Who I am
My keen interest in nature and the environment developed when I was young, although living in central England, well away from the coast, meant that my curiosity about the underwater world took longer to emerge. It was learning to scuba-dive at the age of 14 that led me to fall in love with the ocean and appreciate its inhabitants. Faced with choosing a career, I jumped at the opportunity to study for a BSc in marine biology and coastal ecology and then an MSc in conservation biology with a view to working in the marine conservation sector. I had a strong desire to live by the sea and so chose to study at the University of Plymouth. Intrigued by sharks and their flattened cousins, I subsequently began volunteering at the Shark Trust.
By working in various areas of conservation after I graduated, I acquired a fuller understanding of how different ecosystems interact. As a marine research officer on a remote, hard-to-reach island in Fiji, with no running water or electricity, the challenge for me and my colleagues was to teach marine identification skills and research techniques to volunteers. I then qualified as a PADI dive master in Thailand and enjoyed taking clients out to experience the local dive sites and what they had to offer.
Still keen to test other areas of conservation, I next went to southern Spain, where I was the warden of a Ramsar nature reserve and, among other duties, became involved in environmental education. Ultimately, though, my passion for the marine world led me back to the Shark Trust in Plymouth. Now, as a conservation officer for the Trust, I am responsible primarily for the Basking Shark Photo-ID Project and the Great Eggcase Hunt.
Where I work
As the project officer for the Basking Shark Photo-ID Project, I have developed an online safe repository for fin images submitted from research organisations around the UK that use photographs to identify individual basking sharks. Working together, these groups are trying to estimate the size of the basking shark population and to map each shark’s migration route.
A ‘community’ database has been constructed to store safely photo-identification images from organisations such as the Shark Trust, Wave Action, Marine Conservation International, the Irish Basking Shark Study Group and Manx Basking Shark Watch. These groups document basking shark encounters at hotspots around the British Isles, including the west coast of Scotland, the Hebrides, the Isle of Man, Malin Head at the northernmost tip of Ireland, and Devon, Cornwall and the Scilly Isles in south-west England. In time, the project will expand to incorporate data submitted by the French shark conservation group APECS and MedSharks in the Mediterranean. Good-quality photographs will enable re-sighted sharks to be recognised and matched on the database.
What I do
Historically, basking sharks were heavily fished for their liver oil, meat, fins and cartilage. As the subject of a number of international agreements and domestic and European prohibitions, these marine giants now face significantly lower fishing pressure, although they are occasionally caught as by-catch. Yet the species still qualifies as globally Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and is regarded as Endangered in the north-eastern Atlantic as well as the North Pacific Ocean, thanks to it being very slow to mature and having a low reproductive output.
There is still a great deal to be learned about the life history of the basking shark, in part because it is so difficult to conduct field research on an animal that spends most of its time beneath the water and out of sight. In spring and summer, when the sharks feed on plankton at the sea’s surface, you may be lucky enough to catch sight of a caudal fin, a dorsal fin or a snout emerging from the waves. Such encounters give researchers – and members of the public –opportunities to photograph sharks, many of which display significant and recognisable markings (whether natural or acquired) on their fins. The resulting images can aid photo-identification, a powerful, non-invasive field technique that is now commonly used in the study of animals in their natural environment and helps researchers to understand their subject’s life history and movements. This is especially important for a vulnerable and highly migratory species like the basking shark as, among other things, it can enable us to estimate population size.
The Basking Shark Photo-ID Project forms part of a wider basking shark research programme. It focuses on the development, population, maintenance and expansion of a central community database, which also functions as a safe repository for storing photo-identification data and images. The database allows users to browse uploaded images and search the catalogue using a number of different fields (such as distinguishing features, location or photographer) in order to find an individual shark. While members of the public get only a limited view of the database, partner organisations can register with login details to access the full range of information.
By supporting the development of this collaborative database, SOSF funding has enabled the project to store fin images safely and make them easily accessible to researchers. Although challenging to fund, data storage and archiving are vital to our long-term understanding of the movements and populations of vulnerable species like the basking shark.