Sunshine Valley's Ila France Porcher recently released a book called My Sunset Rendezvous - Crisis in Tahiti

Swimming with sharks

Ila France Porcher shares her Polynesian experiences in her new book

While many people consider sharks to be vicious creatures, Ila France Porcher has discovered their kinder side.

Porcher left Sunshine Valley in 1995 to pursue a career as a wildlife artist in Tahiti. When she found out there wasn’t a market for paintings in Polynesia, she started writing about the animals she was observing underwater. Porcher was particularly intrigued by the wild blackfin reef sharks.

“Nothing had prepared me for the undersea community,” she said. “I was expecting to be eaten when I first met a shark. Instead I found them to be curious and intelligent. I found evidence they were thinking and it turned out they had emotions.”

Porcher kayaked a half-hour every day to a lagoon to observe the sharks in their natural habitat. She spent hours swimming with the animals, analyzing their behaviour and taking photographs for her records. Over time, she was able to recognize 300 different sharks by their dorsal fins.

“Each one had a different response to me,” she said. “By observing the sharks as individuals, I found a whole new dimension of their lives and what they do, how they respond to each other and what they’re like.”

Porcher began to connect with other scientists around the world while gathering evidence about sharks that transcended common beliefs. In collaboration with a former professor from the University of Miami, she found the first evidence of cognition in sharks and the degree to which they are social creatures. As a result, her work was featured in a documentary that aired on the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

Porcher developed a relationship with the sharks she studied, many of which were finned for shark soup. When a company from Singapore began hunting them in August 2003, she witnessed a dramatic decline in the adult shark population and focused on protecting them from this cruel practice. The hard work of many wildlife advocates led to the protection of sharks under Polynesian law three years later.

The connections Porcher formed with the sharks in the lagoon inspired her to write and illustrate My Sunset Rendezvous – Crisis in Tahiti. The new book documents her intriguing observations, and includes stories about Tahitian life and some of the marine animals she was rehabilitating.

“Some of the more interesting stories are woven in to put the sharks intelligent behaviour in context,” she said. “This experience I had with the sharks was pretty much the highlight of my life. It was so unusual. In the end, the sharks treated me as a shark.”

My Sunset Rendezvous – Crisis in Tahiti is available online at www.amazon.com or www.barnsandnoble.com.

For more information, visit www.theplayoflife.org.