Marine encounters of a special kind

“My Marine Wildlife Experience”

Starting young…

Growing up in the middle of Germany my marine wildlife experience was limited to school holidays during which my parents took me and my sister to exciting places like Turkey, Senegal, and Tunisia. And from what I remember, I always felt a connection to the sea, and the life therein. One of the first marine wildlife encounters I remember is the countless moon jellyfish along the coast of the Baltic Sea in northern Germany. Fascinating creatures!

So, my mind was set at the age of eight – I will become a marine biologist. Little did I know how many more exotic places and even more exotic animals and environments I would encounter.

Leaving University to dive into coral reef research….

Determined to become a marine scientist, I went to University to study Biology with a focus on the marine side of things. And this is where my journey began. My first real wildlife experience was a student training internship for a small non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Dahab, Egypt.  Not only did I improve my diving skills during this time, but I was trained in underwater monitoring surveys for coral reefs. And as you might know, coral reefs are called “rainforests of the oceans”. And what a “rainforest” experience that was. I encountered so many forms of marine life, from the small coral polyps, sea horses, and countless anemone fish (also known as clown fish) to moray eels and dolphins.

While completing my master thesis on toxic elements in marine animals, I started working as a research assistant for the NGO in Dahab and became a trainer for underwater surveys myself. These coral reef surveys made me understand how fragile and remarkable marine ecosystems are.  I remember being so engaged into looking at small snails, corals, and crabs, that I barely noticed the dolphin next to me during one of the survey dives. Gosh, I was shocked and happy at the same time. I was reeling in the survey line (a line used to mark a transect underwater along which the survey took place), while looking at the reef. The dolphin, yes, a single dolphin, probably heard the squeaking sound the reel made and got curious. Then it found a bubble making human carefully collecting a line along the reef and decided to take a closer look. The dolphin stayed with me for a while, until I unfortunately had to leave the water as I was getting low on air in my SCUBA tank. That was not the only lucky encounter with dolphins I had during my time in Egypt. Once, while on a dive, a group of dolphins came into the bay including a mother and her calf. What a treat! She came close, but not too close. She was not afraid of us and neither were we afraid of her.

So that was it for me. I was hooked on marine biology for good.

Photo 2: Mother dolphin and her calf in Dahab, Egypt.

Moving on from small corals to the largest fish in the world…

The Egyptian revolution brought many changes, and for me it meant looking for another opportunity.  I decided to try Australia and work a season as a “whale shark spotter”. No kidding, that was the official job title for which I applied for and the job I got. So, moving halfway across the globe, I ended up on a small boat of a small tourism operation at Ningaloo Reef. It was probably one of these “life changing” experiences that one remembers… and always will remember. It was my first day on the whale shark trip and me as the whale shark spotter for one of the two groups of paying tourists that wanted a life changing encounter. So, how does it work? A spotter plane flies along the reef edge of Ningaloo Reef and calls the boat as soon as the pilot spots a whale shark. Then the boat sails to the location of the whale shark and the fun begins – controlled and strongly regulated fun – because one thing Australia wants to ensure is that the whale sharks are not harmed or harassed by these operations. Fun thing though. So, the spotter jumps in first, swims over to the (suspected) whale shark to make sure it is a whale shark! Wondering what else it could be? Well, there are great white sharks around, manatees, tiger sharks, and whales. All are a possibility. Once it is confirmed that it is in fact a whale shark, and the spotter gives the signal to the boat, a small group of snorkelling tourists is allowed to swim next to the whale shark. I vividly remember my first jump as spotter. I had never seen a whale shark before. My heart was pumping and every single fibre in my body was hoping that it is indeed a whale shark coming towards me. I jumped and swam towards the indicated location of the biggest fish in this world. The moment I saw this big, beautiful animal come towards me, I felt privileged. A 10 m big fish, a shark, swam less than 10 meters from me, peacefully cruising through the ocean. What a day I had. In fact, I had a whole season with many encounters with the gentle giants.

From whale sharks in Australia to whale sharks in the Maldives….

Just a year later life would bring whale sharks back into my life, working as a marine biologist on a small island in the Maldives. I spent nine beautiful months teaching biology courses to guests, guiding dives, and supporting local marine research programmes on mantas and whale sharks.  My Maldives time came with many marine wildlife experiences, and many “first times”. It was the first time I saw a Manta ray, the first time I swam in the presence of a wild tuna (and gosh, these fish are huge), and the first time I was surrounded by a group of reef sharks. Just to name a few first times. But it is not only the sharks and rays that I remember. I have always been fascinated by the diversity of life forms under water. I loved watching tiny cleaner wrasse cleaning other fishes from parasites and old scales. Another quite interesting marine animal that I was lucky to observe is the Mantis shrimp. Probably one of the most colourful, most beautiful animals I have ever seen. These large shrimps use their claws to snap their prey unconscious within seconds. I also remember a tiny frogfish blending in perfectly into its surrounding environment, hiding form potential predators. Camouflage is something many marine animals use to either hide from enemies or wait for their prey.

