The best adventures begin as dreams, and for me, this trip is no different.
My dream started over a bad cup of instant coffee and a moderately difficult Sudoku puzzle in my living room in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. It was March 2012 and I was entrenched in a grass roots campaign to outlaw possession of shark material onboard commercial fishing or transshipment vessels.
If our campaign was successful, I wanted to amass a team of badasses to embark on a research expedition collecting baseline data to test the efficacy of our shark policy over time. I wanted to include local researchers and I wanted to create visually stunning media to tell our story, the story of working for sharks.
Why do sharks need help? Sharks are apex predators, maintaining balance in the oceans. Combined with the demand for their fins, sharks’ reproductive characteristics (late maturation, long gestation, few pups) make them vulnerable to overfishing and slow to recover from population decline.
While science suggests that certain species of sharks need protection from overfishing, in many regions, not enough scientific data exists in order to convince policy makers to protect sharks. Or there isn’t a platform to carry out research once new shark protection policies are in place. Our research expedition will begin to fill some of these data gaps in Fiji.
On Island Time
From the aft deck of the boat this morning, I looked at the bare feet around me and smiled—my vision for a shark research expedition had materialized and I felt humbled by the expertise around me, each person representing a unique skill set. I was excited to learn from them all.
To my left, telling jokes in his delightful Kiwi clip was Dr. Demian Chapman, a marine scientist at State University of New York at Stonybrook. What I love most about him isn’t his expertise—he’s done at least 50 shark research expeditions over the past decade and has made a significant contribution to science supporting shark conservation—it’s his attitude. “I started out as a volunteer digging septic tanks at Bimini (a biological field station in the Bahamas),” he said humbly, giving me a little insight into how hard he’s worked for his success. “I literally started at the bottom.”
In Bimini, he and friends tagged sharks that were babies when Bill Clinton was in office and he recaptured them with those same friends 15 years later when the sharks were adults. “To be working with people, friends, over a 15 year period—that’s what I’m most proud of.” Lucky for us, a few of his “friends” agreed to join our trip to study shark ecology and movement patterns in Fiji.
Our expedition is the near perfect collaboration of a smart, fun and adventurous international group. We’ll be in Fiji for two weeks aboard the vessel used by Waitt Institute. We have top scientific expertise both local and foreign onboard; the support of trusting funders at Waitt Foundation and Moore Charitable Foundation, and a renowned photographer/filmmaker who I knew was needed to tell our story.
The first time Andy Mann shot photos in open water, he almost got trapped under a flipping iceberg in the North Pole. He laughs as he recalls the event, proving to me he’s a great, lighthearted addition to our crew. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic who has captured over two-dozen remote assignments for various clients, and if I was the betting kind of lady, I’d say he’ll be right at home diving with bull sharks.
My sea legs remain steadfast while the gentle rocking of the boat recaptures my attention. I’m excited about this trip; we have to be explorers first and scientists second. And together with Andy, I’m looking forward to sharing our adventure as it unfolds.