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Sharks and Conservation

One Family's Efforts - Now a Three-Generation Legacy

Born in 1973, John Stokes grew up near the golden sands of California and Hawaii. He was introduced to the ocean shortly after he was born and has had a lifelong connection to the ocean and bodies of water throughout his life. Around age five he began snorkeling and free diving and then became SCUBA certified in 1992. He is currently pursuing certification as a Dive Master on the way to obtaining Tech Diver certification. He also holds a Rescue Diver certification.

His diving adventures include Pacific beaches in Hawaii (every island), California, Oregon, Alaska, three locations in Mexico and Canada. Gulf of Mexico locations include Texas and Mexico and he’s completed dives in the Atlantic, including South Carolina. Inland dives include the Great lakes and countless rivers around the globe. With experience SCUBA and free diving in three oceans, John has even been on diving excursions in the Vladimir region of Russia shortly after the close of the Cold war.

He has had a strong interest in sharks from a young age but didn’t see his first shark in the wild until 1992 (the same year his family moved to Grand Junction), while diving off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in California. A blue shark swam by, made a big circle, then disappeared into a kelp bed. It was: "amazing, curious and harmless, beautiful and graceful!"

John grew up closely acquainted with Ralph Collier who founded the Shark Research Committee in 1963. Ralph was also his dad’s best friend in high school. Darrell Stokes is one of the original members of the Committee and has been involved with shark conservation and research projects far and wide ever since.

Ralph Collier is one of the foremost shark biologists in the world. He's also regarded as the leading authority and top white shark biologist in the Pacific.

They got their start by going out on barges at night, catching sharks and then turning them over to biologists for examination. True pioneers, no doubt. As their scientific studies have advanced, it is now quite rare to find research done by conservationists where sharks are deliberately killed for study purposes. Sharks are often collected from fishing or shark nets where they have become entangled.

Much of what happens to create imbalance in the earth’s ecosystems is caused by humans’ indiscriminate use of resources in irresponsible ways. For example, trawlers dragging the ocean floor for shrimp kill countless other species, often without regard for what is being removed along with the intended species. Terms like sustainably caught and responsibly harvested often disregard the often-irreparable harm done to species not considered “threatened”. Truthfully, harvesting just the sexually mature can be as devastating to an ecosystem as dredging a swath that takes every species encountered as in the case of bottom dragging trawlers.

Sharks are the housekeepers of the ocean. They cull the weak, old and sick and allow the strong, healthy and sexually mature of the many species around them to thrive. Humans either take too many mature of a species or act without any selective process to preserve the rest of the ecosystem. It happens on land too. The point, true responsibility means recognizing the consequences and making corrections to how we interact with nature, especially when we are so dependent upon it. Consider this: the majority of the earth’s oxygen supply is produced by tiny micro-organisms called diatoms in the oceans covering more than 70 percent of our planet’s surface. Like to breathe? Protecting the oceans is the best way to assure we all get to keep doing that.

Guadeloupe Island is a rustic volcanic formation 180 miles southwest of Ensenada Mexico; a truly amazing place. It rises 14,000 feet from the ocean floor and ends with 4,000 feet of that mass above sea level. With great cooperation between Mexico and the scientific community, ocean conservation efforts around Guadeloupe Island, continue to make great strides. With a Mexican naval base on the island, it is under constant protection from those who might cause its ecosystems any harm. As a protected island it is illegal to land there and very difficult to get permission to conduct any research from shore.

Each year the largest female sharks on earth gather around Guadeloupe Island to find a mate. Females as large as 17-18 feet in length are often seen and some, like two known as Deep Blue and Holla Girl which are 22-23 feet long are rarely seen and estimated to be around 50 years old.

Some wonder how certain sharks can be identified year after year. Researchers have discovered that the mottling of the skin color along the transition between dark and light is as unique to these individual sharks as fingerprints are to humans.

Recently John was interviewed on a local radio program called "That’s Good News". In the interview he spoke about people’s curiosity toward his shark conservation activities as a long time Western Colorado resident. He told the reporter that his passion for this work is the driving force behind his daily work as a contractor operating in the Grand Valley and Roaring Fork Valley. John owns High Valley Enterprises and intends to eventually retire to shark conservation and research. Joined by his daughter, Lauren Stokes – age 14 -  him on a recent leopard shark research project, they now share a now a three-generation legacy of caring for some of nature’s greatest wonders. Her dad says, “she’s all in".

John visits Guadeloupe Island every year, except 2018 when a heavy storm caused 16 foot seas and 2020, when COVID restrictions broke that pattern. John travels to Guadeloupe Island with Islander Charters, the premier boat featured on the Discovery Channel’s shark week and numerous other shows on National Geographic, History and Discovery Channels.

A friend who has been on several expeditions to Guadeloupe Island with John, Matt Sabo, shared this quote from John: “Look what we’ve done to creation. Take a few moments and reflect on how poorly we treat one another. When compared to swimming with the sharks, honestly, what is there to fear?” These efforts to understand nature, restore balance - when it can be done – and to understand each other better lie at the heart of why this work is so important for our world and for the people and creatures who share it.

Matt Sabo said this about his own experiences with these expeditions, “Having completed my fourth trip to Guadeloupe Island, I am now convinced the way to achieve world peace is to have everyone spend time together in a shark cage. It’s heartening to watch as a group of people from extremely diverse backgrounds, lifestyles and opinions gather year after year to share this experience and come away with a singular feeling of fellowship.”

With so many shark enthusiasts from around the world taking part in these excursions, building awareness about how important their efforts are, and seeking out new and better ways to share the message, the next generation – including Lauren Stokes – is equally committed to turning the tide in favor of a healthier planet, more responsible use of the earth’s resources and greater awareness of consequences – both beneficial and destructive – tied to the actions of the one species that can choose to preserve all others and restore order where it has been disrupted.

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