The Sharkman meets Alessandro De Maddalena
Alessandro: Hi Alex. It's great to be here. Thanks for the kind invitation.
Sharkman: My pleasure. Alessandro, when and how did your interest in sharks start?
Alessandro: It is hard to remember exactly, but I was very young, about 3-4 years old. At that time sharks were my main interest together with cetaceans and dinosaurs.
When I was about 6 years old I decided to become a paleontologist. But it was only when I was about 10 years old that I saw for the first time great white sharks in a documentary.
Sharkman: Oh.. and which one was that?
Alessandro: The film was "Uomini e squali" by Italian director Bruno Vailati. This documentary, prepared in collaboration with people such as Ron & Valerie Taylor, and Rodney Fox was absolutely fantastic, with amazing images. At that time I decided that what I wanted to do in my life was studying sharks.
Sharkman: I remember that documentary very well. Was this the reason why you later selected the White shark for your graduation thesis?
Alessandro: Well actually, I was almost at the stage of starting a thesis on blue sharks in the Adriatic Sea, but then I was informed that because of the decreasing number of blue sharks in the area, those studies were virtually stopped. Then I was offered the possibility to do my thesis on white sharks preserved in natural history museums in Italy. Since I always loved natural history museums, the possibility to study many specimens, that had never been studied before, was very interesting. So, I accepted immediately. The work resulted in a thesis entitled "Observations on the presence and distribution of Carcharodon carcharias (Linnaeus, 1758) in the Mediterranean Sea: records and museum specimens".
Sharkman: What were the results of this report?
Alessandro: A total of 308 sightings and captures of white sharks from the Mediterranean were presented, together with measurements on 25 specimens preserved in museums.
Sharkman: I guess this data was the start of the "Italian Great White Shark Data Bank" correct?
Alessandro: Yes. The Italian Great White Shark Data Bank is a private research program that I started in 1996, and that I'm still conducting. This work involves the collection of substantial information about historical and recent records of the white shark from the Mediterranean Sea, resulting in a database that has no precedent for specificity and completeness. Over 460 records of Carcharodon carcharias in the Mediterranean Sea have been collected. The results of this study are regularly published in scientific journals and the main information obtained are presented to the public in wildlife magazines.
Sharkman: How is the data collected?
Alessandro: The search for data on white sharks from the Mediterranean is effected by analysis of sharks recorded at fish markets, location and study of materials preserved in natural history museums, bibliographical research, collaborations with other researchers, coast guards, anglers, fishermen and private citizens.
Sharkman: You are also involved in the "Italian Ichthyological Society" and the "Mediterranean Shark Research Group". What are these groups?
Alessandro: The Italian Ichthyological Society is a new born association, founded in January 2004. It is a non-profit scientific organization that seeks to advance the scientific study of fishes (with special emphasis on sharks), and the promotion of education, conservation, and wise utilization of marine resources. The Society will organize courses and exhibitions, hold meetings, present research reports, publish articles and books, lead research programs, collaborate with projects lead by other scientific institutions, collect data, fish specimens, publications, promote collaboration between ichthyologists. The founding members of the Italian Ichthyological Society are: myself (President), ichthyologist Luigi Piscitelli (Vice-President), underwater photographer Vittorio Gabriotti (Counsellor), researcher Antonio Celona (Counsellor) and ecologist Alessandro De Marinis (Counsellor).
In its first months of life, the Italian Ichthyological Society has already started its activities with some projects. Firstly the Society organized ichthyology courses including specific subjects such as biology and ecology of the great white shark, general shark biology, and morphology of fishes of the Mediterranean Sea. Then the Society collaborated to the data collection on sharks inhabiting the Adriatic Sea for the preparation of a new scientifical book. The Society gave a fundamental contribution in the organization of the exhibition "Alla ricerca del grande squalo bianco" ("In search for the great white shark"), that took place in Castenedolo (Brescia), Italy, in October 2004 and will travel around Italy.
The Mediterranean Shark Research Group was created in summer 2000 as an initiative of some researchers interested in promoting a web of information exchange between ichthyologists who study sharks of the Mediterranean Sea, in a perspective of complete collaboration. The first promoters were myself, Lovrenc Lipej (Marine Biological Station Piran), Joan Barrull and Isabel Mate (Barcelona Museum of Zoology). As a consequence of the specific orientation of this initiative, the members of this group are mainly from Countries of the Mediterranean basin, however admission in the group is possible for those who work in other parts of the world and have a particular interest for the Mediterranean area, have worked here the past or plan to in future. The Mediterranean Shark Research Group has grown up in these years and nowadays includes 48 researchers from 13 Countries (Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Slovenia, Croatia, Malta, Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria, Ireland, USA and Brazil).