As the island marine biologist, one of my tasks was to lead the “whale shark tours” and teach people about whale sharks, while trying to find one they could swim with. The rules in the Maldives are not as strict and enforced as they are in Australia. Something that made me wonder. And probably one of those moments in which I decided that I wanted to do conservation policy work. Knowing that my time in the Maldives would come to an end, I started looking into ocean policy programmes and applied for a programme in ocean law and governance in Malta. So, this would be my next destination.

But one more adventure first…

Before my course in Malta started, I signed up for an internship to learn more about field techniques for shark research. What better place to go to than South Africa, where you can study great white sharks?  And that is what I did for a month – learning how to study great white sharks in the field. From tagging to dissections, this internship was intense and filled with great marine wildlife experiences; whether it was preparing the chum by chucking up tuna at 4 in the morning to have something that would attract the sharks or taking pictures of dorsal fins once they popped out of the water for identification studies – I enjoyed it all. While great white sharks certainly were at the centre of my attention, I also learned how to be a marine mammal observer and identify whales and dolphins from a distance by looking at their features and blows, while trying to write down what behaviour they were displaying in that instance.

I learned many things… about marine research, conservation and, of course, great white sharks.

Time to change perspective … (a little)

My experience in marine biology, field work, and surveys brought me to many places, different cultures, and people with varying relationships to the marine environment. I knew that I wanted to work towards more effective conservation for marine life and ecosystems. To do that, I rightfully thought, I need to understand how conservation works – legally. And how to influence policy makers to commit and implement better conservation measures. So, I went to Malta to obtain training from the International Ocean Institute in Ocean Governance. But beside studying, I quickly got involved with a local non-governmental organisation that focused on (guess what?) – sharks. As they had not had a marine biologist among their members, I filled that gap and became their science officer. The marine wildlife encounters I had while working with Sharklab-Malta include fun egg case searches along the Maltese beaches, swimming with bullrays in the sandy bays of Golden Bay and Ghaijn Tuffieha and engaging in one very special programme. This NGO was (and still is) rescuing baby sharks from egg cases retrieved from dead sharks landed at the local fish market, raising them in cooperation with the national aquarium to release them back into the wild. So technically it is a wildlife experience, as these babies were made in the wild and brought back into it. These little baby sharks that would take approximately six months to grow and hatch from their pouches, are not only cute, but they are also small predators perfectly adapted to live in the marine environment.

Another wildlife experience with Sharklab-Malta that I will never forget is…

…the rescue of an angular rough shark!

It was a rather quiet and uneventful weekend when I got a call from one of the Sharklab members. A fisherman had caught an angular rough shark that was still alive, and he did not know what to do, as the animal was in a very poor state. Off we went! Snorkel, mask, and camera packed and on our way to meet the shark. Once we, the Sharklab crew, got to the place: we took over. The shark was truly unwell. It could not even hold its position in the water and was barely breathing. I knew that there was not much time to “revive” the poor little creature, so I took it into my hands – literally. I used an empty plastic bottle (unfortunately there are plenty around in a harbour area) and started pumping water through the shark’s mouth to provide it with oxygen, while slowly and carefully moving the shark through the water. There was no time to change, so, I put on a mask and snorkel and dove right into the water, carrying the shark along the shore… and it worked. The little fellow started to regain its strength and breathing on its own. It also started being able to hold its buoyancy. It took a good 2-and-a-half-hour swim along the shore into deeper waters before I could let it go and it was able to swim on its own again. It was time for me to say goodbye, not only because the shark swam away, but it was getting dark, and I was getting cold, which I had not realised until then.

That was a day I will never forget.

From NGOs to government…

Following the completion of my degree in ocean governance, eventually I got a job to work as a marine scientist for a government entity. This was an experience like no other. When I started working for the Maltese government, my knowledge, skills, and experience expanded rapidly in terms of policies and conservation obligations. I worked on many different aspects of marine wildlife – all aspects in fact. In a team of only three people, my work encompassed aspects of habitat protection, restoration and management, species conservation to fisheries-related management and marine protected areas. Not only did I get to do the policies work on the laptop, from time to time I got to train people in underwear survey techniques and engaged in field studies on endangered marine species, such as the noble pen shell, which has almost disappeared in recent years through fishing pressure and the spreading of an infection across the Mediterranean. Many marine animals require conservation actions nowadays because human activities threaten their living space.

I was lucky enough to be chosen for special training in marine turtle conservation in Cyprus.

Patrolling beaches in Cyprus…

I spent eighteen days that were filled with long walks across Cyprus, spotting, recording, and protecting turtle nests. I have to say, this was hard work, but extremely rewarding too, especially in those instances where turtle babies got stuck and could not make it out on their own, so they needed a little help from us to make it into the water.

We also got the chance to patrol the beach at night and observed a green turtle laying eggs. It was incredible seeing this massive marine creature making its way out of the water and crawling along the sand to find the perfect spot to dig a nest.  Then, filling it with dozens of small white balls that would hatch into the next generation of turtles, that 25 years later would return to this beach to lay their own eggs.

Taking it all in…

My work as a marine biologist and advocate brought me to many places with many marine wildlife experiences. These are only a few examples, but certainly special ones. While I treasure each encounter, I need to mention that I have always had the utmost respect for the animals and was careful not to disturb or stress them. We all have a duty to act cautiously and responsibly to marine life.