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Wild about sharks

By Stephen Uhler, The Daily Observer

William Winram, freediving champion, speaks about his work with sharks at Algonquin College in the Ottawa Valley recently. The event, entitled "Wild About Sharks," is part of a lecture series he is doing across Canada and the U.S.

William Winram, freediving champion, speaks about his work with sharks at Algonquin College in the Ottawa Valley recently. The event, entitled "Wild About Sharks," is part of a lecture series he is doing across Canada and the U.S.

A close encounter with a tiger shark a quarter century ago set William Winram on a path which leads him to swim unprotected with the animals on regular basis.

He was spear fishing and just snagged himself a fish when his activities attracted a 4 1/2-metre long, 500 kilogram shark.

"The idea at the time was these were maneaters," Winram said during his lecture "Wild about Sharks," which he presented to some 200 people assembled at Algonquin College in the Ottawa Valley, including 40 students from Opeongo High School, as well as others from Oshawa's Durham College, who were watching through live streaming on the Internet.

"I was petrified," he said, being so far off shore at the time. But the shark surprised him by only being interested in the fish. As Winram made his way to shore, the shark followed him, keeping a respectful distance and not displaying any hostility towards him. He realized then the shark was afraid of him, and would flee if approached aggressively.

Later, Winram looked up the latest research on sharks to try and figure out this one's behaviour, and discovered the books didn't help at all, sticking with the narrative the shark was a maneater. He knew based on his personal experience with them the one he encountered certainly didn't act like the savage predator it was described as being.

"This tweaked my curiosity," he said, "as maybe we didn't know as much as we thought about sharks."

It is that driving curiosity which led the world-record holding free diver - a person who dives deeply without scuba equipment and only on a single breath of air - to become involved in ocean conservation, and to help the world understand sharks better.

"I wanted to share with people a different perspective on sharks," Winram said, and in collaboration with photographer Fred Buyle, use both photos and video footage to show a different side of the animals, which suffer from a bad image problem.

"They are an easy target," he said.

In 2012, Winram founded "The Watermen Project", a non-profit organization dedicated to ocean conservation, and in 2013 was made an Oceans Ambassador by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In May and September of 2013, he continued to use his breath-holding, free-diving skills, setting two new world records in diving.

His experience in free diving eventually led him to use his breath-holding skills to swim with the sharks, a valuable ability as he makes no noise while in the water which could spook the creatures.

Winram is one of a handful of people who dives freely with Great White Sharks out of the cage, without the use of protective devices, and he has recently been diving in the Bahamas, tagging Hammerhead sharks for scientific knowledge.

During his 25 years of diving experience, he has personally seen the decline in the health of the oceans, the reduction in biodiversity, and the loss of many species of sharks.

Winram is featured in the recent IMAX 3D film Great White Shark, and hopes through this film, people will learn more about sharks, and replace their fear with knowledge and respect. With his ongoing educational tour, he aims to garner more support for shark protection.

He said by tagging sharks, he is helping to allow researchers to add to humanity's knowledge of the animals, and research is critical to protecting sharks and their habitat, which is disappearing rapidly. Through film and photos, and his personal anecdotes, Winram says he is trying to establish a connection between the public and the shark.

"I hope by establishing a relationship with the animal, I can encourage understanding and hopefully conservation of the species," he said, noting many species of shark are endangered.

Winram's speaking engagement at the college was arranged through the Canadian Wildlife Federation, with which the school entered into an agreement with in November 2013. Under that, students and staff benefit from its many excellent educational opportunities.

Karen Davies, Pembroke campus dean, said this special partnership with the CWF enables the college to tap into subject-matter experts such as Winram.

"We are very fortunate to be included in his educational tour -- "Wild About Sharks"--which also includes talks in the Ottawa region and the Greater Toronto area. Having him here in Pembroke is a fantastic opportunity for local students, faculty and the public alike."

The college hopes to continue bringing in more experts of this calibre through the CWF partnership in the near future.

Stephen Uhler is a Daily Observer multimedia journalist

stephen.uhler@sunmedia.ca


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