William Winram is a champion freediver and a passionate advocate for the protection of marine ecosystems. He uses his freediving abilities to help monitor shark populations, and he visited Melbourne Museum recently to talk about Great White Shark 3D, a new IMAX film that features him doing exactly that.
Image: Michele Monico
Source: William Winram
Most divers use SCUBA breathing apparatus, but freedivers like William reach similar depths while holding their breath. This is a very different way to interact with sharks, as William explains. "When you hold your breath, your heart rate reflexively slows. There's a whole shift, physiologically, that doesn't happen in SCUBA diving." He believes that freediving makes him less intrusive, because "with SCUBA, you're entering as an alien. You're taking apparatus from the surface world, so right away your relationship is totally different." Freedivers can also move more freely in the water column, and don't generate noisy bubbles. "For a lot of species, bubbles are a sign of aggression," says William. "If a male sea lion is getting upset, he blows bubbles and barks at us. That's how he shows his dissatisfaction."
William Winram preparing for his world record freedive attempt in September 2013, Egypt.
Image: Alice C. Attaneo
Source: William Winram
William describes the sharks he encounters – Great White Sharks, Hammerheads, Tiger Sharks and others – as "shy, curious and cautious predators", quite unlike the killing machines of media and cinema. "Sharks are not obsessed with or addicted to killing, but they do need to eat. They know that we're not their normal diet, so they don't typically eat us." His calm, respectful approach to the world's largest predatory fishes means he is able to tag sharks harmlessly, unlike some other tagging techniques that often kill the animal.
"It's like you're walking down the hallway and I hit you in the rear end with a hypodermic needle. Afterwards you have a little bruise but you're fine." He and his colleagues aim for the thick muscle at the base of the shark's dorsal fin and use a specially modified spearfishing gun. All that's left is a small dart and tag – and these tags are allowing scientists to learn about the feeding behaviour and global movement of sharks. Tagging has also shown that Great White Sharks head for a mysterious area in the middle of the Pacific known as the Shark Café. No one is quite sure what the sharks do there, but it is clear that the animals have complex annual migratory patterns.
He sees Great White 3D as an opportunity to address the misunderstandings about sharks and encourage interest in their conservation. "We like to demonise sharks and we like to glorify other creatures, and all of it is false. People want to have this fantasy, an unreal world where things are either beautiful or ugly, nice or not. Sharks are easy to exploit because they're not cute and cuddly," he says.
William Winram freediving with a Great White Shark in Isla Guadalupe, Mexico.
Source: Still from Great White Shark 3D
Like all apex predators, Great White Sharks are found in relatively low numbers, yet they are vital in moderating populations of other species. Ecosystems suffer when they lose their apex predators, so the decline in sharks from human activities worries William very much. "We need to understand that we are part of an ecosystem. 50 per cent of the oxygen that we breathe comes from the sea. At a certain point, if you kill them all off, the sea is done. It's time to respect your position and your role in your ecosystem."
Great White Shark 3D is now playing at IMAX Melbourne Museum.
William Winram's website
ABC Science: Great whites hang out in 'shark cafe'
'In deep water' by Tim Winton for the Sydney Morning Herald