Conservation efforts for marine mammals and turtles have far surpassed sharks and rays in recent decades. This has largely been due to the lack of public support for legislation and conservation efforts (Thompson & Mintzes, 2002; Naylor & Parsons, 2018). The focus of my master’s work has been to inspire shark conservation action in others through informal education and personal connection.
A healthy, balanced ecosystem requires sufficient predator-prey interactions at all levels. Sharks first appeared in the fossil record approximately 400 million years ago and have since diversified to fulfill a number of ecological niches, from apex to meso-predators (Fowler et al., 2005). An apex predator occupies the top trophic level position within their community, specializing in top-down control over their prey species (Heupel, Knip, Simpfendorfer, & Dulvy, 2014). These predators can have significant impacts on ecosystem structure (Estes et al., 2011). Meso-predators are mid-level predators that are less specialized and have a more diffuse predator-prey pattern. These species have a less significant impact on their communities directly, but they still play an important role in providing balance within the ecosystem (Heupel et al., 2014).
In the last few decades, global shark populations have seen dramatic decreases. Assessments by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has revealed that over 25% of elasmobranchs, the subclass of cartilaginous fish the Chondrichthyes which includes the sharks and rays, are vulnerable to extinction (Magiera, 2014). Bony fishes typically reach sexual maturity quickly and have a high rate of fecundity, or the ability to produce offspring. Sharks on the other hand can take years, sometimes decades, to reach sexual maturity and have a low rate of fecundity, leaving sharks highly susceptible to anthropogenic influences (Skomal, 2016). These anthropogenic factors, or environmental factors originating from human activity, can include but are not limited to climate change, overfishing, and habitat loss or degradation (Chin, Kyne, Walker, & McAuley, 2010; Knip, Heupel, & Simpfendorfer, 2010; Ward-Paige et al., 2010).
Recently, we have come to a tipping point on a number of critical conservation topics: climate change, coral conservation, rhino conservation, and now the sharks. Sharks have endured five mass extinction events in their 400-million-year existence, but it is possible that we will see the disappearance of many large shark species within our lifetime (Compagno, 2001). Passing conservation legislation is filled with red tape, which often requires a lot of give and take. However, in the last few decades, conservation initiatives for marine mammals and turtles have far surpassed sharks and rays (Naylor & Parsons, 2018). This has largely been due to the lack of public support for legislation and conservation efforts (Thompson, & Mintzes, 2002; Naylor & Parsons, 2018). Support for sharks often just isn’t there. But I personally believe that it is possible to change the perception of sharks in a way that would help benefit their conservation efforts.
I did not always love sharks. I was once terrified of them. So much so that I would not go in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws absolutely devastated four-year-old me (1975). But my fear did not last for long, all I needed was a push in the right direction. Great White Shark by Richard Ellis and John McCosker captivated me (1991). It turned fear into admiration. I certainly wasn’t the only one that Jaws terrified. Jaws legitimized the hunting and killing of sharks. Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, was devastated by the impact the book and film had on people and ultimately sharks (Pohle, 2015). So how could I change people’s perceptions of sharks so that they could see sharks for what they really are? Not the mindless killing beasts portrayed by Hollywood, but as the impressive, beautiful, powerful predators they are, just like the lions and tigers and bears that deserve our respect and protection.
I entered graduate school with lofty ambitions of saving all the sharks. I knew that conservation meant working towards the protection, care, management and maintenance of ecosystems, habitats, wildlife species and populations (IUCN, 2003). But I did not know what my role in those efforts were to be, and how I would influence a community to become involved in those efforts. Before I could have an influence on my community, I had to explore my potential roles as a conservationist. My journey led me through scientific inquiries, and environmental stewardship, to community building and leadership. Through it all, I fostered a community of conservation-minded individuals and found my voice as an informal conservation educator where I live my master plan every day: To inspire shark conservation action in others through education and personal connection.
Creating a Foundation Through Inquiry and Stewardship
An Introduction to Shark Behavior at Chicago Zoological Society – Brookfield Zoo
The leopard shark (Triakis semifasciata) is a popular species in aquariums due to their eye-catching appearance. They have dark, saddle-like stripes that cover their light sandy colored bodies. They have small, cat-like eyes that are striking to look at. They use long, slow undulations to propel themselves gracefully through the water (Nosal et al., 2013). For these reasons, leopard sharks are considered an ambassador species for sharks (Skomal, 2016). The first time I taught my husband how to free dive, we were in La Jolla Shores, California in September. We were surrounded by hundreds of pregnant female leopard sharks, gestating in the warm, shallow waters of the Shores. It was magical. Since then, leopard sharks have been one of my favorite shark species and that is why I decided to use them as a focal species in my research.
