup in China has fallen by a staggering 80% in recent years, for example, but this has been offset by a growing demand for the “exotic” meat in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. Nowadays, you don’t have to look far in Phuket’s fresh markets and seafood restaurants to find a baby shark on ice.
But with determined individuals like Holger and Alex, and dedicated NGOs like Shark Guardian, there’s hope that, in the future, a trophy will no longer be an endangered shark caught for its fin; a trophy will be a fibreglass sculpture bought and painted for their conservation.
For more information, visit thefinarts.com and www.facebook.com/thefinarts. The Fin Arts’ shark sculptures are available through their website or at the Sea Bees Diving centre in Chalong. If you are an artist and are interested in a collaboration, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 080 143 5472.