How being terrified watching Jaws led to life working with sharks

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A fear of sharks as a young boy turned into an obsession and then a career for Tom Hird. Catherine Scott reports.

Tom Hird developed a phobia of sharks when he was just seven years old and was tricked into watching Jaws.

Tom 'the blowfish' Hird Picture by Nick Davis

Tom 'the blowfish' Hird Picture by Nick Davis

But quite quickly that fear turned into fascination to learn more about sharks.

“From an incredibly early age I had already decided I was going to follow in my dad’s footsteps and become a vet. But through the twists and turns that life takes at the age of seven I was tricked into watching Jaws and it terrified me.

“I developed a phobia about sharks to such an extent that I just wouldn’t go into the water.”

Despite this fear a young Hird decided to learn everything he could about sharks.

Tom 'the blowfish' Hird Picture: Nick Davis

Tom 'the blowfish' Hird Picture: Nick Davis

“By the time I was 12 I knew more about sharks than most people know in their entire lives.”

It as a trip to America and a visit to an aquarium and in particular a shark tank, that sealed his fate.

“I was about 13 and I said to my parents ‘I am going to be a marine biologist.’” And true to his word that’s exactly what he did.

He began campaigning for our oceans long before Sir David Attenbrough brought their plight to our screens and consciousness.

Tom 'the blowfish' Hird Picture Nick Davis

Tom 'the blowfish' Hird Picture Nick Davis

Tom ‘the Blowfish’ Hird, as he is known because of his affinity with marine life, regularly gives talks, has appeared on television many time and has even written a book on the subject and has another planned.

“I have always been passionate about the seas and doing what I can to make a difference.

“When I see reports about whaling, or marine animals caught in discarded fishing nets or seabirds feeding plastic waste to their chicks it kills me because I know we can change and stop this happening – but we have to do it before it’s too late to reverse the damage.”

He says while Sir David Attenborough raising the issue of plastics has got us talking about our oceans, it is just one of the problems facing our seas.

Tom ' the blowfish' Hird'Picture the Big Bang Fair

Tom ' the blowfish' Hird'Picture the Big Bang Fair

“For most people it is difficult to comprehend the dangers to our oceans because they are so far away. My job as an environmentalist and conservationist is to help people understand just how vital they are to our survival and encourage people to take ownership of them, enjoy them and protect them and all the animals that live in them.

“Getting people talking and doing something about plastics is a great first step, but we mustn’t forget that the biggest threat to our oceans is climate change.”

He says climate change is increasing the acidity of the oceans as well as higher temperatures which are having a devastating effect on marine life as well as coral reefs.

And in turn our oceans dictate our climate.

“People may not see the effect climate change is having on the oceans but they can see the changes in the our weather, with extremes of temperatures and flooding – all that is linked to our oceans.”

He says recent campaigns by students encouraged by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg were only saying what the experts have been warning about for years.

And he says while governments have a massive part to play in reducing carbon emissions, we have to take responsibilty for our own actions.

Firstly, we need to reduce our plastic waste, he says.

“There are so many options that we really don’t have an excuse. I am not saying never use plastics but it is what you do with them after you have used them that matters.”

Secondly Hird says take a look at how you living and the things around you.

“Try to recycle and reuse more. We have become a throwaway culture. Use websites such as eBay to sell clothes you don’t want any more rather than just throwing them away.”

Look at growing your own produce and therefore reducing food miles.

“We need to go back to nature, to what is seasonal and there is nothing better than growing your own.”

He says if we all make just small adjustments to the way we live our lives, such as ditching the car in favour of the bike a few days a week, it will make a huge difference to carbon emissions.

Hird will be in Harrogate next week talking about his work and about the importance of our oceans.

“All I can do is tell people what I know and try to engage them, I cannot make them listen but we have to start somewhere.”

He will also be talking about his enduring love of sharks.

And he has lost count of how many times he has now swum with his former nemesis.

“Sharks are the most misunderstood of marine animals, mainly down to the way Hollywood portrays them,” says Hird.

“The first thing I remember when I first swam with sharks was the silence, and that’s the first thing I tell people when I take them diving with sharks.

“When you see a shark on screen if it always accompanied by scary music and when I swam with them I was expecting somehow to hear that – I was shocked by the silence.”

He has since done his bit to disturb that silence, becoming the first and probably only person to play heavy metal music underwater to sharks both in the UK and South Africa.

“We got a very positive response.”

He may now love sharks, but he has still never managed to sit through Jaws.

The Wildlife & Safari Travel Show returns to Harrogate on 12 – 13 October 2019. The biggest names in wildlife, safari and conservation travel are blazing a trail to Harrogate this Autumn as the spa town prepares to host the UK’s leading show dedicated to wildlife, safari and conservation travel experiences.

https://wildlifesafarishow.com/