If you had to choose one marine animal to call the “underdog of the sea,” we have a slight feeling sharks wouldn’t be the first (or tenth) to come to mind.
For Yakira Herskowitz, though, it’s a different story. “Sharks are really misunderstood,” she says. Herskowitz became interested in sharks at the age of 11 and knew she wanted to devote her life to studying them. Now, as a marine ecologist with a specialty on conservation and sharks, she is living out that dream, along with a newfound mission to help the sharks with what she sees as some seriously bad PR.
It’s no secret sharks are dreaded and feared. Unfortunately for some, they have been the wild beast that has taken a limb or even a life. She says those encounters are actually quite rare and while they do happen, they are often blown up in the media. Their impact shouldn’t be negated, but they can cause a disproportionate amount of shark hate versus offering a more well-rounded picture.
When a tragic or extremely unfortunate incident like this happens, Herskowitz explains it’s likely because there is mistaken identity at play, versus malicious intent. A human splashing in the water can mimic a dying fish and become perceived as prey. Other times, they’re simply curious. Sharks explore with their mouths and when your mouth is full of multiple rows of sharp teeth, it’s an exploration that can have deadly consequences. Other times, she shares, it’s territorial. As humans, we’re entering the ocean which is their home. As wild beasts, they are unpredictable and we can’t control what happens when we enter the water.
That being said, she says you probably have been near a shark many times without even knowing about it. Most of the time, with sharks, things remain calm.
Herskowitz’s mentality — whenever she’s going diving in the ocean as part of her research — is to approach with a “healthy amount of fear.” She is constantly looking around to ensure there is no species sneaking up behind her. Even though she feels super connected with the sharks, she’s not calling them her best friends. “They’re wild and anything could potentially happen,” she says. “In most cases though, they’re actually more scared of people than we are of them. So it’s about awareness.”
That awareness extends to their critical benefits to the planet. “They’re made out to be these bad man-eaters, but in actuality, they do so much to balance the ecosystem,” she shares. “Everything we do on land comes from oxygen and the ocean. Without sharks balancing that, things could get messed up and we are impacted.”
Even with all that Herskowitz has researched on sharks and the world at large knows, we still know so little, she says. In order to rebrand sharks, we need to understand them more, which is her ultimate goal.
One notable fact is that while we don’t know a lot about their reproductive journey, a lot of shark species will go back to the place they were born in order to give birth. “It doesn’t matter how far they’ve ventured, they will navigate through the oceans and know how to get there in order to do it,” she says. “I thought that was fascinating.”
Swimming Against the Current
It’s not really surprising that there aren’t many Orthodox Jewish shark scientists. In fact, for many of Herskowitz’s colleagues, she was the first Jew they ever met. Fortunately, everyone was very respectful about her being an Orthodox Jew and the practices that involves. Often, they would have questions about her lifestyle which she says challenged her to understand her own Judaism even more.
“I’ve been so lucky to have such understanding, open-minded and honestly amazing colleagues,” she explains. While yes, she’s had to miss some shark dives due to Shabbat and has to bring her own food on any and all explorations, she’s become more grateful about being an Orthodox Jew through that.
Throughout her journey in school leading up until now, she was told many times she wouldn’t be able to do it. “[So] many people told me, you’re a religious, orthodox female, you can’t do that,” she says. “It propelled me to say, ‘Yes, I can.’ Now, all I want to do is show people that they can do this.”
Herskowitz’s path involved a lot of trailblazing in the community. She attended a yeshiva day school and high school — where she started the Oceanic Preservation Club. “It was the biggest club at school, I just found out it’s still running actually ten years after graduating.”
After that, she went on to the University of Maryland where she got a Bachelor’s of Science in Wildlife Ecology and Wildlife Management, Environmental Science and Policy. “It was a mouthful of a degree.”
The difference between marine biology — what she thought she wanted to go into — and marine ecology, is that she focuses on more of the behavioral studies of the shark which is more of an ecosystem-based approach versus a biological approach.
After college, she got her master’s degree at the University of Miami. As a part of that work, she was out on the water at least once a week. They would catch sharks and bring them onto the boat in order to collect data – mostly blood samples, muscle biopsies and gathering measurements. “I was interacting with the sharks out of the water, which was an interesting perspective but it’s actually the most beneficial method in terms of actual science and data collection.”
Then, in various internships and job opportunities she’s had, she’s gone deeper and actually has gone into the water by snorkeling — versus scuba diving — to explore shark behavior. Realistically though, she explains, it’s a lot of computer-based work. Once you get the research, you analyze all the data.
They also have something called Beta Remote Underwater Video Stations that record underwater life in a minimally invasive way. Herskowitz will watch videos from there and analyze different feeding behavior and how fish and sharks interact.
Her favorite part though, is communicating with others. She’s traveled to different schools and spoken to people young and old — from preschoolers to high schoolers — about the benefits of sharks and what they’re actually about. “It’s marketing and reframing what sharks have to offer,” she explains.
Where Judaism and Sharks Collide
When it comes to the classic science versus religion debate, Herskowitz sees no conflict. “There’s not a moment when I’m out on the ocean that I don’t say, ‘Look what God has given us,’” she shares. “There’s no reason it has to be exclusive. I think that there are certain aspects in science that without God creating something initially, there’s no way it could have happened. They’re so beyond what is humanly possible.”
She believes that a lot of her work revolves around the idea of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. “For me, it comes back to the ocean. I’ve always been connected to nature. I feel the most spiritual out by the water so for me, my tikun olam is done through helping, saving and spreading awareness about sharks.”
It may not seem like sharks are an animal we need to focus on saving, but Herskowitz points out that between 70 and 100 million sharks are killed a year. “Most people don’t know about that statistic,” she says. “Often, it’s for their fins. Shark fin soup is a delicacy and it funds and drives a lot of fishing for sharks specifically. So we’re losing sharks at a rapid rate.”
At this point, we don’t know about all the benefits sharks provide, she shares. So at the speed they’re being killed, it could pose a real risk to the environment, ecosystem and our knowledge about all of those things at large. “The existence of sharks has a big impact on human life.”
Whether it’s sharks or something else that seems a little out-there career-wise, Herskowitz encourages anyone with an interest to just go out and ask questions. Someone will always say no and tell you you can’t do it, but you can use that to propel yourself forward. “Just because no one else is doing it around you, doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”