Sharks celebrated at West Bay festival

Junior poster competition Sashka Parker, 6, receives her prize from the Department of Environment’s Wendy Williams.

There were sharks galore at the “SharKY Fest” in West Bay on Saturday – on a big projector screen, on children’s posters, on photographs, on arm and ankle tattoos, beer cans and, of course, on everyone’s lips.

SharKY Fest, organized by the Department of Environment and Marine Conservation International, aimed to educate people on the importance of sharks to Cayman’s marine environment and to the economy.

The event, at Divetech at Lighthouse Point on North West Point Road, was part awareness and education effort, and part celebration of the one-year anniversary of legislation that gives sharks legal protection in the Cayman Islands.

Heavy rain and blustery conditions throughout Grand Cayman did not keep the crowds away from the family friendly day, which featured video and Powerpoint demonstrations on shark identification, tagging and conservation; shark-themed face painting and cupcakes; temporary shark tattoos: and some free White Tip beer from the Cayman Islands Brewery.

The winning poster in the senior competition, by Maleek Powell.
The winning poster in the senior competition, by Maleek Powell.

Tim Austin and John Bothwell of the Department of Environment discussed the National Conservation Law, adopted in 2015, which provides complete protection of sharks in Cayman waters.

The DoE urged people to sign up as spotters to help keep track of the number of sharks in local waters and thus keep tabs on sharks that are already tagged as part of a monitoring program. They also want help in gathering photographs and details of untagged sharks.

Underwater photographer Ellen Cuylaerts posted a small exhibit of her shark photos and photos of other marine life, including manta rays.

“I love sharks,” Ms. Cuylaerts said in her presentation, in which she discussed how she manages to get so close to them for her photos.

She has been in the water with enough sharks to recognize when they are calm and pose no threat. She pointed to one example which shows a shark with its fins pointing down and its mouth closed, seemingly gliding serenely through the water. The animal seems to be just inches from the camera. “See, the shark is very calm,” Ms. Cuylaerts told the wide-eyed audience.

Sashka Parker’s winning poster.
Sashka Parker’s winning poster.

“I trust sharks enough that I let my teenage children in the water with them,” she said, showing images of her son and daughter swimming with sharks.

She showed another image of a group of four or five sharks, crowded together just under the water’s surface, side by side. “This is one of my favorites,” she said. “They look like gossiping housewives.”

Marine Conservation International shark researcher Mauvis Gore highlighted the monetary rewards of having a healthy shark population in local waters. She gave details from one study that estimates the total potential value of sharks to Cayman’s economy as between $46.8 million and $62.6 million.

Photographer Ellen Cuylaerts with some of her photos of sharks, many taken up close and personal. - PHOTOS: NORMA CONNOLLY
Photographer Ellen Cuylaerts with some of her photos of sharks, many taken up close and personal. – PHOTOS: NORMA CONNOLLY

She pointed out that divers and other tourists who come to Cayman to explore its underwater world want to see sharks and will return to a destination where seeing the creatures regularly is likely.

Between presentations, the Swanky Kitchen Band kept toes tapping, and staff at Vivo restaurant circulated with plates of free lionfish and falafel sandwiches.

Kids also got in on the act with artwork for a poster competition that attracted dozens of entries. Some highlighted man’s ongoing ill-treatment of sharks, and others emphasized how vital the animals are to a balanced ecosystem.

First prizes in the senior and junior poster competition went to Maleek Powell, 13, and Sashka Parker, 6, respectively. Maleek won a helicopter ride and Sashka won a camera from Cathy Church’s camera shop.

Bijou Forget took second place in the senior competition and Lauren Doud was third. Matthew Parchment and Ava Brown placed second and third, respectively, in the junior competition.

The posters will be displayed at the Government Administration Building over the next month.