Chris Fischer developed his passion for the sea while spending family vacations in Southwest Florida, which at the time seemed like a world away from his native Louisville, Ky. But when he returned to the region on Wednesday, as the expedition leader of the M.V. Ocean and star of the National Geographic Channel television series "Shark Men," it almost seemed like he was coming home.
"I'm a Kentucky boy, but I learned about the joy of fishing right here in Southwest Florida," said Fischer, who noted that his parents owned a condominium on Marco Island. "This is where it all began for me."
A lifelong adventurer with a passion for protecting the ocean's diverse aquatic species, Fischer and his fellow "Shark Men" made an overnight stop off the coast of Sanibel, promoting the last two episodes of the second season. The next first-run episode will be aired this Saturday, June 18 while the finale will be broadcast on Saturday, July 2. Both shows are at 10 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel.
However, the local appearance also had a purpose: to spread the word about the barbaric practice called shark finning.
"It's a bad trade for a bowl of soup," he said.
According to Fischer, the shark fin trade has reached epidemic proportions, with an estimated 50 to 90 million sharks killed annually by anglers who harvest the fish only for their fins. The fins are used in the creation of some traditional Chinese medicines as well as in recipes such as shark fin soup.
"People around the world aren't aware of what's going on," said Fischer. "Imagine if people were cutting the wings off of birds, and then let them go. People would walk through the park and see birds rolling around on the ground in agony. That's exactly what's going on at the bottom of the ocean, but with sharks."
During the month-long expeditions aboard the M.V. Ocean, Fischer, Captain Brett McBride and a dedicated crew of seven travel around the globe, where they hope to learn more about sharks. Encountering some of the largest specimens of the species — including the legendary great white — a team of anglers and scientists work cooperatively to capture the fish, collect blood and DNA samples, and attach a spot tag before releasing them back into the water.
"Shark finning has made a terrible impact on the world's shark population. Sharks really are in peril right now," said McBride, who previously worked alongside Fischer on the TV series "Offshore Adventures," which won two Emmy Awards. "You really have to love this life. It has to be a passion for you or else you're not going to be here very long."
Fischer said that he created "Offshore Adventures" in order to expose people to the world’s oceans, and so they could appreciate their beauty and complexity. Conservation and sustainable fisheries management were the show’s foundation, echoed by Fischer’s now famous send-off, “Go out! Discover the world’s oceans and be a responsible steward of the sea.”
The founding member of OCEARCH, a non-profit organization which works with international government leaders and conservation organizations on ocean-based environmental issues, Fischer praised some of the local efforts to protect wildlife.
"What you have here in South Florida are a lot of people dedicated to protecting the waters. They take notice of what's going on, which is a really good thing for the environment," he said. "I consider it a privilege to serve the oceans."
Fischer and McBride offered a tour of the 126-foot long, 33-foot wide M.V. Ocean, a former crabbing vessel, which is as much a part of the "Shark Men" team as its human crew. They showed off their fishing tackle, including heavy-gauge rods and reels, spearguns, an assortment of hooks as well as a shark cage, which McBride noted was primarily used by the camera crews and scientists.
During Season 2 of "Shark Men," the crew encountered a variety of shark species off the coasts of Mexico and Costa Rica, including tiger sharks which proved just as difficult to tag and release as their great white cousins.
"I think the tigers are even more dangerous than great whites, because they use a completely different fighting style," McBride explained. "If you give it any slack at all, they're going to roll and wrap themselves in the line. And when you're trying to unwrap the shark, they can snap at you. Smaller sharks aren't any less dangerous than larger ones — they're a little more squirrely and a lot quicker."
Fisher added that while he is looking forward to the next expedition — to the Galapagos Islands — which will depart this fall, he is happy to be heading home to his family in Park City, Utah.
"Normally a crew will go out on three expeditions every year," he said. "We just got back from doing four expeditions over seven months, so they boys are really pushing it."
Episodes of the third season of "Shark Men," which recently completed filming, are scheduled to air during the summer of 2012.
Members of the M.V. Ocean crew include Brett McBride, Denny Wagner, Louis Torres, Chris Fischer, Dave Olson and Jody Whitworth.