Sharkman: Besides being one of the top researchers in Europe, you are also a very well known Illustrator. How did this start?
Alessandro: This started together with my passion for wildlife when I was a young child. I passed most of my time drawing. I think it was a natural talent, since in my family I have my father and my three sisters that are skillful artists. My father was a commercial artist, and two of my sisters became architects. Therefore I can say that drawing has always been in my life. When I was young I dreamed to be able to draw perfect drawings of sharks such as those by E.N. Fischer, featured in "Sharks. Fishes of the Western North Atlantic Part one: Lancelets, Ciclostomes, Sharks" by Bigelow and Schroeder. And I tried very hard, by drawing a lot. Among other zoological artists that influenced my art there are Larry Foster and Richard Ellis.
Sharkman: Amongst the books that feature your illustrations, I have to mention “Field Guide to the Great White Shark” by R. Aidan Martin (ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research, 2003) and “Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century from the Pacific Coast of North America” by Ralph S. Collier (Scientia Publishing, 2003). Others have been presented in many exhibitions and publications. Do you know how many you have?
Alessandro: I have over 600 illustrations.
Sharkman: You have also published 3 books correct?
Alessandro: Yes, at the moment I have three books published, all on sharks: “Squali delle Acque Italiane. Guida Sintetica al Riconoscimento” (Ireco, 2001) is a field guide to sharks inhabiting Italian waters, “Lo Squalo Bianco nei Mari d’Italia” (Ireco, 2002) is a detailed account of the presence of the Great White Shark in Italian waters, while “Sharks of the Adriatic Sea” (Knjiznica Annales Majora, 2004, co-authored with Lovrenc Lipej and Alen Soldo) is the first complete scientific reference on sharks of this area.
Sharkman: Are there more in the pipe line?.
Alessandro: I have completed some books for publication in 2005. These are: “Mako Sharks” (co-authored with Antonella Preti and Robert Smith), “Guida all’identificazione in mare dei grandi animali del Mediterraneo” (co-authored with Antonio Celona), and “Sharks of the Mediterranean Sea” (co-authored with Harald Baensch).
Sharkman: That is a lot of work. Alessandro, how do you see the global shark situation at the moment?
Alessandro: As the worst possible. I see no future for the natural environment and no future for our species. Human population is increasing too fast, and our species is far from having learned the importance of a sustainable use of natural resources. Humans are destroying the one world we have in the name of the god called money. A recent study I conducted with Antonio Celona on the presence of Hammerhead sharks off Sicily indicate a decrease of Hammerhead captures of at least 96-98% in the last 30 years. However I fear I love lost battles… I have always been a romantic, and I still think that the task of every researcher is to inform the public about what’s happening to our world.
Sharkman: I quite agree. What are your dreams for the future?
Alessandro: I think I’m a very lucky man. I’m married with one of the sweetest woman in the world and I have a wonderful son born one month ago. I have the possibility of doing the work that I have always loved, both for what concerns shark research and illustration. Therefore I can only dream to continue my life in this way even in the future. However, among the special dreams that I have, there are the construction of a museum of sharks of the Mediterranean Sea, and living in Prague – the most beautiful town in the world.
Sharkman: Besides the birth of your son, is there a special moment that you will never forget?
Alessandro: I think that the spirit of each man is made of his memories. I can’t think something more terrible than losing my memories. Therefore there are a lot of memories that I love to keep alive in my heart. This is even the reason that makes me love photography. I shoot a lot of photos, mainly to avoid losing the memory of all the special moments I have the pleasure to live. Among my favourite memories I can cite the moment I met my wife, the night my son was born, the day I got my hands on my first published book, the sunset on the Tuscany coast, the Vltava River in Prague, Yes playing live in Lugano under a blood red sky, the edition dedicated to sharks of the World Festival of Underwater Pictures in Antibes – Juan-Les-Pins where I met great people such as Ron and Valerie Taylor, Eugenie Clark, Stan Waterman, Jean-Michel Cousteau – and many more.
Sharkman: What final message would you like to pass on to our readers?
Alessandro: If you have a dream, never quit it. If you have hope and patience and you continue to believe in this dream, one day it will become reality.
Sharkman: True words. Alessandro, it was a pleasure to have you here, and thank you for accepting to give us this interview.
Alessandro: Thank you Alex, it has been a pleasure.
The first complete book on hammerhead sharks, providing detailed information on the biology, ethology and ecology of these predators, with particular attention to the functions of the wide head.
Foreword by Ron and Valerie Taylor.
Edizioni Ireco, Formello, 128 pp. Color photographs, black and white drawings.
Language: bilingual text, English and Italian. ISBN: 978-88-86253-34-5.