‘The Kirbster and I first met when she was studying my beautiful Tiger sharks in Monkey Mia, Shark Bay. Her massive brain and MASSIVER?? passion for sharks has meant we have always kept in touch even when she went back to Melbourne to study her much loved Grey Nurse Sharks that were once considered “man eaters” and hunted to the brink of extinction. Her amazing success as a researcher meant that Vic Uni used her loveliness plastered in an advertising campaign all over Victorian transport to encourage high school leavers to follow in her footsteps to go confidently in the direction of their dreams and live the lives they had imagined! Below is her story..Our finned mates salute you Kirbs!’
How old were you, where were you and who were you with when you saw your first shark? Can you share with us a little bit about that memory?
I was 7 years old and snorkelling with my dad at Edrom Beach in south east New South Wales when I saw my first ‘shark’. My father raised his head above water to say “Look, a banjo shark,”, pointing out the object of interest.
Whilst always curious about sharks although not yet at the stage in my life where I would voluntarily get in the water with sharks, I managed to scream loud enough through my snorkel that my mum and aunty sitting on the beach could hear me whilst simultaneously clambering on my dad’s back.
Since this time through my education and further snorkelling experience I now know that I was actually in the presence of a fiddler ray and not a shark. Banjo shark is another common name for fiddler rays; both names due to the shape of the animal itself one would presume. A true ray and not shark, this organism has pectoral fins fused to its body as rays do (batoids) but a fat tail with obvious dorsal fins like a shark, hence the common name, ‘banjo shark’.
The first true shark I swam with was a Port Jackson shark during my Open Water scuba diving course at Portsea Pier, Victoria. It was male shark (the spine in its dorsal fin gave that away) that was lying on the sand. Its presence made my dive even more special than it already was as a new scuba diver.
The first big sharks I swam (that I am aware of) would be my beloved grey nurse sharks. This was during the field work for my Honours research conducted at Fish Rock off South West Rocks, New South Wales. However, I have the feeling that I may have been in the presence of one or more tiger sharks whilst participating in marine conservation research in the amazingly beautiful Shark Bay, Western Australia 😉 (Editors note..flattery of Shark Bay gets FREE dive trips!! 😉 )
Do you have a favourite species of Shark? Can you tell us why?
I don’t have a favourite species of shark because I love them all; I don’t want to exclude any of them! Through my Honours and PhD research, employment in the shark diving industry and numerous trips to visit Fish Rock I have had a lot more experience with and knowledge of grey nurse sharks compared with that of other sharks so they definitely hold a special place in my heart. I am also intrigued by the Greenland Shark and scalloped hammerhead sharks and find blue sharks absolutely stunning.
Do you have a Shark Hero? Someone who inspires you today?
Rob Stewart, who filmed and featured in the documentary Sharkwater, is one of my shark heroes. He exposed the practice and atrocities of and corruption involved in shark finning to a wider audience.
Valerie Taylor is also another shark hero of mine. How can she not be when she is probably the pioneering woman in shark conservation?
Thanks to my ex boss at Fish Rock Dive Centre I was lucky enough to get to speak with Val Taylor a year or two ago. She and her husband, Ron, were diving with the Fish Rock Dive Centre team and he knew how much I admired them, especially Val. He called me and then passed the phone to Valerie whom I talked with about my research and her experiences diving at Fish Rock. It was a starstruck moment for me!
Finally, Dr. Nick Otway would be my other shark hero. He has worked in the shark conservation scientific research industry for over 20 years now (with a huge focus on grey nurse sharks) and also happens to be my PhD associate supervisor. Being a researcher myself, I had read a lot of Nick’s published research throughout Honours. When I completed this research I emailed my thesis one of Nick’s colleagues I had dealt with at the commencement of my Honours research and he, unbeknownst to me at the time, forward it on to Nick. Nick called me and as soon as he said introduced himself I knew who I was talking to (‘the grey nurse shark man of Australia’ is how I described him to family and friends) and couldn’t believe it. Nick Otway was commending me for my work on grey nurse sharks AND offering to be one of my PhD supervisors?! He has since provided consistent and substantial support to me and is always available for guidance whenever I need his assistance.
