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Ocean Minds Presents Kat Mason

Profession: Marine Biologist/Shark Scientist

Organisation: Currently freelance

Kat's passion and love for the ocean and its inhabitants is infectious. I am inspired by her commitment to use her research to change local conservation laws that have long-term impacts for Shark species.

1. How did we meet? We met on Hoga Island in a remote archipelago in Indonesia, way back in 2014, at the beginning of both of our careers! The reefs there were pristine and we spent the majority of our days diving amongst a plethora of hard corals and reef fish. Then we spent the next summer research season in Utila, Honduras together, diving and collecting data every day, spending our days off exploring the tiny island and finding the best coffee spots.

2. What is one memorable ocean moment from our time together? My favourite ocean memory would have to be spending a day on a tiny uninhabited island off of Utila, only accessible by boat. We spent our time snorkelling the crystal clear waters, exploring the island and enjoying our watermelon-rum combo! It has to be up there as one my favourite days ever! Here’s to many more tropical island days together.

3. What encouraged you to purse a career in marine biology/conservation?

I’ve always had a passion for the ocean and marine life. I spent a lot of my childhood holidays in Florida; my favourite moments comprised of paddle boarding at the beach, watching rays breach and dolphins swim by. I believe these experiences had a massive influence on my career choice. I wanted to make a living out of my passion, and I wanted to do whatever I could to conserve the amazing wildlife I had encountered.

4. How did you land your current job? My first job post-Master’s degree was delayed by 12 months unfortunately, due to circumstances of the past year. I was to work as Lead Stereo-Video Scientist, using stereo-BRUVS to survey coral reefs in Fiji, with the organisation Operation Wallacea. I believe I landed this job due to a combination of factors, including my past experience working on scientific research projects in remote destinations, my qualifications as a scuba-diver and completing a Master’s degree in Marine Biology. I have worked previously with Opwall, both as an undergraduate dissertation researcher and as a Divemaster, and greatly valued my time on these projects. Since then, I have used a wide range of survey techniques across multiple projects, including deploying BRUVS (baited remote underwater video systems) and analysing footage. Heading back to work with Opwall seemed like the perfect fit! I’m hoping we’ll have more luck this coming summer – fingers crossed!

5. What is it about your role that makes you feel like you are truly making a difference? When our research is applied to local conservation laws, it’s the best feeling to know that you’ve contributed something and it will hopefully make that all important difference to protect and conserve a species or habitat. My master’s thesis research contributed towards the ten years worth of shark abundance data around the Cayman Islands, so to see the government work towards enforcing the protection of all shark species is so rewarding.

6. What advice would you give to aspiring ocean warriors? My main advice would be to go for it! Don’t doubt yourself; follow your passions and gain as much experience as possible. Don’t stress if you don’t have a solid plan laid out. That’s okay – be open to opportunities and it will all work out for the best! We need as many ocean advocates out there as possible!

7. What has been your most unforgettable experience in the ocean and why? I have been incredibly lucky to have had multiple ‘unforgettable’ ocean experiences and being in the ocean is something that will never get old. If I were to pick one, it would have to be during my time studying whale sharks in the Philippines with LAMAVE. One early morning, I was out surveying (which involved a lot of freediving and photo-identification of individual whale sharks), I was looking out to sea, scanning the horizon for fins, when suddenly I had my legs knocked out from underneath me and I seemed to be riding away from the coast! It turned out; a particularly large (juvenile) whale shark had swum straight into me and had carried on swimming, oblivious. As soon as I realised what was happening, I carefully rolled off and the whale shark continued on its way, but that is something that will stay with me forever!

8. Who has inspired you to achieve your goals? Throughout the years, I have been surrounded by and worked alongside incredible scientists, conservationists and divers, who have become close friends. My fellow colleagues never fail to inspire me; I have worked with some incredible people who dedicate their lives to research and conservation. I am so fortunate to have supportive parents, who have championed my career choice and backed me always. Additionally, I had the pleasure of listening to Sylvia Earle speak at a National Geographic conference and chatted with her after. I am still blown away by her passion for the oceans and for inspiring future generations. Her advice to me that day stayed with me: “Rules are made to be broken”.

9. What do you hope to achieve in the future? I’m incredibly excited for what the future holds. My short-term goal is to get back out in the field as soon as possible, collecting and analysing data for marine projects. A recent paper (Pacoureau et al., 2021) has identified a 71% decline in oceanic sharks in the last 50 years. Whilst it’s not entirely surprising to marine biologists, this major decline is massively worrying and my long-term goals would absolutely involve contributing to the research and conservation of various shark species across the globe.

A day in the life of a whale shark scientist (in the Philippines)

If you’re on the early shift, you’re waking up to the lovely sound of your alarm at 4am, when it’s still dark outside and all your colleagues are sleeping soundly. Grab a quick breakfast (all I could stomach at that time was a slice of bread) and that ever-so important instant coffee, and navigate down from the project house to the road in the pitch black. Once in town, hitching a ride in a tuk-tuk is easy enough, taking the winding coastal road to the whale shark site as the sun is rising and lighting up the sky in pinks and oranges. Time to gear up, grab your fins and camera and slip into the water for 6am; the first shift. Still early, the fishermen that work as whale shark ‘feeders’ (they draw the sharks in for a morning of tourism interactions) have yet to make their way out into the water. It’s still not light, and you’re aware of dark shapes moving below you, the first of the whale sharks appearing. This time of day is perfect: just you and the sharks at sunrise. Soon however, the fishermen arrive with the first tourist groups, chattering excitedly and eager to jump in. Throughout the morning, more and more tourists enter the water and soon it’s absolutely packed. The shark feeding here is extremely controversial; it’s hypothesised that the intentional feeding draws the whale sharks in and away from their usual habits, disrupting their natural feeding and affecting their migratory behaviour (I’ve linked a paper). After five hours at the project site, it’s back to the house, grabbing some lunch and downloading the photos from the cameras. The afternoon is spent identifying each individual whale shark from the database. It’s always interesting to see which ones are coming and going! Sunset means it’s time to walk the dogs, or head into town for street food. Bed times are normally early, to start it all over again the next day!

Please note: If you’re considering seeing whale sharks, please consider an operation where they naturally migrate, such as Donsol or Leyte.

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