October 22nd, 2016

Leamington’s ‘selfie’ shark man focused on the real danger

Updated: 3:06 pm, May 07, 2015

FOR most people the idea of jumping into shark-infested waters is a terrifying prospect, but for Leamington man Aaron Gekoski it’s just another day in the ocean.

The 34-year-old wildlife journalist and photographer recently completed a pioneering conservation project which saw him take a series of daring selfies swimming with sharks to highlight the plight of endangered species.

Our reporter Steve Hayes spoke to the former Trinity Catholic School pupil in Mozambique.

THERE’S something rather tiresome about selfies.

The selfie stick, apparently the ‘must-have’ Christmas present of 2014 – but for nobody anyone seems to know) – is the cheap, plastic, commerical embodiment of yet another craze which has simply been done to death.

But taking a selfie with a shark? A shelfie perhaps. Now that’s a selfie that can capture one’s attention.

And that is exactly what Aaron Gekoski, a professional wildlife photographer and conservationist, did during the latest of his many projects in Africa to highlight the real danger is not that posed by sharks to man, but that posed by man to sharks and other animals.

“The point we are trying to make with the shark pictures is simple,” explains Aaron, who works alongside friend and filmmaker Chris Scarffe.

“The natural reaction to the pictures is to think how much danger I am in, but the risk the sharks pose to me is tiny compared to to the risk man poses to sharks.

“Sharks kill about five people every year and yet humans kill as many as 200 million sharks a year – mainly for sharkfin soup in Asia.”

It’s a simple but stark message and a project made all the more impressive by the fact it came out of a failed attempt to capture the annual sardine run in South Africa when billions of the small fish migrate north, for online channel EpicTV.

“We had a bit of a nightmare,” continues Aaron, whose family home is in Portland Place West.

“Visibility was awful and there were other problems, that’s when we came up with the idea of doing the shark pictures to make a point about the relationship between sharks and man.”

The sharks Aaron dived with were blacktips and he assured me they actually posed little threat to him. In the next breath he does however reveal one bit a buoy line inches above his head during the shoot.

“The sharks in that area are used to people so they are conditioned and the risk was pretty slim.

“It was still quite intense and if they are in feeding mode then you could get a nip.

“But these are endangered species and what we wanted to highlight was the much bigger issue is how many sharks are being killed each year.”

Speaking to Aaron its clear he is a man who found his calling after a somewhat colourful career since he left Leamington at 18 to study advertising at university.

A five-year stint as a copywriter was followed by him setting up his own modelling agency in London before finally moving to Africa to pursue his dream.

“Some would say I have just leapt seamlessly from one male obsession to the next – women to sharks,” Aaron jokes.

“I had always had an interest in wildlife and when I was a kid I wanted to be David Attenborough. Then when I went travelling it really opened my eyes.

“So I studied wildlife filming at Kruger National Park in South Africa and got myself a camera and the rest is history.”

It isn’t all about sharks, Aaron is keen to point out. His many projects include one which focused on the ritual killing of turtles in Bangladesh and he also worked undercover in Namibia to expose the country’s annual seal cull.

His work has featured in more than 40 publications worldwide, including National Geographic and Men’s Health and his latest project received worldwide media attention and landed him a slot on the CBBC show Newsround.

And he is hoping the success of the shark selfies, which was filmed and featured on EpicTV, could lead to a television series in the future.

Not content with blacktips, Aaron’s next focus, he tells me without a hint of apprehension, is killer whales in Norway and great white sharks in Mexico.

“It’s very early stages but the last project really did what we wanted.

“It is about engaging people and ultimately if a selfie with a shark captures people’s imaginations then we have done our job.

“These issues really need highlighting and I’m so glad I can play a part in that.”

Visit www.aarongekoski.com for more information about his work.

Up close and personal – Aaron with a blacktip shark. (s)

Aaron, who studied at Trinity Catholic School, has taken part in a number of pioneering conservation projects. (s)

Aaron taking photos of Komodo dragons on a trip to Indonisia. (s)

Aaron is a committed conservationist. (s)