How I Sea: Jim Hancock, Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme·
Jim is a Director at the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme, where he works to help better understand and conserve the ocean’s largest fish: the whale shark.
How long have you been studying the marine environment in the Maldives? And what does your organization generally study?
The Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP) has been studying whale sharks in the Maldives since 2006. While the programme focusses on whale sharks, being out on the reef each day is a great opportunity for us to also collate data on other marine megafauna and anthropogenic impact.
When megafauna – from turtles to whales – are sighted we note down the species (where possible), with date, time, location, number and their behavior. As this is not our principle area of expertise, we can say here that should any researchers studying a particular species wish access to this data, we would be happy to share it with them, so get in touch!
What made you want to pursue a career in marine science? And do you still have the same motivations today as when you first began?
My career in marine sciences evolved from a simple love for the sea and all marine life. Truth be told I never set out to have a career in marine sciences, but somehow the years have slipped by and here I am!
The chance for adventure and trips to remote tropical destinations fed the belief that this is a great career option in the early years. But I would say that the driving force for me since a very young age has been curiosity: that need to know and understand more about what you are seeing and how it all works together.
The motivation is fundamentally the same for me still; a curiosity, now focused on one species but tied into the understanding of its place in the wider world and how to mitigate the impact of all the human derived threats on it.
How have you seen the marine environment that you study change in your lifetime? Both in general and in the context of your research?
In general I’ve seen some areas improve when they are protected from fishing efforts, and other areas become heavily degraded. I do feel however that the last few years have been the worst for declines in marine environment health that I have seen, especially in our region of operation.
Since I first started working in the Maldives in 2004, I’ve been saddened by the impacts of El Nino’s on the reefs there and the increasing plastic pollution which accompanies booming tourism. The knock on effect of increased tourism on whale sharks is also something we look at closely.
My father has an extensive knowledge of the sea comparable to that of any marine biologist. My appreciation for the ocean and marine life stems from him. He would be quick to admit that many activities he used to do at sea back in the day were what would nowadays be considered exploitive or damaging. There was a lack of knowledge back then of how many small impacts can affect the larger scale.
I see it in the Maldives too. The older generation is so in-tune with the oceans. Yet back in the day, whale shark liver oil was simply a readily available resource to be used as an antifouling on the hull of their boats, so the sharks were harvested. It’s only now when you talk to them about the number they used to see and the size of some of the sharks in pictures they have that you can appreciate the impact it had.
Whatever scale of impact you look at, from vessel strikes on individual whale sharks to the massive amount of plastic bags entering the oceans globally, I would say that awareness and education are the key to reducing human impact and improving the overall health of the marine environment. There are many superb organizations out there, which have done sterling work in this regard notching some notable successes along the way.
I do hope that we’re turning a corner of sorts toward a reduction of harmful practices, with a more broad-minded and better informed younger generation and the ease with which social media and the likes allows dissemination of information.
What do you think is the biggest threat to the Maldives? And why?
At a national level, the impacts of elevated water temperatures during El Nino events in the last decade have been profound. Whole atolls have seen broad areas of coral die offs. Not everywhere, but the extent and severity is something that the government and NGO’s in the country are working to assess the damage.
For an atoll nation literally built on corals, the threat to the foundations of the country going forward is alarming.
How does MWSRP work towards solutions to these issues?
The MWSRP obviously doesn’t have any impact on global challenges like climate change. What we can do however is educate at the local level.
The coral reefs are fragile because of external factors, so we provide as much information and guidance as we can to alleviate any additional harm to specific stretches of reef in our area of operations. The majority of our outreach work is with the schools, where as well as presentations on specific topics like whale sharks and reef ecology, we get hands on with beach cleanups.
One of our favorite post beach clean activities to work on with our students is creating a timeline in the sand to explore the effects of plastic pollution on the ocean. It’s a simple message that really resonates with anyone. We draw a line in the sand that represents the time it takes for a plastic object to degrade. We then have students place common items of litter where in time they believe that piece will degrade, from 1 year to a thousand. There are often faces of disbelief when you start correcting them from their guestimate of ‘3 weeks’ up toward the hundreds of years range!
We also run a programme called Moodhu Kudin (Children of the Sea), which gets the kids out of the classroom and onto the research boat with us. We teach those who don’t know how to snorkel or even swim the basics to get them seeing the reef while some of the more confident students may join us on a whale shark encounter.
It’s all about bringing the marine environment to life and promoting that sense that it’s not out of sight and mind, but a real thing that is influenced by their actions. It brings a huge amount of satisfaction to the team to hear the curiosity being stoked afterwards.
What’s one everyday thing that you think normal people could do better to conserve the marine environment?
Take ten minutes on the Internet to learn a few key facts about threats to the marine environment. Rather than doing just one targeted thing to reduce your impact, you’ll have the tools to know how a wide variety of everyday decisions and actions may impact the marine environment and can make an effort to do a multitude of small positive things instead.
You can learn more about Jim’s work with the MWSRP at: maldiveswhalesharkresearch.org
How I Sea is a new effort by The TerraMar Project to dive into the minds of our global ocean community. We highlight opinions on conservation issues such as: marine pollution, overfishing, drilling, climate change, marine protected areas, scientific discoveries, and much more. Stay tuned for more.
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