Meet Shark Eco Tour Owner & Photographer Ryan Walton
Author: Barbara Mattiace
Shark conservationist, Professional underwater photographer/videographer, Dive instructor, Shark eco-tourism operator, Shark educator, Traveler and Explorer
I am a dying breed. I am what is known as a “Native Floridian”. I was born and raised in the Sunshine State and have lived here all my life. Because of this, I have been fortunate to have another title...beach bum. As a child my life revolved around going to the beach on weekends and during the summer or being out on the boat with my family and friends.
Needless to say, the ocean has always been a very important part of my life. I have always loved to snorkel, but it was not until I was an adult that I became a certified scuba diver. This is where I met Ryan Walton. He was working in the dive shop where I was getting my certification. His love for all things diving and ocean was infectious, and he was always there to help when you needed it. As a newbie, I could live vicariously through his diving adventures until I was able to collect some of my own.
Through Ryan I learned the truths about sharks. I felt that because I had watched every year and every episode of Shark Week, I was quite knowledgeable about these amazing creatures. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Being around people like Ryan who are passionate about protecting sharks is an eye opener.
Many think that those of us that are willing to swim with sharks are crazy. I don’t know about that but what I do know is there is no experience like in on this earth. It is one of the most humbling and exhilarating experiences all in one. You immediately realize that sharks are not vicious man-eater as they have been portrayed in Hollywood. There have been times a shark has swam right past me and not even taken a second look. We are not on their menu so to speak. They are more curious about us than wanting to openly attack us for no reason. Sharks are a top apex predator in the oceans that provide a delicate balance that keeps our oceans healthy. They should be respected, not feared.
Unfortunately, they are being slaughtered at the rate of around 100 million per year. Some for shark fin soup. This process is called shark finning and it is a cruel and wasteful process where the shark is caught, and its fins are cut off and the shark is thrown back in the ocean to drown. Some are caught for sport fishing while others are what is known as by-catch. Large fishing ships drag their nets behind them and scoop up whatever is in their path. Needless to say, loosing sharks at such an alarming rate throws off the delicate balance of the ocean’s eco system and is detrimental to having healthy oceans.
This is where Ryan comes in. Through his photography and public speaking he educates people on the importance of shark conservation. But the most effective ways he does this is by taking people out to swim with sharks. This allows people to see firsthand the beauty, grace and power of these animals. It also lets them see that sharks are not man eating monsters that attack everything that moves in the water. Most people leave with a new found understanding for sharks and realize how important it is to protect them. It is because of my adventures with Ryan and sharks that I have such a respect for not only their vital role in the balance of nature but an appreciation for their grace, beauty and power.
Ryan photographing a tiger shark Image: Josh Schellenberg
1. What motivated you to start diving/swimming with sharks?
I was motivated to start swimming with sharks and more specifically taking others swimming with sharks to help inspire more people to want to protect sharks.
2. Once someone comes out with you to swim with sharks, do you see a change in their perception of them?
I love watching people’s perception change. Sometimes, I have people who are already big time shark people, so to speak…but I also have many who come out to conquer their fears and I love being a part of that! ( SHARK TOURS FL)
3. What has been the most exciting species that you have encountered and why?
Mako sharks are the most exciting species I get to work with. They always require 100% of your attention! I was able to do a dusk dive with a few Mako sharks and a blue shark. The Mako shark came in and did a check, or bumped the blue shark with it’s snout, inches from my camera!
4. Do you think that sharks have personalities? Are some species different from others in that way?
Sharks absolutely have different personalities. Just like people, each shark has its own personality based on its life experiences. Some sharks grow up socially learning how to adapt from each other, but some are solitary and lead a totally different life.
5. Do you feel eco tourism adventures such as yours are creating a positive learning experience for people and what is the most important message you want them to take away from being with sharks in their natural habitat?
Eco-tour operators have the perfect platform to be a voice for sharks. I can speak for me specifically when I say that we utilize every chance we can to teach our guests about shark behavior and the threats that sharks face worldwide, now we can help them.
Certain shark that we have worked with, like Miss Snooty and Stevie the Lemon sharks, have become faces of ecotourism in our area. People travel here from all over just to see those specific animals. Not only does that benefit the shark operators, and those willing to speak positively on behalf of sharks, but it benefits all the businesses associated with a Shark eco-tour operation such as: airlines, restaurants and hotels.
Ryan diving with a great hammerhead shark Image: Josh Schellenberg
6. What is your favorite shark and why?
This is hard for me to give just one answer. My favorite shark in general is the Epaulette shark. It is a fascinating species of cat shark found in the Pacific. It can actually walk using its fins. But my favorite sharks to work with in the water would be the Mako and Tiger sharks. Both of their personalities are so demanding. I feel like it is a gift every time I am in the water with either one of those species.