The aim of my first inquiry was to determine the habitat substrate preference of the leopard sharks at Chicago Zoological Society Brookfield Zoo’s Living Coast. Half of the exhibit is modeled to reflect the rocky kelp beds of the Pacific Northwest, and the other half is barren, resembling the open ocean habitat these sharks and other conspecifics in the exhibit may encounter. I observed each of the four female leopard sharks for a total of fifteen hours per shark. Ultimately, findings suggested a statistically significant preference for the open ocean substrate, which surprised me given the leopard sharks’ natural habitat preference of kelp beds and estuaries. I suspected the lack of predators and the all-female social grouping gave these females a sense of security not found in wild sharks. These findings suggested that leopard sharks in zoo and aquarium settings may require a range of habitat substrates to provide them with the best possible welfare.
This was the first time I conducted an animal behavior observation study. Initially, I was concerned I would grow bored standing in one spot staring at the same individual for hours at a time. Instead I was surprised how fully engaged I became with these sharks. I noticed each shark had a unique personality. One female would spend hours just lying peacefully on the bottom, using her spiracle to draw oxygenated water over her gills. I laughed every time a kid ran up to the glass and yelled “that shark is dead!” I would take the opportunity to teach each kid that it was a myth that all sharks had to keep moving or they would die. I also noticed an alarming number of guests that incorrectly identified the shark species. It surprised me when guests did not come by the signs posted by the large viewing window to learn more information about the sharks (and to find that they were wrong about the shark species). This made me start wondering about how engaged and informed guests were based on their encounter with the leopard sharks.
Exploring Guest Interest in Shark Species Identification
Intrigued by my time with the leopard sharks at Brookfield Zoo, I was curious to investigate guest engagement with the leopard sharks at the Living Coast exhibit. Previously, I had overheard guests misidentify the leopard sharks as tiger sharks (which is another large predatory shark species, Galeocerdo cuvier), jaguar sharks (which don’t really exist, but they probably remember from the 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), and, my personal favorite, giraffe sharks (which are just adorable and I wish existed). Zoos and aquariums use ambassador animals to provide the public with an engaging and educational experience that encourages inquiry beyond the zoo environment (AZA, n.d.). I found it difficult for these leopard sharks to effectively act as ambassadors for sharks if guests were not engaged enough to seek out the information provided about them. This caused me to question the effectiveness of the signs posted at the Living Coast exhibit.
This study taught me two things: designing an exhibit that is beneficial for the animals, pleasing to the eye, and effectively educates the public can be extremely difficult; and the guests at Brookfield Zoo were not identifying the sharks correctly, nor were they seeking out the signs to help them do so. Since the 1960’s, society’s views of animal welfare have evolved, and zoo exhibits have evolved right alongside (Rabb, 2004). Today, most zoos which have been accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) make some effort to have their habitats look and feel natural to their guests, and presumably the animals. This effort has in turn encouraged guests to stay longer in front of exhibits that are pleasing to the eye and move past exhibits they find less pleasing more quickly (Rabb, 2004). I could personally see why guests who visited the leopard sharks at the Living Coast moved through the area without slowing down to look at the signs. The area was dark, with no natural light, except the small slivers of light that entered from the top of the tank. The signs were old, discolored, and some were scratched. It was not the most open and inviting ocean exhibit I had ever been too. From a visitor perspective, that perhaps just visited a recently updated part of the zoo next door, I would have been more inclined to move along to the penguins at the end of the hall than to hang around some fish in a dark room.
This investigation was a huge turning point that, thankfully, happened very early on for me. I learned that guests were not finding themselves truly engaged and connected enough to seek out more information. There was a lack of connection (Yalowitz, 2004). When I was observing these leopard sharks during my first inquiry I thought “well how can anyone not be enticed by them?” But I very quickly realized my bias. I had made a personal connection a very long time ago. However, to most people these are just big fish. We lived in Chicago. Why should they care about a marine species? I needed to get them to engage on a personal level. This became a pillar of my master’s work, but in order to achieve that I needed more skills and tools in my arsenal.
