Like most scuba divers I know, I’m fascinated by sharks and rays. They are mysterious and elusive. Swimming weightlessly underwater, you’re overwhelmed by their sheer beauty, elegance, strength and, in some cases, their incredible size. As they glide past you, it’s literally breathtaking.

As a diver I’m a natural ocean advocate. But before I learnt how to blow bubbles underwater, my thoughts about sharks were predominantly guided by the Hollywood portrayal of man-eating sharks with their predatory nature and relentless thirst for blood. The reality, of course, is far from the Hollywood tale many of us are led to believe.

Put quite simply: sharks and rays are much more threatened by us, than we are by them. With nearly one in four shark and rays species now threatened with extinction, overfishing makes some sharks and rays the most vulnerable animals in the ocean. The good news is, governments increasingly recognise marine tourism as an economically viable alternative to fishing – a complementary strategy to the necessary, yet severely lacking, controls on fishing and trade.  

As a diver, I’m part of an amazing group of advocates who demonstrate the value of healthy, thriving shark and ray populations. Together, we can play a key role securing safeguards for these species.

That’s why this year, Project AWARE launched #Divers4SharksNRays, a global social media campaign geared towards harnessing the power of the global voice of the dive community ahead of the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to  the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES CoP17), September 24 – October 5.

Virgin Unite, Oceans, Project Aware, Sharks, Rays

CITES is the world’s largest wildlife agreement, whereby 183 countries (who are a Party to CITES) come together once every three years to develop practical solutions to complex wildlife trade problems. Because the trade of wild animals and plants crosses borders between countries, regulation requires international cooperation to protect wildlife from over-exploitation. This powerful international agreement has the ability to reduce pressure on commercially valuable shark and ray populations sought for their fins, wings, gill plates, meat, oil, teeth and cartilage.

With nearly one in four shark and ray species now threatened with extinction, overfishing makes some sharks and rays the most vulnerable animals in our ocean

At the last CITES CoP16 in 2013, Project AWARE and NGO partners helped secure international trade controls for the giant manta ray, three species of hammerhead and the iconic oceanic whitetip. We presented over 250k signatures from the scuba diving community encouraging CITES Parties to vote yes. The voice of the dive community helped bring a positive outcome for the monitoring of international trade in those species.

This September at CITES CoP17, we’re encouraging CITES Parties to vote yes. This time, for nine species of devil rays, three species of thresher shark and the silky shark.

Virgin Unite, Oceans, Project Aware, Sharks, Rays

And we’re uniting scuba divers once again in our efforts and actions. Since the launch of #Divers4SharksNRays, divers have joined forces from every corner, and dive site, of our ocean planet – sharing images online with our campaign hashtag. Together we’re voicing our support and encouraging CITES Member Parties to protect these commercially valuable shark and ray species from the potentially devastating effects of unregulated and unsustainable international trade. CITES CoP17 begun on September 24, but it’s not too late to get involved. We need more ray and shark advocates in the world! Whether you’re a scuba diver or not, you can join efforts to protect sharks and rays. 

Virgin Unite, Oceans, Project Aware, Sharks, Rays

Add your support to #Divers4SharksNRays and learn more about sharks and rays. Start by watching Project AWARE’s new video: ‘Why are Devil and Mantas at Risk?’ and share it to help raise awareness of the plight of these majestic creatures. And if you've ever seen a shark or ray on your dive or snorkeling adventures why not positively share your experience with your friends and family to help dispel misconceptions. 

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This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.