In my professional career I have been involved in some incredible projects researching a wide range of animals in a variety of environments. These expeditions have helped shape my perceptions of the world and fuel my need to make a difference. These expeditions are intense learning experiences, huge amounts of hard work, lots of fun and always an adventure!
Papua New Guinea was my first real scientific expedition and what a great way to start; wild country, wild people and sensational diving. I did my Honours Thesis researching population dynamics of sea urchins on tropical coral reefs in Kimbe Bay, an idyllic tropical paradise. I was stationed there for three months living on a research station made of bamboo, right on the edge of both a reef and a rainforest. I have to admit I did not want to come home! Hooked for life ☺
I have spent most of my professional science career on the Ribbon Reefs of the Great Barrier Reef and Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea, and have clocked up thousands of dives in these locations. With masses of sharks, large schools of fish, incredible coral quality, great visibility and always something unexpected, there is probably nowhere on the planet I feel more at home then these spectacular reef sites. This is all thanks to a unique tourism venture called “Undersea Explorer” that harnessed the tourism dollar to fund essential and groundbreaking marine research.
As the Marine Biologist on board the ship the “Undersea Explorer”, I was involved in hundreds of research projects with scientists who were all leaders in their field. The projects ranged from monitoring reef health, studying fluorescent corals, discovering new cephalopods, unravelling the dwarf minke whale mystery, tagging deep sea nautilus, and my favourite: tracking and researching shark movement and behaviour. Without a doubt my all time favourite animals are sharks. On Undersea Explorer our specialty was shark-tracking research and we were busy finding out where white tip and grey reef sharks move on a daily basis. This research quickly expanded to include tiger sharks and over the years I have been fortunate enough to come face to face with this awesome ocean predator on many, many occasions.
I have been involved in ten tiger shark captures that allowed us to attach GPS satellite tags to their dorsal fins so we could see where they go on a much larger scale. I also co-designed and built a shark-cam that we attached to the tiger sharks that could film for 2.5 hours. At the time this was a record for the longest camera deployment on a tiger shark, and once recovered we were able to watch the shark dive to over 200m in depth. These studies were groundbreaking in understanding much about tiger shark behaviour, biology and ecology and make up the most comprehensive knowledge we have on these animals on the Great Barrier Reef.
I met my Ph.D supervisor on Undersea Explorer and it wasn’t long before I had teamed up with him and the managers of Undersea to create my Ph.D project. My thesis was designed to place a social and economic value on specific Great Barrier Reef species and habitats for their sustainable long-term use by tourism, as opposed to extractive uses of these areas like fishing or collecting. During the time of my Ph.D the Great Barrier Reef was rezoned and much of the data I had collected was used in the rezoning process. Consequently many dive sites in the Ribbon Reef region that were open to fishing became protected, creating a win-win situation for the tourism industry.
This research was undertaken on some of the best diving operations on the Great Barrier Reef and Osprey Reef, and the support I received for this project was outstanding. The data collected is of use not only in Australia, but in other coral reef areas around the world to demonstrate that well managed tourism is a long-term sustainable option for economic growth as opposed to short-term extractive uses of the same natural sites.
Working with Reef Check Australia was one of the highlights of my early career. This non-profit organisation relies on volunteer divers to monitor the health of coral reefs worldwide. I have conducted 100’s of surveys in Australia but was also sent as one of three Expedition Leaders to the beautiful Vanuatu to assess the impact of the aquarium collection trade. Vanuatu is a sensational tropical paradise but it was sad to see just how big an impact extractive industries can have on isolated reef systems. This was my first real look at just what is happening out there each and every day that not many of us know about. Beautiful reefs, clear water…but no fish. Not good.
For the last 11 years I have not missed a single Dwarf Minke Whale season on the Great Barrier Reef, and I hope I never will! Dwarf Minke Whales migrate to the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef each winter and the Minke Whale Project team from James Cook University have been studying them for over 15 years to try and understand more about their biology and ecology.
Despite whales generally being massive in size, very little is know about them because they are difficult to study from the surface. However, the Dwarf Minke Whales are unique because they actually seek out human interactions. This means we are able to get in the water and study them for hours on end. Over the years I have spent 100’s of hours with these whales and there is simply nothing like this wildlife experience on the planet. Everybody should come face to face with a whale – it will change your life forever!
Macquarie Island is the real deal. It is what I trained for all my life as a scientist and adventurer and it tested me in every single way. Situated in the middle of the Southern Ocean in the sub-Antarctic, Macquarie Island is an extremely remote and hostile place. Despite this, it is one of the last standing mass wildlife spectacles on the planet and attracts over four million seals, penguins, seabirds and whales each summer. As a scientist it is a dream come true and my six-month posting was the best time I ever had.
As a scientist with the Fur Seal Research Program I was sent to monitor the breeding success of the fur seal population that was completely decimated in the early 1800’s. Macquarie Island was founded by sealers and over 200,000 were slaughtered for their furs in just ten short years, killing every last animal. Today the population consists of three species: Antarctic, Sub-Antarctic and New Zealand fur seals, with a total of about 2000 animals. This research is part of a long-term monitoring program that continues today and provides essential information for the protection and preservation of these animals. The time I had on Macquarie Island was so good that I returned the following summer for another six months to once again live and work with the seals!