Lions and Tigers and Bears! Oh my!
To expand my skills in animal behavior science, I accepted an internship position with Dr. Lance Miller in Brookfield Zoo’s Animal Welfare Research Department in January of 2017. I was working on the carnivore welfare research project, a behavior monitoring study of over 60 mammalian carnivore species within the zoo’s collection. Over eight weeks I observed 72 individuals daily and, in the months that followed, collated data into curator reports and presented data before senior staff. It was during the first few weeks of this internship that my interest in personality was rekindled when I became obsessed with our two clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa), Dongwa and Sky. These two again got me thinking about personality and how it can be used as an investigative tool. Personality is defined as individual behavioral differences observed constantly over time and situations or context (Freeman & Gosling, 2010). Personality assessments can be used as a tool for zoological institutions and conservation efforts by identifying those individuals who may be more prone to social or environmental stresses, by identifying those who may be more suited for breeding, or by selecting those who may be more likely to survive reintroduction to the wild (Horback, Miller, Kuczaj, 2013; Silva & Azeveda, 2013; Wang, 2017).
As I observed the cloud leopards each day, I realized that even if I did not know their markings, even if I did not know which individual would be on exhibit at what time of day, I would know these two different individuals based on their personalities. Dongwa had access to the exhibit during the day until about one in the afternoon. He was often in the far back of the exhibit with incredibly piercing, watchful eyes that missed nothing. Guests frequently overlooked him, as he hid in the back and his spotted markings helped camouflage him into the jungle scenery. Sky had access to the exhibit during the afternoon and she was a riot to watch. She would play in the waterfall in the front of the exhibit, often hissing and splashing water at guests. She had striking markings on her back that resembled butterfly wings. Dongwa was a wild, observant predator. Sky was a perfect ambassador animal: playful, engaging, and highly visible.
I decided to conduct an independent inquiry into the variability of personality both within a species and between mammalian carnivore species. I used two sets of data, one data set collected in the winter of 2015 and the other collected by myself and the second intern in the winter of 2017. For a species to be included in the study, at least two individuals had to represent the species and both data had to have at least 100 minutes of observable time for each individual. These criteria narrowed my focus tremendously down to 13 individuals within 4 families consisting of 6 species of carnivore. I was absolutely crushed when I realized these parameters eliminated both Sky and Dongwa. In the winter of 2015, the interns were not able to locate Dongwa while he was hiding in the back of the exhibit. But I had to continue with the data set which fit within my parameters. I used a Spearman’s rank-order correlation test to determine the direction and strength of association between behavioral traits from both years of observation (Zou, Tuncali, & Silverman, 2003). The results showed significant correlation in behavioral traits for individuals from year to year and showed correlation within a species. However, working with such a small sample size made it difficult to draw any firm conclusions regarding inter or intra species personality.
I never realized how difficult it can be for animal behaviorists to study within a zoological setting. I had the impression that a controlled environment would make data more reliable. However, animal behaviorists studying in a zoological institution face many challenges, one of the biggest hurdles being small sample size. My study was no exception. Sample size is not only limited by the physical size of the population housed by the zoological institution, but can also be restricted by the demographic information inconsistencies within the population (Gartner & Weiss, 2013). I faced both issues. One potential solution for future studies is conducting research that includes multiple institutions to increase sample size and demographic information, like the San Diego Zoo which helped to create the specialized ethogram for the carnivore welfare study (Less, Kuhar, Dennis, & Lukas, 2012).
Since the conclusion of my internship, I have continued my work in animal behavior in my professional life. In the summer of 2017, I was invited along with my internship mentor, Christine Razal, and fellow intern, Kaylee Schulz, by Debbie Clemens, former Senior Coordinator of the Advanced Inquiry Program at Brookfield Zoo, to give a presentation to the graduate course Animal Behavior and Conservation: Carnivores. During my time as a seasonal keeper at Cosley Zoo, I implemented a new protocol for observing, recording, and analyzing animal behavior for intern projects using zoological research standards. This new protocol will allow intern observations to be compared from year to year, season to season, and even allow Cosley Zoo to compare their results to those of other institutions. These experiences once again got me thinking about shark behavior and how human interactions could potentially influence their behaviors. These were questions that I wanted to investigate for myself, and to do that I needed to look beyond my local community.
