She is a former school teacher who now swims with sharks, and loves it.

Meet Kathy Xu, founder of The Dorsal Effect which aims to stop the exploitative shark finning trade in South-East Asia.

Born and raised in Singapore, Xu, 33, was a secondary school teacher for most of her adult life, including a brief stint in Japan in 2009.

Triggered by an intense experience while swimming alongside a whale shark in Exmouth, Australia in 2011, Xu decided to take action for the benefit of future generations.

“I want to live in a world where my children and my children’s children can still see sharks alive in the oceans,” she mused.

After learning about shark fishing and the demand for shark fin soup, Xu volunteered in the education arm of Shark Savers Singapore.

Despite her love of teaching, Xu quit the profession in 2013 to focus on The Dorsal Effect. Dorsal fins are commonly taken by shark fishermen for export. The word “dorsal” also means back, so Xu wanted to end shark fishing on the supply side of the chain by providing shark fishermen with an alternative source of livelihood.

According to Xu, the three main shark-exporting countries in the world are Indonesia, Taiwan and India.

On her visits to Lombok, Indonesia, she personally witnessed the grim scene of sharks being hauled to markets and their fins sliced off. After talking to the shark fishermen there, Xu came up with a solution. She now provides those fishermen with an alternative form of income: Ecotourism.

shark

A scene at a market in Lombok, Indonesia, where fishermen haul in their catch of the day.

With the ecotourism venture, the fishermen could see their families often compared to shark hunting trips where they had to stay at sea for up to 20 days at a time.

“The fishermen make more money as shark hunting’s a gamble and even if they managed to catch sharks, their pay was still meager compared to fin traders,” said Xu in an interview with The Jakarta Post last year.

However, Xu’s parents were unhappy at first as they saw her struggling to get by with part-time lecturing while working on The Dorsal Effect.

“My family disapproved of the project initially as they were worried about me not being able to get by and that I don’t have a business background,” added Xu, who studied history at the National University of Singapore.

Xu’s life took a turn after her project won the Singapore International Foundation’s Young Social Entrepreneurs program in 2013, which came with a S$10,000 (RM30,152) grant. She used the money to make a short but powerful film on the plight of sharks, which has garnered over one million hits.

In conjunction with Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, Xu answered queries from the media in a phone interview. (Xu is also doing Snapchat content for @DiscoverySEA.)

What do you think of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week?

Previously I thought Shark Week was all about hype because at one point they aired Megalodon (a 2013 mockumentary), which gave the impression that certain shark species might still be around and that they are scary. But I heard that Shark Week is going to take on a more conservation slant this year and they are also going to focus more on South-East Asia. So I think that’s a good step forward.

Tell us more about your encounter with a whale shark in Exmouth, Australia in 2011.

Before that encounter, I was already a diver but I haven’t swam with any shark yet. One day my brother who was living in Australia said: “Do you want to go snorkelling with real sharks?” I said yes, and it was a really good experience. The moment I plunged into the depths of the open ocean and took in the sight of a six-metre-long juvenile whale shark was a life changing moment for me. The tour operators were very eco-friendly and would tell you to maintain a distance from the shark. It inspired me into thinking: “Hey, conservation can be brought into tourism as well.” Not every tourism has negative impact on the environment; you can still enjoy nature and respect it.

shark

Xu regularly gives talks on shark conservation at schools.

How did you go about pursuing your passion for shark conservation?

I was a secondary school teacher back then. After that encounter with the whale shark in Exmouth and watching some documentaries about shark conservation such as Sharkwater, I got more and more involved. I started to volunteer for Shark Savers Singapore, but we were more about education and (spreading) awareness. Then I saw a Facebook posting where people were scolding fishermen in Lombok and pictures of the shark market. So I thought: “Why not go there and take a look?” When I went to Lombok and talked to the fishermen, I found out that they didn’t really want to do this, it’s just that they didn’t have any other alternatives.

In regard to The Dorsal Effect, how far are you from achieving your goal?

I feel like this is a long journey. When I first started, I was very ambitious in terms of wanting to convert not just Indonesia, but Taiwan and India within three years. I am already hitting the three-year mark and Lombok is barely taking off. But if I were to look at it from another point, I like people telling me that they no longer want to eat shark fin soup. Recently, I got a group of students to Lombok and brought them to a shark processing plant. They could see for themselves the whole chain, from the market (once the sharks are brought in) to being processed and then resold to different parts of the world. So it really puts things into perspective for the students.

What has been the biggest challenge?

Making ecotourism a sustainable business, and getting enough tourists to come so that the fishermen can see that this is a stable income. If it’s sustainable, it really can steer them away from shark hunting.

What keeps you going?

I still dive once in a while, and I limit myself to places where I can see sharks. Everytime I do encounter a shark while diving, it feels very surreal. It just feels very magical, and I guess that is what keeps me going. And I’m determined to see as many live sharks as possible.

The open ocean of Lombok makes for a picture perfect view.

The open ocean of Lombok makes for a picture perfect view.

How many times do you go to Lombok? Do you still bring tour groups?

I’ve lost count of the number of times I go back, but I think on average it’s probably once a month. Yes, I still do a lot of tour groups; the peak season is usually May-June and November-December. I do want to target tourists in the region, including Malaysia. However, I’m really bad in marketing and sales and don’t know how to reach out to those groups. But I am trying to get help.

What else are you working on besides The Dorsal Effect?

Not much else. I really want The Dorsal Effect to take off, and involve more school trips and CSR programs for companies. I want to get more people to support ecotourism and convert more shark market locations.

Is there any conservationist that you look up to?

The one marine conservationist I always mention when I give talks at schools is Lesley Rochat. She’s a shark conservationist in South Africa, and she’s a really good free diver who takes awesome pictures of herself with sharks in the water. So I look up to her a fair bit.