Riley Elliott: scientist from the school of shark public relations
16 May 2022
Riley Elliott is an unconventional marine scientist doing his bit to change our perception of sharks.
Shark Man, aka Dr Riley Elliott, is a scientist who is at his best either diving in the ocean tagging sharks, or in front of a camera educating the public about the unfairly maligned creatures.
Riley isn’t your typical PhD graduate. One way he shares his knowledge of his specialist subject is to front the reality TV show Shark Academy. It puts eight aspiring shark experts through a series of challenges to win a coveted place on Riley’s research team (you can watch it on Discovery Channel or on ThreeNow).
“It’s more of a ‘docu-series’ than reality TV,” Riley says, adding that, as long as it helps to educate the public about shark conservation, he isn’t bothered by the label.
“I’m not a traditional academic who’s largely office-based and is focused on journal publications. I want to utilise the biggest platforms of communication there are to improve how people perceive sharks.”
The 36-year-old has 10,000 dives under his belt and has hosted multiple television shows since completing his doctorate at the University of Auckland’s Institute of Marine Science. His doctorate is being published in a leading marine journal.
He has also authored books and magazine articles, is an in-demand public speaker and a regular guest on news and talk shows across the US, Australia and New Zealand.
“Basically, I’m trying to help people understand that sharks are incredibly important and should be respected.”
We should fear sharks, I’m not trying to sugar coat that fact. But once we
understand them better, I hope we can react to that fear rationally rather than
Growing up surfing in Raglan and on the Coromandel, Riley was always drawn to the ocean. He initially studied dolphins, completing an honours degree in Zoology and masters with distinction in Marine Science at the University of Otago.
But a harmless shark encounter during a dive in the Fiordland Sounds changed his research focus.
“I was scared, and it made me think about why we are so frightened of these creatures.
“We should fear sharks, I’m not trying to sugar coat that fact. But once we understand them better, I hope we can react to that fear rationally rather than emotionally.
“Sharks have been around longer than dinosaurs and trees. They are incredibly important to our marine ecosystems yet their populations have declined by 70 percent in the past 50 years, and a lot of that is down to fear and misinformation,” Riley says.
Prior to 2014, New Zealand was a major exporter of shark fins to Asia and a lot of people don’t know that.
His ground-breaking doctorate produced the first in-depth understanding of blue sharks in the South Pacific. It heavily influenced a ban on shark finning in New Zealand waters, estimated to save 150,000 sharks a year from slaughter.
Completed at Leigh Marine Laboratory under the supervision of Professor John Montgomery and Associate Professor Craig Radford, it involved satellite tagging blue sharks to define migratory and behaviour patterns.
“Prior to 2014, New Zealand was a major exporter of shark fins to Asia and a lot of people don’t know that,” Riley says.
“Many of the sharks we tagged would simply disappear. They were being caught and finned for shark fin soup. It was devastating, both emotionally and financially.”
Riley’s subsequent campaign to ban shark finning made him realise the power of communicating evidence-based knowledge combined with modern media.
“Thousands of blue sharks are still swimming in the ocean because of the communication of this science to the New Zealand public.
“You can critique my methods, but as long as the correct information is getting out there and I’m helping to protect these incredible creatures, it doesn’t faze me. The results speak for themselves.”
This past summer, Riley has been filming mako sharks in the waters off Tauranga’s coast for the Discovery Channel’s long-running Shark Week.
“It has been a chance to showcase New Zealand and the magnificent mako shark to the world. Because they live so far offshore, we actually don’t know very much about them. It’s crucial that we continue to share our knowledge of the importance of these animals, or we may lose them.”
Story by Danelle Clayton for Ingenio magazine, Autumn edition 2022.