Could Ecotourism Influence Shark Behavior?
In the Fall of 2017, I accepted an internship position in La Paz, California Baja Sur, Mexico working on a whale shark (Rhincodon typus) photo identification project with Whale Shark Diaries. The project combined the efforts of conservationists and local ecotourism guides to identify transient and resident whale sharks in La Paz Bay. The goal of the project was to determine the effectiveness of the current ecotourism practices in the Bay, not only for the benefit of the tourism guides, but also for the protection of this endangered species. But before I made my journey from the western suburbs of Chicago down to the warm beaches of Baja, Mexico, I wanted to investigate the scientific literature for the potential effects of ecotourism practices on whale shark behavior.
Ecotourism, especially wildlife ecotourism, is a rapidly expanding industry. In Baja California Sur, Mexico alone there are 130 certified whale shark tourism guides (J. Gittens, personal communication, September 19, 2017). After visiting the region, I can see why there are so many whale shark guides in the area. It is strikingly beautiful, easily accessible for North and South Americans, and the whale shark aggregations are predictable year to year. Ecotourism has the ability to have a positive impact on the local people in the region by providing an influx of jobs and money to the region. It can also have a positive impact on the local wildlife by increasing awareness for conservation efforts (Leung, Spenceley, Hvenegaard, & Buckley, 2015). At present, the whale shark is listed as Endangered by the IUCN (Pierce, & Norman, 2016). However, I was shocked to learn that over 60% of the sharks in La Paz Bay have some sort of boating related injury. I was especially horrified by this fact because most of the whale sharks in the Bay are juveniles, measuring less than five meters in length.
An extensive investigation into the scientific literature on the positive and negative effects of whale shark ecotourism gave me a great foundation for my internship experience. It prepared me for some of the shocking injuries from horrific encounters that sharks had with boats. It gave me perspective on how the ecotourism industry has adapted to scientific research from studies, like the one I was to be a part of, over the last 15 years. The inquiry I completed prior to my internship made my experiences in the field much more meaningful because I saw that there were real world responses from the local, regional, and federal governments, as well as the local peoples who want to protect these animals. I was inspired by these people to become the best advocate, not only for sharks, but for the ocean that I could. I decided to take the ultimate plunge.
Diving In! Becoming a Front-Line Ocean Advocate
I will never forget my first breath underwater. After studying for weeks, watching the videos from PADI, and sitting in the classroom all morning, it was time to set up my gear and dive into the pool for the first time. I had practiced setting up my gear in the classroom. The first time I had accidentally attached the regulator to the cylinder backwards. Now poolside, I assembled all my gear, did my safety checks, checked my buddy, and my buddy checked me. We climbed down the steps, put on our fins, and took the plunge.
As a free diver, I have had many transcendent experiences in the water, from breathtaking coral landscapes to encounters with incredible wildlife. But I have always been restricted by the limits of a single breath. Learning to SCUBA dive has given me the keys to explore deeper, encounter more creatures, and continue to strengthen my connection with the aquatic world. A study conducted in St. Petersburg and Sarasota, Florida revealed that not only does scuba diving increase an individual’s recreational specialization and environmental awareness, but there was also a positive association between the two (Thapa, Graefe, & Meyer, 2006). As a diver’s specialization in SCUBA increased, so too did their environmentally responsible behaviors (Thapa, Graefe, & Meyer, 2006). Over the past year, I have not only become certified, but I have continued to develop my education as a diver. I have worked my way from an open water diver, to the next level, advanced open water diver, and I have taken several specialty courses. I feel a greater sense of responsibility for the underwater world that I have now become a party to. I aspire to go after my master diver certification and make diving a part of my conservation career.
