The Ups and Downs of Field Work on the World’s Most Awesome Fish

11th June 2015 | by

I live in the UK and conduct my field work in South Africa – it’s quite the commute! Since starting my PhD at the beginning of October 2014, I have been on two field trips, totalling three months and I have another trip commencing next week, this time for five weeks.

The Ups and Downs of Field Work on the World’s Most Awesome Fish

Fantastic! So much time with the sharks! Yes. And no. In this blog, I’ll go through the personal ups and downs of my field trips and hopefully give you a feel of what they entail for me as an individual.

I am very fortunate to be able to spend the time that I do in South Africa, for multiple reasons. Firstly, I am fortunate that my PhD has come with funding for field work. I am funded directly by my university (Sussex) in addition to some grant funding won by my supervisor, which I will need to be supplement with more grants if I want to continue with my planned research. Winning grants is not easy – with dwindling resources available to scientists, the funding scene is becoming more and more competitive and this is an issue faced by many current researchers. Funding tips and information will likely form the topic of another post!

Secondly, I am incredibly fortunate to have been able to conduct all my field work to date in collaboration with a conservation orientated eco-tourism company, Marine Dynamics (, and their partner, the Dyer Island Conservation Trust ( Myself, and my colleagues, are granted free access to boat trips that allow us to collect our data, including some exclusive use of a dedicated research boat. Considering all the different resources provided – fuel, expert advice from resident scientists and staff, staff time (boat captains, bait handlers, help from volunteers and more), boat use and more – this is a phenomenal opportunity for which I am truly grateful.

So, I get to spend several months of the year in South Africa, where I get free access to study incredible sharks. Sounds good! And it is. However, as with most fantastic things in life, there are inevitably down sides to these sharky trips. I love sharks and I love working with them. But I also love my home. I love my boyfriend, our house, our pets, our friends, all the things we do together and I love my family. When I’m at home and not working, I’m invariably either out rock climbing, surfing, stand up paddleboarding, spending time with friends and family or taking downtime to enjoy my favourite comedy series, documentaries and movies. I try to take my dog with me as much as possible. I can’t do these things when I’m on field trips.

For one thing – I’m there to work! I take field trips very seriously and it’s a pretty demanding work pace when I’m on them, mentally and physically. Capitalising on precious time in the field means almost non-stop work – boat time, sorting, entering and storing data, on top of ongoing tasks such as keeping up to date with the most recent scientific literature, writing grant proposals, writing papers and communication with supervisors and colleagues.

If I did have time to do any of my most loved activities, the logistics of transporting any of my kit are unfeasible. Surfing and climbing gear weigh a lot! My bags are typically full of enough (sometimes not!) clothing to last me a couple of months and things I need for work. Last trip I had to bring out about 20kgs of research equipment, leaving me with 10kgs for everything else. Good job my supervisor brought some things out for me!

OK, so boohoo, while I’m working with the sharks I can’t go climbing or surfing, poor little me. It’s a sacrifice I would make a thousand times over. That still doesn’t mean it’s easy though. Not being able to do the things that make up massive parts of who you are, that make you happy in ways that nothing else touches and soothe your soul when nothing else can, is never easy. Losing surf and climbing fitness, resulting in constant steps back in ability and progress is also frustrating!

I am eternally grateful for the ability to contact people through the internet. Emails, WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype and FaceTime are my personal saviours, keeping me in contact with the people I love. I speak to my partner every single day, sometimes just for five minutes, often much longer. Being able to share my day with him, whether it’s in excitement, joy, frustration, sadness or an out and out vent session keeps me going when a hug, a held hand or a simple kind gesture such as making dinner isn’t an option. He is my friend, boyfriend, partner in adventure, climbing and surf buddy, confidante, advisor, work editor, garden water fight victim and so much more. It’s hard to be away from him.

Four years of living on the other side of the world to my loved ones, of going through periods of great pain and turmoil without them, and at times feeling more lonely than I thought possible, has given me a fierce appreciation of time spent at home. Being so close to, and rebuilding relationships with, my mother and sister is a situation that I never thought would happen. It’s immeasurably precious to me, and not something that I give up lightly.

My cat Lily and dog Daisy were both rescues from Seychelles – Lily was discovered behind a bin as a tiny kitten by one of my volunteers and great friend/surf sister Inga, while I picked up Daisy, a timid, malnourished and unbelievably adorable puppy from the side of the road. We played, cuddled and explored together and they were there with me through the good and bad, sharing my smiles and, on more than one occasion, patiently and handily absorbing my tears. I would run into a burning building for either of them and being away from them is difficult.

My best bud - I'm not biased, she IS the most adorable dog ever.

My best bud Daisy – I’m not biased, she IS the most adorable dog ever.

My mischevious and sometimes outright evil, cross-eyed cat, Lily. I wouldn't have her any other way.

My mischevious and sometimes outright evil, cross-eyed cat, Lily. I wouldn’t have her any other way.

Know what else I miss? My stuff. It may sound silly but it can be quite stressful living without all the little things that you are used to having around you. Clothes, put away in familiar drawers, the saucepan that I like to use for EVERYTHING, the herbs and spices I like to cook with, artwork on the walls, a washing machine. Having to wash my clothes in a bucket for seven months while working on one tiny island in Seychelles taught me the value of a washing machine.

Funnily enough, life in South Africa is a bit different to the UK! I was lucky enough to be able to take some holiday time after my last field trip, when my partner came out to see me and we went off adventuring – scaling mountains, surfing and rock climbing – heaven! South Africa is STUNNING. Breath-taking landscapes, incredible wildlife and some of the most lovely people that I have had the pleasure of meeting. I thoroughly look forward to seeing more of it. Sadly, all these wonderful things are, for me at least, back-dropped by an insidious and pervasive feeling of unease.

My partner and I, climbing in Montagu, South Africa.

My partner and I, climbing in Montagu, South Africa.

Crime rates are high in South Africa and there is a palpable tension between various and different communities, that sits like a stubborn stain on the tapestry of all things wonderfully South African. I don’t feel safe. As a woman, I’ve been told by several locals not to go for walks by myself, in day or night. Whether this is sound advice or unwarranted paranoia, it leaves me unable to enjoy or do simple things, like take a walk down the coast to scale some boulders that I want to train on or walk from one house to another at night. I am grateful to share accommodation with a male colleague and good friend Simone Rizzuto – not only is he a great and clever guy who assists in keeping me sane (whilst sometimes driving me insane in the way that only friends can) he helps me to feel safe. However, feeling as though I can’t, in a carefree frame of mind, do certain things by myself, leaves me feeling angrily robbed of my independence. To a degree, I feel vulnerable, weak and trapped and, as a woman who prides herself on being strong and capable, this is especially difficult for me.

So I greet my upcoming trip with a host of mixed feelings. I look forward to seeing Simone and the wonderful people at Marine Dynamics and getting to know the newest batch of enthusiastic volunteers. I can’t wait to get out on the boat, be around the sharks that I love so much and collect valuable data. I’m excited to be in South Africa, surrounded by incredible scenery and the feeling of raw nature that thrives there. I am sad to be saying goodbye to my partner, family, friends, pets, home and activities and I am preparing myself for a loss of independence and feeling of security. I leave a part of myself behind every time I go away, and feel it’s empty space keenly until I return.

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