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Shark tale just part of epic Pacific journey

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Island to island: Andreas Ratteray carries the Bermuda flag while touring the Pacific with the Sea Education Association (Photograph supplied)

Andreas Ratteray thought he was the smartest thing in the ocean, until he met some sharks.

The 20-year-old had a close call this summer, while touring the Pacific with the Sea Education Association.

“I am a pretty short dude and I was with two other short people in a large group of divers,” he said. “We were swimming with sharks. The sharks saw we three were the smaller, scrawnier people.

“They got us away from the group and, before we knew it, we were surrounded. These sharks are smart. They were trying to get us. It wasn’t scary in the sense we were going to be eaten, what was scary was how smart they were. We pride ourselves on intelligence but as cautious as we were being, these sharks were still able to separate us from the group.”

He and his friends simply swam back to the safety of the other divers, but it was a humbling experience.

“It showed me I am not in control of other organisms,” he said. “I was a guest in their environment.”

SEA is a Cape Cod-based marine education programme for undergraduates. They have two tall ships the SSV Robert Seamans in the Pacific, and the SSV Corwith Cramer which tours the Atlantic and sometimes visits Bermuda.

Mr Ratteray spent five weeks on the SSV Robert C Seamans visiting French Polynesia and the Line Islands in the Kiribati Republic, between Hawaii and Tahiti.

The college junior signed up with SEA to gain field experience for his oceanography degree at Stanford University in California.

He found it interesting that some of the islands in the Kiribati Republic were as far as 3,000 miles from the capital, Tarawa.

“When we visited Christmas Island, they were supposed to have a ferry that took six days to get to the capital,” he said. “Unfortunately, they had run out of money, so there was no connection to the capital.”

The journey led to an interesting dynamic. “There was a lot of illegal fishing in the area,” he said. “You saw a lot of Chinese fishing boats. Because the islands are so far from the capital, there is no marine policing, so the fishing boats could do what they wanted.”

His special project was to survey corals around five different islands and study parrot fish and snappers.

He found there were more diverse species of parrot fish in the Line Islands than in Bermuda, but they were smaller. The snappers, however, were much bigger.

“You rarely find a snapper in Bermuda more than 2ft long,” he said. “I was regularly seeing them more than 3ft long.” The health of the coral reefs varied from island to island. He saw almost no cover around Christmas Island, which in 1957 was the site of a British nuclear testing project called Grapple X.

People on many of the islands lived very simple lives.

“Many lived in houses made out of corrugated aluminium,” he said. “Typical housing structures were metal shipping containers. A lot of the islands experience drought so they can’t just grow their own food.

“They don’t have the means to build houses. With the advent of modern technology and westernisation they try to live a more western lifestyle, but that forces them to sacrifice their old ways of living.”

He said most of the time you couldn’t tell anyone was living on an island until you pulled right up to it.

“Then, you might see people fishing along the coast, or swimming in the water,” he said.

“When we neared Hawaii, from miles away, you could just see this wall of light. It looked like something out of a Star Wars movie. It did not look real to see skyscrapers in the middle of the ocean.”

He liked the way the people on the smaller islands had a simple way of life. “They live in harmony,” he said. “They lead a much happier life, even though they don’t have as much as we have.”

At one point he offered someone a skateboard magazine as a gift.

“They thought it was so ridiculous and didn’t understand what a skateboard was,” he said.

He decided oceanography would be a great way to combine scuba diving with his desire to protect the ocean.

“I don’t want to tell my grandchildren that back in the day, you could see schools of parrot fish,” he said.

His dream is to work at BIOS.

“That is what I am doing this summer,” he said.

“I would like to have my own lab where I could experiment on all the things I want.”

The Sea Education Association’s 134ft tall ship, the 'SSV Robert C. Seamans' (Photograph supplied)
Fishing for yellowfin tuna, north of the Society Islands, French Polynesia (Photograph supplied)
Two students walking to school on Kiritimati Island (Photograph supplied)