Friends with serrated smiles

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 April, 2006, 12:00am

AS A FISHERMAN, back in the days when Aberdeen Harbour was teeming with junks and sampans, Cheng Chor-luk had his fair share of shark encounters, including one with the most feared predator of all.

'I caught a five-metre great white [shark] in my nets, fishing near one of the offshore islands just out of Hong Kong in Chinese waters,' he said.

As he was a fisherman earning a living from the sea, he kept his catch and sold it in the mainland.

'It was the natural thing to do back then,' he said.

For the past 30 years, however, Mr Cheng, 59, has not been killing sharks, but caring for them. His experience as a fisherman, not only in catching fish but also keeping them alive and transporting them to markets, was sufficiently relevant and valuable to land him a shore job at Ocean Park's Atoll Reef when it opened in the mid-1970s.

Since 1990, when the custom-built shark aquarium opened, he has risen to the position of senior aquariums supervisor - a hunter turned protector.

Thousands of visitors every day gasp with fright as they walk beside the tube-shaped exhibit, recoiling with horror at the sinister-looking, razor-toothed predators. Conjuring up images from movies such as Jaws, sharks have a unique knack of sending shivers down the spine.

Closer to home, they remind people of a spate of shark attacks in the early 1990s in Clear Water Bay, when a rogue monster claimed several lives. Hong Kong's most popular beaches have been guarded by nets ever since.

Yet, as the keeper of about 200 sharks representing more than 30 species at Ocean Park, Mr Cheng laughs at the suggestion that he may be dicing with death every time he swims among them to clean and take care of the park's $40 million, 450,000-litre tank.

'I have not once been injured by them, although there have been one or two incidents. When I have been under water feeding them, they have sucked on my wetsuit and gloves - but only by mistake, looking for food,' he said.

Mention to him that the most evil-looking beast in the tank - a two-metre nurse shark with protruding, serrated fangs - does not exactly look benevolent, and he merely laughs.

'It might look ferocious, but it is quite tame really. We have a pair and hope to breed them.'

His most painful injury, in fact, was from the venomous tail-spine of one of the stingrays that shares the aquarium.

Not surprisingly, the keepers do take precautions. They wear sturdy wetsuits and steel-meshed gloves when among the sharks. That is just in case the predators get into a frenzy, as they often seem to do on television. The keepers also keep their distance at feeding time.

'We stick food at the end of a pole, like a toothpick,' he said.

His reference to a toothpick is quite appropriate as sharks eat surprisingly little, consuming only about 1.4 per cent of their body weight daily - mostly tuna, mackerel, squid and multivitamins.

Ocean Park is wary of keeping any species of shark that might have an occasional taste for humans and therefore is too dangerous for comfort, such as the great white and bull sharks.

But Mr Cheng insists that most of the other species are relatively harmless.

'There is no reason for them to attack us. Sharks behave differently in an aquarium. They become conditioned to being here, with many born at Ocean Park, or exchanged from other marine parks. They don't have to look for their own food, so they are less aggressive,' he said. 'Some sharks even seem to behave as if they recognise us, by swimming past and having a look, but it is difficult to say if that is true or not.'

In general, however, he is convinced 'sharks are not necessarily dangerous, unless they are provoked'.

Some sharks are known to associate the colour yellow with food and to be sensitive to the smell of blood or hormonal influences during mating seasons.

'We do keep an eye on their behaviour,' Mr Cheng said.

This is especially advisable when catching a shark to transfer it from one tank or container to another, which is necessary if it needs medical attention or has to be put in quarantine on arrival.

'This can be a bit dangerous. You can't use nets as this may harm them - you have to use bare hands to restrain them,' he said.

Whatever the risks, Mr Cheng has become an avid believer in conserving sharks.

He is especially proud of Ocean Park's breeding programme, which has successfully reared about 30 species in captivity, including the tiger shark.

'I won't eat shark fin soup. At wedding banquets, I always explain how inhumane it is,' he said.

'The number of sharks caught accidentally by Hong Kong fishermen has declined dramatically since I was a fisherman, which indicates they are becoming a lot rarer.'

He said it was not only overfishing that threatened sharks, but habitat degradation and rising sea temperatures.

'They perform a valuable role in marine ecology and we should be conserving them, not driving them to extinction,' he added.



Be especially wary of sharks at feeding time and when they are being moved from one tank to another

Injuries or accidents

Surprisingly few. Most painful injury was inflicted by a stingray


Sturdy wetsuits, steel-meshed gloves - and caution


On the job

Species of shark you have encountered

More than 50

Who inspired you?

A fellow former fisherman who worked at Ocean Park

Where do you go to learn such things?

A lifetime of fishing and caring for sharks