Inspiring Conservation Action Through Personal Connection and Education
Adelaide’s SAT Tag Journey
After a year of investigating the roles of a conservationist through inquiry and stewardship, I knew that in order to influence a community of conservation minded individuals to engage in conservation actions on behalf of sharks, I needed to invoke a personal and emotional connection. Unfortunately, the preconceived notion that sharks were mindless killing machines and were to be feared, not loved, was a huge obstacle that laid before me, and continues to be a challenge for many conservationists trying to change conservation legislation that requires public support (Friedrich, Jefferson, & Glegg, 2014; O’Bryhim & Parsons, 2015; Simpfendorfer, Heupel, White, & Dulvy, 2011). This stigma can still exist in those individuals who are already more likely to be conservation minded, like those who visit zoos and aquariums frequently (Yalowitz, 2004; Yalowitz, & Ferguson, 2006). However, recently social media has begun to make sharks and shark research more accessible to the public. In 2007, a non-profit research organization, OCEARCH, launched their own shark tracker feed that allowed users to track great white sharks in real time, and in 2012, one of their sharks, Mary Lee, took twitter by storm as the first great white shark with a live twitter feed.
After exploring Mary Lee’s feed, I was excited that people were actively engaging with a great white shark on twitter and were anticipating her next ping. It inspired me to try another interactive media platform: Google Tour Builder. The tour followed a tiger shark named Adelaide off the coast of Australia. Each stop along the tour was a ping from her satellite tag and the reader could view all the information the satellite recorded. Along with her ping location, photos and information about the history, development, and implementation of satellite tags progressed throughout her journey. It was a beautiful tour, but no one saw it.
I posted the tour to my personal social media sites and Reddit, but the tour was only viewed a handful of times. I didn’t have a community that cared to engage with educational material. I realized in that moment that a community of conservation minded individuals was not going to just stumble across my private social media post and suddenly become involved en masse. If I wanted to interact with this community, I had to create a space for these individuals to clearly see me as an authority and feel comfortable interacting in an informal way. I needed to build my own community.
Attachments: Adelaide’s SAT Tag Journey
The Creation of a Conservation Community
After my unsuccessful venture with Google Tour Builder, I spent a few weeks researching other means of social media platforms that I could potentially use to build my new conservation minded community. I wanted a platform that allowed for open dialogue between myself and my audience, but I still needed to maintain my position as an authority in my field (Di Minin, Tenkanen, & Toivonen, 2015; Newman et al., 2012). I decided to start a blog, OceanForSharks, alongside a Facebook Page and Instagram account. Each media platform would automatically feed into the other creating one linked social media ecosystem, giving me a wider base to communicate with my audience.
I had tried blogging in the past without any success. I loved the design process, but when it came time to create the content, I never felt like I had anything to say. In the initial planning process, I was nervous that would be the case again. I feared that I would not find my voice as an authority. I decided the best way to avoid this uncertainty was to launch the blog with a miniseries investigating the ecological impacts of the global population decline due to human influences. These were large, complex topics: habitat degradation and loss, climate change, and over fishing and finning; but these concepts were incredibly important for anyone interested in sharks to understand in their most basic form (Knip et al., 2010; Ward-Paige et al., 2010). The last post in the series encouraged my audience to get involved in conservation action and included several suggestions for every day actions, links to petitions and volunteer organizations, and a direct link to contact United States Representatives.
Since the launch of the social media campaign, I’ve grown from 10 readers a month to more than 2,400 blog subscribers, 800 Instagram followers, and over 2,300 Facebook followers, to date of this publication, who I engage with several times a day. I have gotten over my fear of having nothing to say. I have kept my readers informed on the latest scientific research on sharks and their relatives using daily Google Alerts to stay ahead of topics and create blog content as it happens. I have begun a weekly Featured Species segment that not only allows me to research and explore shark species that I may not be that familiar with, but also gives my audience a chance to learn about sharks other than the big three: great white (Carcharodon carcharias), tiger (Galeocerdo cuvier), and bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas). I love my community. I have regular readers that I speak with every day. I have made friends with a few of my readers outside of social media, two of them have become my dive buddies. I have found my voice as an informal educator and it is using a medium that I never expected to love.
