Science versus cool; it’s not all diving with sharks

Written by Dr. Michelle Heupel

We’ve all seen the documentaries about marine biology and sharks. I grew up watching Jacques Cousteau (some of you will have to go look him up, but trust me he was a hero to many kids). Being a marine biologist looked amazing. Jacques and his crew went on these fantastic ocean explorations and saw all sorts of amazing fish. What’s not to love?

Nature documentaries have come a long way from watching Jacques in the 1970s. The video is better and technology has allowed us to get closer to more and more animals, but some of the impressions are probably still the same. I know this because a lot of students contact me and want to tell me right away how much diving experience they have. Too bad they probably won’t get to do much diving if they come work with me…. What did I think marine biology was about growing up watching these programs? Going to amazing places and spending a lot of time diving to study the fish. Boy was I wrong! Now I watch these programs and I think, how are those guys so clean?? When I’m in the field I am very regularly covered in mud, saltwater and fish guts. This is the difference between filming what I do and an average day in the field.

 beau

My friend and colleague Beau Yeiser after a day of work in the Everglades.

So what is reality? For many of us we spend much more of our time fishing and servicing equipment than diving. A day of fishing involves a lot of jobs that aren’t very glamorous. Cutting up bait and setting baited lines means you smell like dead fish pretty early in the day. Even wearing gloves can’t save you. I can’t count the number of sandwiches I’ve eaten while my hands stink from bait even though I’ve tried to wash them over the side of the boat. The objective of the day dictates how bad you smell when you get home. Tag and release is pretty good and fairly low on the stink meter, dissecting sharks to collect samples though is not. Dead shark is a pretty interesting smell and one that has to be washed off – how does that smell get into your clothes?

When we’re not fishing for sharks my team and I are downloading data from acoustic receivers that track shark movements. This often involves handling very muddy receivers and scraping off a lot of barnacles. Another pretty unglamorous job. This all sounds pretty bad doesn’t it? I come home stinking of dead fish, covered in mud, fish guts and whatever else I happen to get on myself during the day. They don’t show this version of things on TV unless you’re watching Dirty Jobs. What can I say except that the dirty, stinky gross jobs and long days on the boat are the best part of my job. This is really getting in and doing science. Cleaning the junk off receivers so we can get the data and see where our animals went is really cool even if it makes a mess. Learning new things no one else knows yet is exciting.

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The glamour of fishing – what you can’t see is one of my students holding onto my feet (so I don’t fall overboard) and the bruises on my ribs.

So what about all that diving I thought I’d be doing?  I’ve spent a lot of time studying coastal sharks in the tropics. The water is so brown and muddy you can’t even see your hand in front of your face underwater, let alone any fish. These days I do a lot more work on coral reefs. We can definitely see in the water, but unfortunately when we go diving we have a very specific job to do. When we download the receivers here the dives are short and targeted, not a lot of time to look around and be in awe of the reef. We do see sharks on some of these dives though and it’s always a treat to see them.

bts

Sometimes a shark swims by like this blacktip reef shark. It’s not very close, but at least we saw it.

So, science versus cool? Well I’m a nerd so I think science is cool. A day getting dirty and smelly on the boat is still better than a lot of other jobs I could have and I really do love it. This is a great career, just don’t count on staying clean or getting to dive all the time and you should be fine.

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