As a kid, I was drawn to the helplessness of street dogs. I did the best I could for them: fed them, removed parasites and found an owner for them. The latter proved to be a difficult task since people were unwilling to adopt street dogs. One day, my father suggested that I try selling the dogs once they had completely recovered. Following his advice, I posted a picture of a black puppy that I found under a car, on the school’s notice board, with a big red bow and a high price. In three days, a caring family came forward to buy the puppy. After this incident, two other kids decided to help me find, clean and sell street dogs on the condition that they receive a share from the money earned. So, at the age of ten I learnt the most valuable lesson in my life: Conservation is most effective when it is profitable. At a later stage, I realized that the same theory could be extended to sharks.
Beggining of the Fascination for Sharks >> Shark Diving (2008)
Although part of my family is German, with strong ties to many German traditions, I was lucky to have spent my years growing up in Venezuela: a beautiful tropical country with the longest coast of the Caribbean Sea. I got certified as a scuba diver at the beginning of my biologist career since it would give me a strong foothold in my job as a researcher at the coral research laboratory. I was sure that I wanted to work with marine fauna but I was in a dilemma when it came to deciding the species I liked the most. It was at this point that I watched a video of the world famous shark feeder Cristina Zenato on a television program. I was awestruck by the sight of big, majestic sharks surrounding her while she was touching them like they were her pets! All I knew about sharks was that they were dangerous, hard to find and their meat was used to make a typical Venezuelan dish: “La empanada de cazón”. I wrote to Cristina about my interest in the field and her answer changed my life. I realized that I had a gross misconception about sharks and they were not as dangerous as people portrayed them to be. I was so impressed by Cristina and the work she was doing with sharks that my doubts vanished and I decided that I would be working with, and for sharks.
Revealing the Mysteries of Shark Behaviour >> Shark Research (2009-2010)
Taking Cristina’s advice, I contacted the Bimini Biological Field Station (The Shark Lab). I spent seven months at this amazing lab with a lot of shark researchers. My research was about the effects of coastal development on the spatial ecology of the lemon shark population of this small and pristine island. I was finally able to see sharks in their natural environment and found it extremely fascinating. I worked as a volunteer in other projects, like prey selection and nutrition content of lemon sharks, population structure of other larger shark species and their movement, shark’s repellent, migrations & growth and genetic research, among others.
My research provided information about the lemon shark population of South Bimini. The results were compared to data collected prior to habitat destruction in order to quantify impacts and as my predictions established, the population had decreased due to the abrupt change of the nursery area. I got an honoured mention from the university for my research findings (Universidad de Granada). I couldn’t wait to follow the path of a shark biologist; I was particularly interested in the role of sharks in their communities and ecosystems and how the ongoing reduction in their population is likely to impact marine communities through reduction in both direct predation on their prey and relaxation of risk effects. It was my dream to become a specialist in the tiger shark predatory behaviour, and its effect in the prey population.
Problem: Shark Populations Declining >> Shark Conservation (2011)
My belief was that, by taking this path I would be able to contribute towards Shark Conservation, but it dawned on me that the outside world is completely different from the academic environment. What really determines the vulnerability status of any marine species is commercial fishery and perception of the general public regarding the danger faced by a marine species. During my time at the Shark Lab I had the opportunity to talk to a Bahamian fisherman on a ferry between two islands and he told me that even though his family members were all fishermen, they don’t fish sharks because they “respect these beautiful animals”. I was touched by the message and values of this humble man. I expected the same line of thought when I came back to Venezuela.
But instead, when I talked to the fishermen in my country, they were the least concerned about Shark Conservation. They had a horrible image of this group of fishes and they were selling it to restaurants for less than 50 dollars. In Venezuela, Elasmobranch fisheries have contributed to almost 10% of the total fishery production and the percentage is increasing every year. I could not understand the difference in mentality of the Bahamian & Venezuelan fishermen. A year later I returned to the Bahamas and realized that almost all fishermen were related, directly or indirectly, to the diving tourism industry of their country, in which sharks play a very important role in the economy. So it was clear as to why they didn’t want to hunt down sharks. The lesson I learnt as a kid – that profit is what motivates most of the people – was reinforced and I realized that if I wanted to do something useful for the endangered species of sharks, I ought to be realistic and start a profitable conservation project, like I did with the street dogs.
