Who I am
With a BSc (Hons) in Marine Environmental Science and an MSc in Applied Marine Science, Ali has worked for marine science and conservation charities for more than 17 years. Her intrigue for the sea started at a young age; as a child in Cyprus she could often be found sitting on the seabed (with a lap full of rocks to weigh her down), feeding an insatiable curiosity for life underwater.
Ali later wound up in North Queensland, Australia, where as a teenager she worked in environmental tourism by crewing on a traditional boat that took the public as well as researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science and James Cook University out onto the reef and into mangrove systems and sea-grass beds. Catching sea snakes and surveying dugong populations convinced her that a career in the marine environment was unavoidable.
In 2002 Ali began working for the Shark Trust, a conservation charity based in Plymouth, UK, and is now its director of conservation. She works with the conservation team to secure effective science-based conservation and fisheries management, contributing to a more sustainable future for sharks. As a natural forager herself, she realised that eggcase hunting might appeal to the wider public and launched the Great Eggcase Hunt in 2003. It is now one of the most popular wildlife-recording activities in the UK.
A conservation officer at the Shark Trust, Cat delivers the Basking Shark Photo-ID and Great Eggcase Hunt projects, and in the latter case is leading the development of a Smartphone App. Her keen interest in nature and the environment surfaced at an early age, but it was only when she learned to scuba dive at the age of 14 that she fell in love with the ocean and its inhabitants. When it came to deciding on a career, she opted to study for a BSc (Hons) in Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology followed by an MSc in Conservation Biology, with a view to working in marine conservation. It was while she was at the University of Plymouth that she began to volunteer at the Shark Trust.
Cat’s subsequent work in various areas of conservation – as a marine research officer on a remote island in Fiji, a dive master in Thailand and the warden of a Ramsar nature reserve in Spain – gave her a more rounded understanding of how different ecosystems interact. She joined the Shark Trust full-time in 2010 and, as well as organising outreach and educational events, is responsible for developing the Great Eggcase Hunt project and engaging new audiences.
Where I work
Shark conservation is often seen as the exclusive realm of those who scuba dive in clear, tropical waters. The Great Eggcase Hunt, however, provides a tangible link to the diverse world of elasmobranchs in the North-East Atlantic, making shark conservation accessible to a broader range of people – and they don’t even have to get wet! Eggcases are washed up all year, so hunting for them is a fine excuse for a beach walk in winter and adds an extra dimension to a summer holiday.
Although based in Plymouth, with the majority of information submitted from UK beaches over the years, eggcase hunting can take place all over the world. Records have been submitted from South Africa, Australia, the USA, The Netherlands and Malta to name just a few countries, and sister projects have been set up by organisations in France, Ireland and Croatia. With the collaboration of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Great Eggcase Hunt has even been launched in the USA. The reaction there has been phenomenal, with park rangers and members of the public equally excited about it.
Eggcases are sought not only on beaches but also in museum collections, where the Shark Trust improves its understanding of shark taxonomy in the region while updating specimen collections with newfound knowledge.
What I do
The Great Eggcase Hunt was established to get a better understanding of the relative abundance and broad distribution of skate and egg-laying shark species around the UK and at the same time raise awareness of the diversity of sharks, skates and rays in British waters. As catch composition changed over the years and population numbers for the larger elasmobranch species declined, the Shark Trust realised that relatively little was known about their life history and that insights into the egg-laying phase at least would be valuable.
Many elasmobranch species are oviparous, laying their eggs in tough, leathery cases (known as ‘mermaid’s purses’) that are deposited on the sea floor or attached to seaweed. Once the miniature skate or shark has emerged several months later, the empty eggcases often become dislodged and are washed ashore. The mermaid’s purses of approximately 10 skate and two shark species are commonly found on UK beaches, and we can identify which species they belong to by their size, shape and differing features.
Spent eggcases provide an easily accessible source of information about the location of egg-laying elasmobranch populations and their potential nursery grounds. The identification of these critical areas will enable the Shark Trust and other marine organisations to propose management measures that will help to reverse the decline of these charismatic animals and allow us to support sustainable fisheries.
As a ‘citizen science’ recording project, the Great Eggcase Hunt provides an important platform to engage the public and raise awareness of the presence of elasmobranchs in British waters and the important role they play in the marine environment. The project has grown dramatically since its inception and the database now holds about 40,000 records. As awareness about it has increased and technological advances have been made, more people are getting involved and submitting records with accompanying photographs and specific locations. This enables us to verify significantly more records, thus improving the accuracy and quality of the database.