Ocean For Sharks Blog Miniseries: Declining Shark Populations
- Consequences of Elasmobranch Population Decline
- Habitat Loss: Nurseries
- Habitat Destruction: Terrestrial Runoff
- Habitat Destruction: Coral Reefs
- Climate Change: Vulnerability Based on Ecological Habitat
- Climate Change: Seasonal Changes Impacting Migration
- Fishing & Finning: Influence of Asian Fishing Markets
- Get Involved: Keep Sharks in Our Oceans
It’s All About the Teeth
After the launch of the blog, I began to look for creative ways to share my master’s work with my audience. I noticed that several conservation organizations shared infographics on their social media feeds to convey a lot of information in a fun, colorful, eye-catching way. The infographics drew a lot of likes and shares. I decided to create one of my own on the evolution of shark teeth in relation to prey specialization. Sharks first appeared in the fossil record nearly 400 million years ago; and while their soft cartilage skeletons do not preserve well, their teeth are one of the most commonly collected fossils in the world because a single shark can lose over 20,000 teeth in a lifetime (Parker, 2008). A fossil tooth may seem cold and lifeless, but to many of my readers, the fossil tooth they found on a family trip to Florida, or the Carolinas, or Australia brings back many personal memories. I hoped that this infographic would tap into those memories and help make the educational experience more meaningful.
When I first conceived this idea, I thought it would be an easy project I would play with one rainy afternoon. I envisioned a sketch outline of the shark tooth and a short, catchy blip about diet that was reflected in the structure. What I didn’t expect was that I am terrible at creating “short, catchy blips.” The infographic was lengthy and wordy. It played well on the blog and Facebook, but it didn’t do well on Instagram. I feel it would have played out better broken down into two or three smaller graphics that played as a timed slide show.
I’m glad that I tried playing with the infographic. It got me out of my comfort zone and I tried something that I didn’t necessarily succeed at, but I don’t feel it was a complete failure either. I am looking for the right project to try another with in the future. I may try to introduce one with a Featured Species profile one week. Infographics are great tool that I want to become more comfortable using and the only way to do that is to practice using them more.
The Dance of Whale Sharks
It’s hard to put into words how humbling it is to look into the eyes of a giant and find peace. I was La Paz Bay in Baja, Mexico. I had been there working as a conservation intern on a whale shark photo identification project. I approached a female whale shark that was feeding in the water. Her mouth was at the surface, her body was hung vertically in the water column, as she sucked down mouthful after mouthful of plankton in a huge rush of water, straining out microscopic plankton through her massive gill rakers (Martin, 2007). She was so large that when I turned my camera down, I lost sight of her caudal fin. We just watched each other, eye to eye, for what felt like a lifetime, but was only five minutes according to my camera. She was just gulping away, watching me with her tiny eyes. There was something about her gaze, curious, unthreatening, inviting, passive, that opened my soul in a way that I was entirely unprepared for and did not know was even possible. In that moment, I lost all sense of self. I was somehow both larger than myself and so small, I was powerful and powerless, I was imperfectly perfect. When I returned to the skiff, I realized I had been crying throughout the encounter.
Before I set out for Baja, I had explored the literary research on the potential impacts of ecotourism. I knew that ventures like WSD could potentially benefit whale shark conservation by allowing their visitors to have a one on one experience with these animals in the wild, creating the opportunity for them to make a personal connection with these animals. I was not expecting to have my own moment of connection while interning for WSD. Now I found myself so emotionally invested in her and in these sharks. How could I get my readers to feel the same way? How could I make them feel the awe, and humility, and the hope that I just did? That I still feel. I couldn’t put everyone on plane, send them to Baja, get them all out of the tiny skiff, and introduce them to whale shark MX-602 (her Wild Book identification number).
I decided to entice my readers over time, get them invested in the story of the region, the sharks, and whale shark MX-602. I created a month-long blog series that incorporated some of my earlier research into the potential impacts of ecotourism, and then moved into my personal exploration of the Gulf of California, from Cabo San Lucas to La Paz Bay. Finally, I shared my own experiences in the field. During my internship, I spent my mornings free diving in the Bay alongside these whale sharks, who had come into Bay to feed on microscopic zooplankton, taking photographs of their spots along their left side from the gills to the dorsal fin and other identifying marks. Their spots are unique to them as our fingerprints are to us. Their spots and other identifying marks, such as injury from boat strikes, allow researchers to track a whale shark from photographs throughout its lifetime (Martin, 2007). I recorded behavioral data during each encounter (was the shark swimming, ram feeding, vertical feeding, etc.) along with date, time, and GPS location. In the afternoon, I analyzed the photographs from each shark and compared these to existing whale shark WildBook profiles. Data were added to existing profiles, and profiles were created for new individuals with their encounter data. The blog series received nearly 1,100 reader visits over four weeks. But I feel the biggest success came on November 13, 2017, when I received this personal message from a young reader:
“Hello, I am studying marine biology as an undergraduate university in Kansas. I am most interested in sharks and specifically whale sharks. Do you know of any organizations that are looking for interns to help study whale sharks?”
