David Shiffman '07 Swims With the Sharks

September 29, 2014

When David Shiffman ’07 applied to Duke in 2002, he wrote his application essay about the first time he swam with sharks. The then-landlocked Shiffman, who grew up in Pittsburgh, included an anecdote about consoling his father before his dive into the deep with an eleven-foot tiger shark—“Don’t worry, Dad; they don’t usually eat people.”

Seven years later, Shiffman has interacted with more than 3,000 sharks on five continents— and he’s still pushing boundaries and challenging stereotypes through his work as a marine biologist and shark conservationist at the University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science & Policy.

“[Sharks] do not deserve the fear and the demonization that they get,” he says.

Every year when the Discovery Channel launches its seven-day series known as Shark Week, Shiffman shifts between his television and Twitter, monitoring the shows and tweeting corrections @WhySharksMatter. He sees it as an opportunity to engage captive audiences in shark science.

Shiffman’s passion for science communication has led him to woo 18,800 Twitter followers, making him the most-followed practicing marine biologist in the world.

The main threat to sharks’ lives—overfishing—and the imbalance in the food chain created by their absence motivates Shiffman to continue his work studying their life cycles and migration patterns. Some species of sharks have “declined more than 90 percent since the 1970s,” Shiffman says. His research includes studying “mesopredator sharks,” or mid-level predator sharks. In Florida, where Shiffman conducts his research, mesopredator sharks have the important role of keeping herbivore populations balanced, he says.

When top-level sharks, called “apex predator sharks,” are overfished, mesopredator shark populations increase, a theory known in the shark science world as “mesopredator release.” The result is too many mesopredators eating the ocean’s herbivorous fish. A decline in herbivorous fish means “algae on coral reefs grows out of control,” Shiffman says, and the reef dies.

The interconnectedness of all life is something Shiffman says he learned at Duke. An introduction to biology class with professor Alec Motten Ph.D. ’82 covered “all available life, starting with viruses and bacteria and ending with humans” and expanded his imagination for the life cycle he was part of and had a duty to protect.

Now Shiffman wants to take that message—of respecting and caring for, not just sharks, but all of life—to students.

This year, Shiffman was named the Florida Marine Science Educators Association’s Educator of the Year for his lectures via Skype to more than 500 area students. Shiffman’s lab at the University of Miami also regularly invites high-school science students to join Shiffman on research boating trips.

Shiffman says his family still expresses a little fear for his typical day in the office. But they’ve all found a way to make it work. He’s struck a deal with his mom—no shark talk until he’s back on land.

But the encounter is what pushes Shiffman past fear and on to that nearly inexpressible moment when he comes face-to-face with the creatures he’s always loved: “It’s just a feeling of awe and respect, to be so close to such a powerful, graceful animal,” he says.

  • Christina Holder M.Div.'13 the DAA's assistant director of communications.