An Elusive Shark Lost for 40 Years Was Just Rediscovered by Extinct or Alive's Adventurer Forrest Galante

In his search for the extremely rare Pondicherry shark, which was last officially confirmed seen in the 1970s, wildlife biologist Forrest Galante scoured reefs to rivers in the Indian Ocean, and encountered predators from tiger sharks to leopards and crocodiles. But the Californian adventurer's years of work paid off: Galante told Newsweek he was "ecstatic" when he and his team tracked down the shark.

The elusive creature is critically endangered: one category below extinct in the wild. Measuring around three-feet in length on average, compared to the 15ft to 20ft of its more famous counterpart the great white, the small shark lives throughout the coastal waters of the IndoPacific. Its habitat is thought to stretch from the coast of India to the Gulf of Oman, as well as rivers like the Hooghli in West Bengal and the Saigon in southern Vietnam.

Extinct or Alive: The Lost Shark, which aired on The Discovery Channel for Shark Week, charts Galante's attempts.

Galante, who spent his formative years exploring the African bush and has appeared on Naked and Afraid, spoke to Newsweek about one of his most exciting adventures yet, and why the Pondicherry shark is so hard to spot.

What inspired you to try to find the Pondicherry shark?

My life's work is dedicated to the pursuit of animals the world has given up on. If we find these magnificent creatures, its possible to secure funding to help preserve and protect them. The Pondicherry is no different. It's an animal that has disappeared off the face of the earth since the 1970s and thus, no conservation efforts are in place to attempt to protect them and their habitat. My goal is to change that.

Weighing a variety of factors and drawing the conclusion that it could still be out there is what lead me to where and how we conducted the survey.

Why is the Pondicherry shark so rare?

Due to the Pondicherry's unusual lifecycle, it enters into freshwater rivers within its range annually. This means there is a bottle neck, where all the sharks line up at the river mouths. Unfortunately, this makes them a very easy target for unregulated gillnetters and that has driven the population of an already very elusive shark to the point of collapse.

How much planning goes into a trip like this? How big was your team, how long do you have to plan for, and how much thought goes into ensuring you're safe and can survive?

The safety aspect is not something that we really consider. We have to go to where I believe these sharks are no mater the risk. This expedition is the culmination of about three years of research, making contacts, applying for permits etc. After weighing variables such as 1) are there reported sightings, 2) is anyone form the scientific world looking, 3) is there enough undamaged habitat, 4) is there a viable prey source; then we come to the conclusion of whether or not it's worthwhile and if so, where and how to search.

Once all the research and prep were done, it was a team of three of us as scientists/naturalists plus the seven people that make up the production team.

How long were you looking for the shark and where did your journey take you?

Really, have been looking for about three years, but in the field for five weeks of about 16 hrs a day of searching for the shark. We had identified two possible locations, a remote atoll in the Maldives (where we spend 10 days) and a river mouth in southern Sri Lanka (where we spend the remaining 4.5 weeks).

What's interesting about looking for a shark that can live in both rivers and the ocean, is it means it took us all over the place. From tiger shark-infested shallow reefs, too deep in the jungle with leopards and elephants walking around—not quite the types of animals you expect to encounter on a shark survey!

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A stock image of a tiger shark: the species which Forrest Galante encountered in the Maldives. Getty

What are some of the craziest and most unforgettable things you experienced while you were trying to track down the shark?

Ohh man, this expedition was not shy of crazy experiences! I've worked with a lot of big sharks around the world, but nothing compares to the tiger sharks we encountered in the Maldives. Big aggressive animals coming up from the deep ocean, in full competition with each other trying to feed on anything they can get.

Watching them destroy our camera system was wild. Boating through monsoonal storms, accidentally catching a large saltwater crocodile in a net, and of course that amazing discovery that we made are all things I won't soon forget.

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"While seining a lagoon looking for Pondicherry we ended up catching a large saltwater croc that I have to secure and remove from the net," Galante told Newsweek. Forrest Galante

What challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?

One of the biggest challenges with any expedition looking for an animal where you have a one-in-a-million shot of finding it, is staying motivated and keeping team moral high. We went through a few lows, being stormed out, missing reported sightings by mere minutes, having some dangerous encounters. But at the end of the day, we were all there for a common goal, and we told ourselves we were not leaving without accomplishing it.

How did it feel when you found what you thought was a dead specimen of the shark, which was later confirmed to be a Pondicherry?

The answer is ecstatic!. It's amazing to know that what we found is the animals we were looking for. It confirms the ongoing survival of the species, even if we didn't see a live one. So it was overall a huge win.

What are the biggest threats facing sharks at the moment?

The biggest threat is undeniably overfishing. The sharkfin soup trade is something that has exploded in popularity and with the economic growth of Asian countries that value the soup, we are seeing a drastic reduction in shark populations worldwide.

The scariest part about that is, once the shark populations collapse, so do the entire ocean ecosystems, which the majority of humans worldwide depend on for protein. But, on a more general scale, education is the key. Understating the importance of sharks in an ecosystem and making sustainable choices in seafood and not supporting the harvest of sharks is the best thing people at home can do.

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The team on a scuba dive in the Maldives looking for the Pondicherry. Discovery Channel

What is the most exciting expedition you have ever been on and why?

That's like asking a parent who their favorite child is, it's just impossible to pick! Each expedition is so different and unique that you just have to take them all as they come, and often times it's the most difficult ones that are the most memorable. I will say, this Sharkweek expedition is up there, but just wait until you see the Galapagos, Colombia and Zimbabwe expeditions that are coming to Animal Planet in the fall...they are nuts!

What can the average person who is perhaps less adventurous than you do to help and experience wildlife in their local area?

That's what so amazing about wildlife, it's all around us, no matter where we live! I get this question a lot, and the reality is, if you just do a little research about your area, you will find out some of the amazing flora and fauna native to where you live.

You're not necessarily going to be wrangling cobras and getting chased around by tiger sharks, but you can very easily go and experience some stunning species of native amphibian at your local park or stream, see unique bird life at any wild area or even just flip over a log and learn about the interesting invertebrates like the insects and earthworms that occur right there! Of course, if you don't want to do this, there is always Discovery and Animal Planet to help give you a great worldly wildlife education, right from your couch!

An Elusive Shark Lost for 40 Years Was Just Rediscovered by Extinct or Alive's Adventurer Forrest Galante | Tech & Science