I felt a rush that someone felt inspired enough to reach out to me and ask about getting involved in shark internships. I wanted more of that feeling. How do I repeat this every day? The only logical thing was to go off the deep end.
Ocean for Sharks Blog Miniseries: Shark Ecotourism in the Sea of Cortez
Amanda Flannery (Videographer). (2017) Whale Sharks in La Paz, Baja [Video Clip].
Winifred the Wondrous Whale Shark
Following my encounters with whale sharks in Baja, I began brainstorming for more ways my experiences could connect others to these incredible animals and inspire them to get involved in their conservation. The inspiration for a children’s book came in stages. The idea first came when a colleague shared with me A Whale’s Tale Wyatt’s Antarctic Adventure: Tagged by Scientists by Dr. Reny Blue Tyson. I will admit that at this point, I thought the idea of sharing scientific inquiry through storytelling was a fantastic idea, but I highly doubted my ability to create something so eloquent. I was moved, but almost as quickly dismissed the idea. Months later came my next spark of inspiration. I received a call from my sister-in-law. My niece, Maddie, was learning about sharks in her preschool class. My sister-in-law said that when Maddie heard they were going to be learning about sharks, she proudly announced to the class that “[her] Auntie Mandy swims with sharks.” I became something of a celebrity in Maddie’s class and her teacher featured videos and photos from my blog on a regular basis for the rest of the year. My final creative push came when I attended a Cosley Zoo keeper painting party. It had been years since I picked up a paint brush. I had forgotten how much I loved the medium. Artists around the world are making complex environmental issues, like climate change, into visual media through their art that are invoking real visceral responses from people (Chameides, 2014). I knew that I had to explore this possibility.
The creation of this book required me to take very complex issues – endangered species, scientific inquiry, and species conservation – and break them down into their most basic components so that they could be understood and processed by a child. I struggled throughout this entire process. I struggled to write a copy that I felt told a captivating story and educated my audience about marine biology and whale sharks. I struggled to design and execute illustrations that told the story as much as the words on the page did. For months I felt like I had failed, and I felt utterly defeated. Then, one rainy afternoon in March, everything just fell into place. I’m not sure why. Maybe my dog looked at me in just the right way. Whatever it was, the copy was smooth, and I had a plan for my illustrations. Two months later I submitted Winifred the Wondrous Whale Shark for publication.
I still cannot believe that my book is available in print. It very surreal. I truly believe that young readers will appreciate and be inspired by stories about science and sharks. As frustrating as this book was to work on, I am incredibly proud of the final product. I think it speaks volumes about my journey throughout my master’s program, not only in my work but who I have become as a person.
I came into Miami University’s Project Dragonfly knowing that I wanted to save the sharks, but I didn’t have the slightest idea what that really meant. It took exploring my role within the conservation community through scientific inquiry and environmental stewardship to figure that out. I began to understand how I could potentially influence a conservation minded community to act through connecting education and personal experiences through my own voice. I have connected with people I never expected to meet, from zookeepers and animal behaviorists, to ecotourism guides and naturalists 2,500 miles away in Mexico, to a newly made shark enthusiastic half a world away who just read about a shark species they had never heard of on my blog. I have been fortunate to experience new things, some that I succeeded at, and others that I didn’t but was still able to learn from. Through it all, I have found my place and my voice as an informal educator within the conservation community.
As I finish my master’s program, the work is never done. The children’s book reignited my creativity. In the summer of 2018 I opened the Shark Spot on Etsy. Proceeds are donated to Project AWARE to benefit shark research and conservation legislation. I believe that art can transcend cultural boundaries in ways that words that cannot. It is a media that I will continue to rely on to inspire conservation action as I continue my journey. In the summer of 2019 I will be hosting a fundraising event, Sips for Sharks. The event is to be held at a local bar. There will be a specialty drink, a trivia game, and a raffle with shark related prizes. All entry fees and specialty drink sales will be donated to shark research and conservation efforts. I have hopes that the event will raise local awareness for conservation efforts, even in landlocked states like Illinois, and that the fundraiser can become an annual event. I plan to apply for a PhD program in marine ecology for the fall of 2020.
Featured Image Source
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