Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Shark Chronicles 092 - What is Oceans Research for me

If I were given the opportunity to live through December 2010 again, I honestly do not know if I would have signed up for the Oceans Research Internship. It’s not that I dislike the experience – to the extreme contrary! Rather, being from Singapore, it is not exactly very practical to pursue shark/dolphin/whale research internship. And yet, the Oceans Research Internship has been a tremendously amazing experience for me.

When I had been accepted into the internship programme, I had expected to come here and learn about marine mammal research knowledge. However, that was a rather narrow way of looking at things. Well, it is true that working with Great White Sharks, dolphins and other cetaceans make for a pretty exciting story. It is also true that Mossel Bay provides for some spectacular scenery. However, to me, the internship experience was so much more.

When I was asked to write this blog post, I did not really know where to begin. There is already so much that I have seen and learnt. I already have close to 2000 photos (which many of my fellow interns find fascinating – but that itself deserves a different blog post), and I do not think I’ll ever run out of things to write about. Things change so fast here depending upon what research is available. What then has been unique about my experience here?

I will perhaps begin by commenting upon the way that Oceans Research try to reach out and to educate the public. They work closely with the tourism industry in town and also regularly hold talks for schoolchildren in Mossel Bay. They are also very open to collaboration opportunities and are not afraid to admit that there is so much more they need help with. This mentality means that they have offered various opportunities and ample support for students to pursue their own research projects. It also means that they have a shark aquarium (Shark Lab) that serves to bring the Mossel Bay community closer to sharks.

This feature of Oceans Research was something that I felt to be very important. Today, there is a lot of material on the Internet which is poorly supported by empirical data. As a result, people make decisions based on very inaccurate information. Researchers are the ones best equipped to quell these rumours. However, scientists have in many cases not been forthcoming about what they know. There is in particular a curious lack of scientific opinion in the journalism and media industry. Perhaps a very appropriate example is the numerous misrepresentations of sharks in movies. Sharks have largely been depicted as ferocious, bloodthirsty killers that are primitive and unintelligent (example: Jaws + Deep Blue Sea). It does not take much effort to learn that this is not true. Yet, it is an effort that few have taken; and as a result, the opinion of sharks is often skewed.

In addition, there is ample documentation relating to the damage that humans are causing to the environment. Clearly, the best way to stem such damage would be for science researchers to reach out to people. However, what we see in the world today is a lot of radical activism. Such activists demand practices that in effect would require societies to stop development – it is therefore not a practical way to address the issue.

I have only been here for a week, and so cannot qualitatively say anything about whether the work by Oceans Research has positively impacted communities around the world. Yet, there is much potential for the relationship between Oceans and the Mossel Bay community to integrate tourism, science, education and policy-making. It has been very eye-opening and exciting to see how such a model plays out in the real world.

The second feature I wanted to recount is the way that Oceans Research is open to work with undergraduate/masters/PhD research projects. As a result, I have had the opportunity to gain extensive experience in so many areas of research. Thus far, I have done seal surveys in the freezing cold morning; I have tried to identify sharks based on their dorsal fins; I have worked on projects that seek to test if shark behaviour can be conditioned. The specific details of what each of these projects entail can perhaps be read from other blog posts. What was particularly exciting for me, however, was that we as interns get to engage in interesting dialogue with the researchers – whether they are honours students or PhD experts. Field specialists are housed in the same building as interns, so the amount of interaction opportunity has been tremendous.

For me, it was exciting to see for myself that environmental research is so complex that no single study can sufficiently stand alone. Shark behaviour is dependent upon seal behaviour, which in turn might rely on the moonlight timings and city lights. In turn, everything is dependent upon environmental conditions – which are heavily influenced by human behaviour. Everything works in tandem with each other, in a circle of life.

In turn, meeting with interns from all over the world who are engaged in diverse areas of interest that somehow coincide with your own is a very exciting experience. When everyone brings their own unique experiences to the table, it tends in turn to enrich your own. Oceans Research does provide a very inviting environment that encourages people to share such unique experiences, providing for exciting and interesting dialogue. The relationships and experiences formed from this internship therefore go way beyond just simply “marine mammal research”.

As for the “marine mammal research” segment, it has been tremendously awesome! But you could probably have guessed that from the other blog posts…

Jerome Kok – Mossel Bay intern

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