Gills Club Featured Scientist Q and A

6th July 2016 | by

As some of you may have gathered from our Facebook and Twitter accounts, Founder Georgia was one of the The Gills Club's Featured Scientists for June!

Gills Club Featured Scientist Q and A

Who are the Gills Club?

The Gills Club is; “Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s STEM-based education initiative dedicated to connecting girls with female scientists from around the world, sharing knowledge, and inspiring shark and ocean conservation”.

“Each month Gills Club features two scientist from our Science Team in our monthly e-Newsletter and on our Facebook Group page. This gives our members unprecedented access to top female shark researchers in the field. Whether you want to become a marine biologist or just love sharks, as a Gills Club member you will learn about different shark species, the most recent research, and institutions that have been integral in helping our scientists reach their career goals.”

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On to the Questions and Answers!

*what species of sharks have you studied (primarily)?

Great white sharks are the subject of my PhD and I have previously worked primarily on whale sharks with some tagging work involving lemon sharks, bulls, tigers and spot tail sharks.

*what is the most current shark research you’ve done?

I’m in the second year of my PhD on great white sharks and at the moment I am focusing on using stable isotope analyses to look at the diets of the white sharks in South Africa.

*what do you enjoy most about being a scientist?

I have always had a very enquiring mind, and knew that I wanted to work with wildlife from as early as I can remember. I grew up wanting to know why animals behave the way that they do, and what their lives entail. Being a scientist gives me the opportunity to answer some of the many questions that I have about my favourite animals – sharks.

*Is there an institution that has been integral to helping you reach your career goals?

There are several! Working for the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles for 3.5 years gave me absolutely invaluable experience and provided me with my first opportunity to conduct shark research. I would not be where I am today without that experience. The Dyer Island Conservation Trust and Marine Dynamics have been integral in supporting my PhD fieldwork in Gansbaai, South Africa, allowing me to join their cage-diving trips so that I could collect data. The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board have been very generous in sharing valuable data with me, without which parts of my PhD to date would not have been possible.

*Why did you start studying sharks?

There is no way that I could not study sharks. I have been deeply fascinated by them from a very young age and once I had the opportunity to work with them, there was no going back. Bumping into my first shark (a little black tip reef shark) during a snorkel in Seychelles (previous to my employment with MCSS) was a life changing and affirming experience. We looked at each other, completely still for a few moments that felt like forever, and then he/she was gone. I was left with a heart that was beating a thousand miles an hour and a feeling of incredulous elation. After that, my long-held interest in sharks evolved into a concrete determination to work with them.

*Is there a female biologist that inspired you? How so? Please provide their name and a short blurb about their work and why they inspired you:

Without a doubt, Diane Fossey was a huge inspiration. Her dedication and bravery in choosing to study her beloved gorillas in dangerous circumstances was very empowering to me – if she could do these things, maybe I could too. A quote from her book, Gorillas in the Mist, stays with me “When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate on the preservation of the future.”

Marian Dawkins was another personal hero during my teens – I was elated to find an eminent female scientist in the field of animal behaviour and I remember borrowing her book from the library and not wanting to give it back.

*How does your research benefit shark conservation?

My current research on white sharks in South Africa will provide more information on the ecology of the sharks, which will provide a more informed basis upon which to base their management. My work on whale sharks involved using GIS mapping and ecological modeling tools to design temporary protected areas for the seasonal aggregation in the Seychelles – allocating protection of their core use areas through reducing boat speeds and enforcing the Encounter Code to limit disturbance through eco-tourism. I used a portion of my shark tagging work (along with tag data from rays and turtles) to evaluate protected species’ use of a Marine Park. I analysed the animal’s temporal and spatial use of the park and produced management recommendations for the Seychelles National Parks Authority.

*What is the most interesting thing you have learned from your research?

That’s a tough one! I think that the most interesting thing that I have learned, and come across more and more, is that individual variation in a massively important consideration in the study of sharks. Not all sharks of the same species or population act the same way!

*Do you have a favorite memory from being on the water?

Another tough question! Aside from my first ever shark encounter, one of my many wonderful memories is being looked at by a white shark during a cage dive. The shark in question is well known and much loved by the Marine Dynamics crew and is dubbed “Malcolm X” due to the large X-shaped scar on her dorsal fin. She’s a big girl (approx. 4m) and I’d been lucky enough to collect some behavioural data (from the top deck of the boat) from her in previous days. She cruised very close by the cage really slowly and looked straight at me and I could see her eye move to stay on me as she moved past. It was breathtaking to be contemplated by such an awesome animal.

Malcolm X logos

The absolutely stunning Malcolm X. She was so calm and graceful and to be looked at so intently by her gave me an indescribable feeling.

*Is there any topic/aspect of your research that you would like to share that has not been covered above? Please include!

My charity, SharkStuff is running a shark meme based educational campaign and we would love for Gills to get involved! Memes are visual, simple, often funny and can be very informative. We’re making and sharing shark memes on our Facebook and Twitter (@Shark_Stuff) pages every Monday as part of our Shark Meme Monday project. There are lots of ways that you can make your meme – for some guidance and information on where to send your meme, follow the link to the page on the SharkStuff website: http://bit.ly/1Wlh7d1

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