I’m Isla – scientist, wildlife guide, scuba diver, general all round ocean enthusiast. For The Whole Tooth video blog and podcast, I will be pitching your marine questions to experts from all over the world. No question is too big, or too small, we’ll get it answered.
How did you fall in love with the ocean?
I grew up in a seaside town on the north-east coast of England with very easy access to the beach, so I was in the water from pretty much day one! I spent my childhood exploring the coastline; picking my way across the cliffs looking for seabirds, peering into rockpools, wild swimming and surfing. It was difficult getting me out of the water once I was in it. I loved and still love the wildness of it. The way the sea conditions can change from hour to hour, the feeling of sand between your toes, that there is so much still to learn and explore. I remember jumping in for swims in the depths of winter, without a wetsuit – I doubt I’d be that hardy now!
What inspired you to work in conservation?
I’ve always been interested in nature – it was the only thing, aside from sports, that could capture my attention for long periods of time! I’m at my happiest when outdoors and with animals, a passion that I got from my Dad. Together we’d watch endless Attenborough documentaries, where I’d learn not just about wildlife, but the huge threats our natural world was facing.
I knew I wanted a job that encompassed learning about wildlife with protecting it, but wasn’t sure how. All my friends had different interests; my careers adviser told me I should be a teacher or doctor. It wasn’t until I got to the final year of school that I ventured my love for nature – in particular marine life – to my biology teacher. He told me I should study zoology at university, and was originally from Scotland…the rest is history.
What do you do now?
My career progression has been a little wonky! I moved up to Scotland in 2010 to study Zoology at the University of Aberdeen (which, coincidentally, is beside the sea!). There my passion for conservation science was really cemented. I specialised first in marine science, studying the behaviour of seals for my dissertation, and then the habitat use of minke whales for my masters. But I was also very interested in the storytelling and ‘human’ side of conservation. I went down the film-making trajectory for a bit, working for the factual science department of the BBC, then became fascinated by resource politics and governance – where the heart of a lot of our big environmental problems lie. This is the area I chose for my PhD, and currently I’m a research scientist specialising in environmental governance, sustainable development and conservation conflict management. Essentially, how to get people to work together for the good of our planet.
Although my research now tends to be based on ‘dry land’, my passion for the underwater world hasn’t gone anywhere. I keep my (literal) toe in the water through scuba diving, citizen science projects and as a guide for Basking Shark Scotland on the west coast. We take people swimming with the second biggest species of shark in the world, and use the opportunity to research this amazing, but enigmatic, animal.
What is your favourite marine animal?
Oh, that’s a tough question to answer! I do, of course, love the basking shark – they are such big animals (growing up to 10m in length), but they’re such gentle giants. They’re filter feeders, meaning they live on a diet of plankton. They also have really tiny brains in relation to their body size – of only 10cm! So they are a bit dopey and lovable.
On the smaller side, I get really excited when I see a nudibranch on a dive. They’re sea slugs, which sounds pretty boring but they are anything but! There is an incredible variety of species, in all kinds of crazy colours and patterns. They look like Pokémon.
Do you have a favourite marine encounter?
Again, that’s a really tough question! In home waters, I have fond memories of the shark season last year. Once we encountered a large pod of Risso’s dolphins, who are a very social species and put on a spectacular show for us, head-lobbing and rolling about at the surface. Another would be the time a basking shark breached no less than three times right beside our boat. It was the cherry on top an already epic day, where we’d had mirror calm conditions (almost unheard of in Scotland) and some amazing passes, of up to seven sharks just feeding backwards and forwards along the same tideline. Also, seeing a flapper skate pass overhead on a dive was something I’ll never forget.
Away from home…one experience that really sticks out was following a pod of humpbacks – complete with calf – in Mozambique as they breached and came within touching distance of the boat. Also, snorkelling with enormous green turtles in Madagascar was pretty special.
What is your favourite ocean fact?
That less than five percent of the ocean has been explored. We have better maps of Mars, and more people have been to the moon than the deepest point of our ocean (the Mariana Trench). There’s so much yet to discover!
Watch Isla’s introduction video and learn how you can submit your questions to The Whole Tooth:
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