I carried out a research work for a seminar at my university about this topic and discovered lots of places where Shark Conservation goes hand in hand with ecotourism. I visited two of these places (Tiger Beach in Bahamas and The Northern Cayes and Atolls in Belize) and worked in a third one (The Riviera Maya in Mexico). I had the great opportunity of meeting some of the best professional underwater photographers & cinematographers, like Becky Kagan Schott, Paul Spielvogel, Tom Campbell, and Alberto Friscione, amongst others. I realized how powerful underwater documentaries and photos are in terms of raising awareness about marine conservation issues, like the global decline in shark abundance. They are a very important educational tool, strengthening people’s knowledge and relationship with nature, particularly for children and people in urbanized areas, who are often disconnected from their surrounding natural environment.
I wanted to work for shark conservation using ecotourism like the company Beqa Adventure Divers did in Fiji with the Bull Sharks to reduce, and eventually stop, shark fishery and at the same time, increase the quality of life of the people in the fishing community by generating revenue. I think both, environmental degradation and poverty alleviation are urgent global issues that have a lot in common, but are often treated separately. Fortunately ecotourism can solve these two problems at the same time, because sharks are worth far more alive and swimming than dead in a dinner plate.
Solution: Make Shark Conservation Profitable >> Shark Business (2013)
I pursued an MBA in Tourism at the European University of Munich, to learn the theory behind starting a business. My purpose was to use ecotourism as a tool for marine conservation. I particularly specialised in the subject “Sustainable Tourism”. I learnt about the mitigation of tourism’s negative impacts in the environment and in the local people. In various discussions and presentations I was able to utilise my envisaged shark ecotourism project as a case study, which enabled me to gain a realistic business sense and to plan the project in more detail to achieve marine conservation. But I still needed to learn the practice. For example, what are the most important things to start a highly efficient Sustainable Tourism company. These are some of the questions I needed to answer in order to define which kind of conservation project I can develop:
- How to provide quality encounters without harming the sharks? Or how to make the interaction as less invasive as possible?
- Which are the best techniques to involve the local communities and improve their standard of living?
- Which scientific methods could and should I use to measure if the project really improves the reef ecosystem health? To ensure efficiency and effectiveness.
- Where should I do it? My dream is to work at the Caribbean but I need to find the right location where my actions are going to significantly improve the marine ecosystem.
That is when I decided to apply to the most amazing scholarship in the world!
Learning from the experts of (Shark) Diving, Research, Conservation & Business
The Rolex Scholarship is a program for young people considering careers in the underwater world. Scholars spend a year traveling extensively to gain exposure and get hands-on experiences in activities that will contribute to their education. They are given funds to travel, an extensive range of diving equipment to use and a Rolex watch!
I knew that the program could help me achieve my goals. I wanted to travel to as many shark diving companies as possible to learn about them and use this information to start my own project. The scholarship was the ideal platform for me to do this and as soon I heard about it I knew that I should apply right away!
After being advised I had been chosen as one of three finalists from the European applicants I then had to fly to London to attend one last interview. The process was quite intimidating but I decided to just be myself and clearly explain what I wanted and how I felt the scholarship could help. The next day I received the best e-mail ever. I had been chosen as the European Scholar for 2014! The following month I was on my way to New York to officially be introduced to the Society. After that it was time to plan my travels around the world.
Apply the theory: Finding the location
Now that my scholarship year is over it is time for me to put everything I have learnt into practice and plan where and how to start my own project. I am looking for a place that has real potential for marine tourism, high shark species richness and fishermen! Hopefully our project can contribute to protect their resident shark populations!
Until now me and my partner have visited Coiba National Park (Panama), Dominican Republic, Turks & Caicos Islands, Mexico, The Azores Islands and St. Maarten to evaluate their potential for our project. We are optimistic that we will soon find the perfect location for what we are planning to do!