Project Leader

Heidi McIlvenny

Heidi McIlvenny

Who I am

A shark lover may not be the first thing that comes to mind when meeting someone born and raised on the island of Ireland, but the cold water never froze my ambition to be a marine biologist. As a child I could always be found on or near the water; I basically learned to swim before I could walk! At the age of 14, I learned to scuba dive and by 21 I was a qualified professional PADI divemaster with eight specialty diving qualifications. I spent some time as a divemaster on a Honduran island called Roatan, where my favourite part of this role was taking kids on their first-ever dive. Seeing the amazement in their eyes the first time they saw a majestic lionfish or a wriggly starfish was a fantastic reminder of just how awe-inspiring the underwater world and its wildlife is! It was on this island that I had my first real encounter with sharks. The dive site was called ‘Cara Cara’, Spanish for ‘face to face’, and here I literally was face to face with 16 Caribbean reef sharks. Kneeling on the sandy seabed and just watching the sharks swimming, I knew at that moment that I wanted to learn everything I could about them. When it was time to leave the island, I headed to the University of Amsterdam to study for an MSc in oceanography. During this course, I had the opportunity to be involved in research using underwater cameras to find out more about the shark and ray populations in the Dutch Caribbean. The results of that project were used to inform management plans for shark and ray conservation. And I have worked in shark conservation ever since! I now have my dream job, coordinating a shark conservation project back home in Northern Ireland.

Where I work

Northern Ireland’s coasts and seas are dramatic, varied and highly productive. The marine area spans more than 6,000 square kilometres (2,316 square miles) and includes a coastline of over 650 kilometres (400 miles); in fact, wherever you are in the country, you are never more than 35 kilometres (21 miles) from the sea. More than 50% of Northern Ireland’s biodiversity is found within our seas. The North Atlantic Drift brings warm water to meet cold sub-arctic waters, drawing together northern and southern marine species. Many important marine animals call our local seas home, including harbour porpoise, basking shark, grey seal, flapper skate and porbeagle shark. There are even sponges that are found nowhere else in the world! For 40 years, Ulster Wildlife has been making a difference for local biodiversity: protecting wildlife and wild places across Northern Ireland, championing our seas and inspiring people to care for nature on their doorstep. I am proud to work for Ulster Wildlife as the coordinator for the Sea Deep Project, Ulster Wildlife’s shark conservation initiative. We work alongside sea anglers, schools and community groups to help safeguard the future of endangered sharks, skates and rays. Currently, there is very little protection for these species around our coast, mainly due to the lack of information we have about them. Just three species – the basking shark, flapper skate and angel shark – are protected by the Northern Ireland Wildlife Order, which makes it an offence to target them without a licence. We need more records of their presence and movements to be able to implement management measures that will help their populations to recover.

What I do

The Sea Deep Project launched a first-of-its-kind shark-tagging programme in Northern Ireland to gather vital data about local sharks, skates and rays. We also carry out shark and skate egg case surveys around the coast to help identify important spawning and nursery grounds; this is crucial for targeting conservation efforts to the right places. In my role as the project’s coordinator, I recruit and train volunteer sea-anglers to tag sharks, skates and rays. Take the case of the flapper skate, for example. Although it is illegal for sea-anglers to target this species without a licence, they sometimes catch it by accident. As the largest skate in the world, reaching a length of three metres (10 feet), it is difficult to release safely back into the sea. It does not have a rib cage to protect its internal organs and its skeleton is made of soft cartilage, which gives it little protection when it’s out of the water.

My project

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