Mareike Dornhege

Water – the ocean, lakes and canals – were part of my life when I was growing up in northern Germany, where the white sandy beaches and strong winds off the North Sea make for a rough but beautiful landscape. We lived next to a large lake and I spent much of my childhood sailing on it and the Baltic Sea with my family, who were avid sailors. I also played along the lakeshore, watching grebes disappear under water and guessing where they would resurface. My grandfather loved to tell us the tale of Störtebecker, a famous German pirate who was convicted in Hamburg but managed to free all his men by means of an amazing scheme. Our staple foods were not ham and sausage, the traditional fare in Germany, but smoked salmon, trout and the tiny North Sea shrimp.When I was nine, my godmother gave me a coffee table book about sharks, which I still keep, stained and dog-eared, on my bookshelf. I remember my mother’s surprise when I presented her with a painting of a blue shark I had copied out of it. While my family was happy to sail and swim, I was far more interested in what is under the water. I got my first scuba licence at the age of 14 on the Canary Islands. I vividly remember my first dive: large schools of barracuda, keeping still in the water like arrows frozen in mid-flight; and a playful octopus on my hand, its texture amazingly velvety, more like a cat’s than a mollusc’s.Although I dived often, it would take several more years before I finally saw sharks underwater. My first encounter was with great whites in Gansbaai, South Africa, and I was awed at how calmly they approached the cage and boat, unlike anything I had seen in the media. My next encounter, with a single whitetip reef shark on the Great Barrier Reef, had me wondering why it was so hard to find them! By this time I was studying for a degree in environmental management and had begun to be aware of the impact humans have on the ocean. My decision to channel my passion for the ocean into sharks came during a research project in Honduras, where I was comparing the biodiversity of various reef sites depending on their location inside or outside marine protected areas and their proximity to sea grass and mangroves. Two months, two dives a day, 30 researchers, numerous locations and dive sites – and we could find only one, one single leopard shark, on all the hundreds of dives we logged. Clearly something was going on.