From fear to fascination: Riley Elliott
April 13, 2018
Words: Helene Ravlich/
Photos: Motion Sickness
Kiwi scientist and speaker Riley Elliott – AKA the Shark Man – is most definitely at the other end of the ‘get better work stories’ spectrum. A surfer, spear-fisherman, free-diver, scuba diver, motivational speaker and more, Riley has recently outgrown the tag ‘Shark Man’ and morphed into ‘The Life of Riley’, focusing on the broader picture of the marine environment and how we can enhance our lives through a better understanding of nature and how we interact with it.
When we talk he’s at home in the town of Tairua on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, where he lives with his partner, Amber. It’s the kind of spot where on any given day he could find himself out in the ocean swimming with his beloved sharks, or planning new and innovative ways to spread the word about how very important our marine environment is to us, and future generations.
Despite Riley’s recent wider shift of focus, sharks are where he specialized in the academic realm, a move that he says, was motivated mostly by protocol and tradition. “You have to narrow your focus down to one topic when you’re in those circles,” he explains. “And I chose sharks because they really are the pin-up boys for the holistic marine environment. They are at the top; they capture an audience and then allow you to disseminate knowledge about the bigger picture.”
His passion is to “re-emotionally engage people with nature,” and by nature he means the real thing, as opposed to the technologically re-created versions that many of the younger generation are hooked on. “I know that tech is a necessary evil and I use it as a key platform,” says Riley, “but trips into nature are really necessary re-sets for me. I like to think that I use my ‘nature kid’ background coupled with my academic experience to spread the word on my platform about what’s really out there if you take the time to explore it.” He laments the fact that governments aren’t listening to scientists as much as they used to, and says that engagement with the public is now more vital than ever. “And if that’s using the forms by which most of the public get their info then so be it,” says the marine biologist.
His father – a neurosurgeon and astrophysicist, now a GP – instilled in a young Riley the importance of research and exploration, as well as the philosophy that life will be richer if you chase your passion rather than money. He says that attitude was “pretty much a hall pass to get out there in nature and find out what makes things tick,” and it led to a life focused on nature and its possibilities. “In the modern day we really need to get out there and explore more than ever,” explains Riley. “Just to put our finger on the pulse of the environment and see how we can live a far richer and more sustainable, profitable life if we co-exist and couple with nature rather than just utilize it to our own ends.”
“We need to face our fears and use that as a tool to stimulate growth and understanding.”
Riley chooses to regularly co-exist closely with sharks, a creature that many a human being has an innate fear of. Did his initial fascination come from fear? “I got into sharks because I was studying dolphins in Fiordland and would surf every day,” he explains. “And when you’re in that part of New Zealand sharks are always in the back of your mind. I’d only had the ‘Jaws’ movie education at that point and yeah, I was shit scared of them!”
One day while scuba diving he saw one up close, and breaking all the rules of shark engagement, boosted himself to the surface to get away from it. “I was clearly fearful, but only through naivety,” he says. “A fear is something you can deal with in two ways: you can be naïve and fearful and therefore hate something and avoid it, or you can use it as an indicator of what you don’t know.” He says that adventurers opt for the latter, and he himself used his fear to gain an understanding. His fear then became a fascination.
He says that same approach can be channeled into many areas, such as big corporations that may be fearful of climate change or fisheries that may be fearful of actually managing their resources. “People may be fearful of the environment and nature because we’ve been so disengaged from it for so long, but we need to face our fears and use that as a tool to stimulate growth and understanding.”
“Nature will punish you for being ill-prepared, and that’s the thrill of the experience.”
“I like to think that I use my ‘nature kid’ background coupled with my academic experience to spread the word about what’s really out there if you take the time to explore it.”
He says that conquering his own personal fear of sharks gave him not only a better understanding of the whole situation, “but also enabled me to achieve some great conservational victories for these animals that I once feared. Public perception is slowly shifting from fearing these animals through naivety to protecting them and valuing them.”
Lastly, how does a man who spends so much time in nature get his thrills? “There really is no greater thrill than exploration,” says the scientist. “To plan a trip to a place you’ve never been before – even if it’s in your own backyard – is just the best feeling. The build up, the experiencing of something new… it doesn’t get much better than that.”who kicked me into action. Children really are the game changers.
And as for nature? “Nature doesn’t care about you when you’re in those environments. Nature will punish you for being ill-prepared, and that’s the thrill of the experience. That little bit of a danger is what makes any wild environment thrilling.”
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