Riley Elliott a.k.a the Shark Man is at the other end of the ‘get some better work stories’ spectrum.
As a surfer, spear-fisherman, free-diver and scuba diver, this classic Kiwi bloke has always been on the frontline to experience the rarest yet scariest of all natural encounters - a shark attack. His fear was the same as anyone’s - powerfully debilitating but one that is based primarily on a perception of sharks created by the movie Jaws.
Growing up in the Waikato, surfing Raglan and summering in the Coromandel, his upbringing was similar to that of most New Zealanders - his interests much the same; nature, knowledge and adventure, which has taken him to over 60 countries around the globe to surf, dive or experience culture enough to satisfy his constant thirst for perspective.
A Scarfie life at the University of Otago suited his desires well, with ample opportunity to surf, plenty of wildlife to study and long holidays to travel along with a world-class education. Between a BSc Honours in Zoology and a Masters in Marine Science with Distinction, Riley ventured to California, bought a truck with a friend, filled it with surfboards and camping gear and drove 16,000kms through central America in the height of the drug wars, barely surviving border crossings before heading north to snowboard in Whistler Canada.
Whilst completing his Masters degree studying an endangered population of dolphins in Fiordland’s Doubtful Sound, and after a staggering 15 years underwater, Riley experienced his first shark encounter in the wild - a harmless one-meter School shark that sent him panicking to the surface!
Why he asked? Why are we so scared? Is the fear of sharks justified? Are they purposeful man-eaters?
Unlike most, Riley took the ‘bull by the horns’ and went to South Africa on an internship program to literally jump in with these apex predators to figure it out. With obvious passion and talent in the field he was invited to stay on and help run the Oceans Research Great White Shark program.
By applying academic principles from university, with real world field experience, Riley excelled in the shark research environment. With unbelievable stories such as a 4m Great White shark jumping into his research vessel, to free-diving without a cage, with 25 of the world’s most dangerous shark species, Riley found his niche. Fear to fascination became his life motto and the Shark Man was born.
What resulted has been a decade of adventure, adrenaline and eye opening experiences for this 29-year-old Kiwi bloke, and the public audience that he insists must come along for the ride. He has not only dedicated almost a decade of academic research to these animals for their conservation, presently through his PhD at the University of Auckland, but has written his own book, spoken at over fifty public events, appeared in countless radio, TV and magazines articles, giving him the media experience to film a 10 part TV documentary series on sharks - two of which went direct to Governments to improve legislation.
He says that conservation goals have been achieved by communicating science to the public, because ‘science is for people’. Through non-conventional methods, being public engagement versus industry finance, Riley has raised over $200,000 in funding for a satellite-tagging program of Blue sharks in New Zealand waters. The data is used for his PhD but the research project itself, as a catalyst for public opinion, one that grew so strong, it resulted in the ban of an extremely controversial practice known as shark finning.
Riley’s ‘science for people’ approach took him to Western Australia to help end the WA shark cull, where fear instead of science, drove politicians to some extremely controversial decisions. To make his mark, Riley literally jumped in and resuscitated a 3m Tiger shark, left for dead from a hook set by the Fisheries drum-line culling program. Through stimulating imagery, captured by the various news helicopters flying overhead once the word got out a man was resuscitating a shark IN THE SEA! Riley had his opportunity to convey objective science through the media that in the end helped ban the WA Shark Cull.
When it comes to sharks, Riley ‘walks the walk’. His stories are vivid, backed by endless amazing photos and video; purposeful, reflected by conservation and research achievements; and driven by extreme passion, something necessary to risk life and limb literally. This effective combination has made him a very exciting public speaker on a wide and adaptable number of topics, reflected by his pinnacle public speaking event at TedX Auckland 2014.
Taking science primetime | Riley Elliott | TEDxAuckland
Shark man video
A big thank you from us for your attendance at our annual Dive Festival and the highly engaging and informative talk you gave on both your studies into NZ’s Blue Sharks and the situation of ... keep readingthe general health of shark populations. Not all that attended were divers with many being just people from our area interested in what you had to say. The feedback we received showed us that your subjects are of great interest to many and people found what you had to say informative and inspiring. You certainly held the audience with your presentation style. And we guess this showed in the successful sale of your newly released book after your talk. Dive Zone Whitianga Dive Festival
Riley goes well beyond just using the topic of sharks alone for effect. His passion and knowledge of these animals and their environments comes through with his effective and engaging style of presentation pulling the audience into his world. He is a natural character willing to share his knowledge and understanding of sharks with his great sense of humor and he is just as comfortable entertaining a crowd and answering questions as he is in delivering a serious scientific paper.
Riley Elliot gave a presentation at our museum as part of the Shark Whisperers program. The public talk was very well attended, proving Riley’s popularity. He was an incredibly natural, effective and passionate speaker. He engaged a diverse public audience on a very challenging issue with sincere energy and personality.