What is your favourite shark dive memory? Do you have a dream Shark Dive location? Who gets you there and what does it cost?
I have had so many great experiences diving with sharks, but two standout ones for me are as follows. One was a few years ago diving at Fish Rock with a good friend of mine. We were the only two present and I had my head down playing around with my camera. My friend got my attention and pointed over my shoulder. I turned around and found a beautiful grey nurse hovering right above my left shoulder almost as if it was seeing what I was doing with the camera! As I wasn’t expecting it to be there I got startled and jumped which in turn startled the nurse who quickly turned and swam away. It was the perfect opportunity to get an extremely close up photo of these magnificent animals but due to the both of us giving each other a fright the opportunity was missed; it is however, still as clear as day in my mind.
Another amazing experience took place in June of last year (2011) at South Solitary Island, off Coffs Harbour. My PhD research assistant and I were completing our safety stop (a scuba diving practice) when we both heard humpback whales vocalising very nearby.
We’d previously heard it during the same research period at Julian Rocks, off Byron Bay and that in itself was an experience I’ll never forgot as it was a first for me, however this time it was so loud we could feel the sound vibrating in our chests. I was reminded of how very privileged I am to do what I do and experience such moments as that.
Why Sharks? Why not dolphins or fur seals or trees? Can you explain a little bit about what fascinates you about them?
Ever since I was little I have been fascinated and intrigued by sharks. I recall that whenever there was a shark documentary on the television I would sit in front of it mesmerised by their beauty, grace and mystique.
I have also from a very young age been determined to do work which involves conservation of the natural environment. I wanted to do so many areas of environmental conservation (and still do), however I had to narrow it down somewhat (for now, anyway) when determining what area of ecology I wanted to pursue as a career. Given my enduring love of sharks, the fact that they are in a lot of trouble in terms of the anthropogenic impacts upon them and that I have always felt they are misunderstood (not so many people care about protecting sharks because they aren’t ‘cuddly’ like dolphins appear to be nor is there enough awareness of their plight) I chose to make my passion my career. This was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Do you have a favourite Shark photo at the moment?
I don’t have a favourite that is a new one nor one by a particular photographer, but I have seen images of a dive that can be conducted off the Galapagos Islands, South America, during which scuba divers descend to the seafloor, get settled then spend the dive looking up to the surface at the silhouettes of a large school of scalloped hammerhead sharks.
What individual or group do you think most needs to be taken swimming with the sharks and why?
Those that are scared of, have a hatred for, dislike of and that possess a lack of empathy for sharks. The benefits of this demographic witnessing first hand that sharks are not mindless injuring and killing creatures full of malice would be outstanding. Also the younger generations that will grow up to be the stewards of our Earth. Perceptions need to change in relation to sharks so that they are commended for their roles in maintaining ecosystem health and equilibrium and for their own intrinsic rights as organisms belonging to the natural environment.
What does your family and friends think of your fascination with sharks?
Initially they were nervous about my research and work taking me diving with sharks but now that they have become more educated about them as a result of my experiences they find it fascinating themselves and many of them are quite envious and respectful of what I do.
If you could speak “shark” on your next dive..what would you want them to know?
I would educate them on the types of fishing equipment that they should avoid at all costs. The number of sharks that get killed annually via longlining directly and as bycatch in fishing nets is completely unsustainable, cruel and wasteful. I have also seen countless grey nurse sharks swimming around with fishing hooks wedged in their bodies, fishing line trailing alongside them and scars from what appears to be interactions with fishing gear.
Where is home for you? What is the biggest threat to Sharks in your region? What can our readers do to help change this?
Home for me is in Melbourne, Australia. In terms of the sharks in Australia, I believe from my experiences of diving and research, the attitudes of a certain demographic and the sale of that mysterious meat known as ‘flake’ (many people don’t even realise this is shark, and occasionally stingray, flesh), that overfishing is the biggest threat to sharks here.
In order to facilitate change in this matter I urge fishers to avoid fishing at key shark habitat sites, to use fishing gear designed not to catch sharks, and everyone not to eat flake and to consider very seriously the option of refusing to eat commercially caught fish stocks, at least until sustainable fishing practices are devised and taken up as mandatory procedures in the seafood industry.