Shark ecologist and freediver Catherine Cushenan about her adventures, Instagram, conservation and the importance of following your dreams

By Nuri Max Steinmann.

I met Catherine more than two years ago. We were both doing our masters at the University of Algarve, Portugal. We used to live in the same neighborhood in Praia de Faro and randomly met again on the island of Faial, Azores, were we had some great joint adventures. Catherine is one of these people who would always make you smile, with this overall positive mindset and always keen on making things happen. 

Hi Catherine! You have been to so many places and done so many different things? Would you please give us a summary?

Hello hello! I am very lucky human, I must agree. A very brief summary of my career would be ‘I stalk sharks for a living,’ or, according to my Instagram, I am ‘a curly shark ecologist and freediver.’

In greater detail, I studied marine biology for my bachelors, and from day one I was seeking out ways to truly get involved. I volunteered for the first time in 2012, in Cuba. We learned to tag sharks on a liveaboard, and this is actually where I did my PADI open water certification. I fell in love with being on the water, and the rest is history! Okay sorry its not history, you asked for a summary- I since volunteered, researched or worked in sixteen countries, my most notable experiences being with La.Ma.Ve studying the Philippines whale shark populations, and with the University of the Azores tagging blue sharks and mobula rays to understand their behaviour in the presence and absence of tourism. I got my divemaster qualification in Indonesia, which enables me to work in both science and tourism. I try to rotate between six months of research and six months working as a divemaster, guide or photographer, to support the terribly paid lifestyle of a marine biologist!

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What was your motivation and inspiration to go this path? Childhood dream?

This was absolutely my childhood dream! Ive got home videos of myself attached to the screen as the little mermaid swims about, so since I was two, I wanted to be a mermaid. I got to maybe ten years old and realised that wasn’t genetically realistic, so decided to discover the mermaids instead. A couple of years later when I realised that probably wasn’t going to happen either, I thought sharks would be the next best thing, and I have loved them ever since. There’s no way to say this without sounding cheesy- but this life is better than anything Baby Cat could have dreamt up. I haven’t tried being a mermaid yet, but I can’t imagine anything being better than freediving with curious sharks and working towards improving their lives.

I have been told by so many people that I should give up, or that the field will be too difficult to get into- all the usual stuff. Part of my motivation is the need to prove them wrong, so in some ways I am grateful for their pessimism!”

Many young people working in the field of marine conservation are often struggling with not finding any jobs or the hard world of academia. You seem to embrace the freedom and this kind of life to the fullest. Do you ever have moments where you are in doubt or even anxious about what’s coming next? Do you have an advice for the next generation out there?

Life is great, and this freedom is amazing! I am terrible at planning because I do not worry enough, and rarely get anxious. I have so much fascination and passion and it drives me so completely that sometimes I forget about the difficulties – I am also extremely stubborn. I have been told by so many people that I should give up, or that the field will be too difficult to get into- all the usual stuff. Part of my motivation is the need to prove them wrong, so in some ways I am grateful for their pessimism!

I think my advice would be to talk to others, network, and reach out. Whether that is with peers, scientists you admire, or with companies you are interested in working for- no one will hire you if they don’t know you exist. Most of the jobs I have worked have been through a recommendation from a friend, because in this industry, it is truly about the people you know! It is also important to be flexible. I love sharks more than anything and have ended up doing a lot of work with turtles, whales, seagrass, stromatolites, coral, manta rays, and so many other species. I have loved every second and it has only strengthened my experience- never say no to an opportunity just because it doesn’t revolve around your chosen field. Treat everything as a learning opportunity.

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You have already mentioned that Instagram connects you with people, who are seeking life advice. It’s one of the most used apps worldwide and especially young people use it to connect and to get inspired. How is Instagram helping you to live this kind of life? Would it be very different without it?

At the risk of sounding like a True Millennial- Instagram is so important to me. I actually list my Instagram handle on my CV now- and previous employers have confirmed that part of the reason I was chosen for those jobs was because of this. I have been contacted by quite a few humans, ranging from those who have never seen the ocean curious about diving and conservation, to those who feel like they are struggling to find volunteer work or jobs in the industry, asking for advice. I love it! I like to think my overly detailed and slightly (read: extremely) goofy captions make me approachable. Marine biology does have a reputation for being a difficult field to get into and I want to use this platform I have to share the secrets.

I also have made a LOT of cyber friends through it, a lot of whom who have become true pals and we have been able to meet in real life which gives me such a good feeling.

Can you think of any negative effects Instagram can have? Any personal experiences?

The main thing I dislike about Instagram is this new algorithm. I like to think (though, naturally I could be entirely wrong) that I post a consistent calibre of photos, but some photos will get triple, sometimes quadruple the engagement of others. I try not to get too attached to the number of likes a post will get, but it can be super- frustrating. I just want to share what I am doing and what I love, and sometimes knowing your post is unsuccessful can be disheartening.

On the other hand, I am grateful to Instagram for giving me the opportunity to share what I do, and it is my social media presence that has earned me sponsorships through some of my favourite brands such as GoPro and Molchanovs freediving, and eco-friendly brands who support conservation like Gypsea Swimwear, Shark Zen and Sea the World. While fighting for likes can be disappointing, it does make me strive to produce quality content, which is something these brands recognise.

You have worked in several shark conservation and science projects. Where is that special fascination for sharks coming from?

Sharks have a certain, adorable stupidity that is entirely overlooked as the media are busy trying to portray them as mindless eating machines (Finding Nemo et al., 2003). Once you’ve seen two whale sharks swim into eachother, or ten juvenile blacktips essentially playing duck duck goose, or a blue shark circling you because she is so confused by your existence- that is when you begin to love them for the idiots they truly are. We should protect these lovely fools at all costs.

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The first time I saw a shark was on my internship in Cuba. It was pretty intense- we had to tag them to investigate their movements in and out of the national park in Isla de la Juventad, so my first encounter was right next to two incredible scientists instructing me on how to use a mallet and tag (spoiler alert- it’s just like a nail and a hammer) while holding onto a bull shark. After that, we had a lecture on the use of dermal denticles (the rough skin that sharks have) and tonic immobility (casually flipping a shark over and thus putting it into a sleep state) and after that I was hooked.

What would be the three things we have to change, which you think are the most important?

  1. Recycling needs to be more transparent. I am in love with this new uprising- I have been in Mexico for a couple of months now and I can count on my hands the number of straws I have been given, or plastic bags I have been offered. People are beginning to understand what happens (or doesn’t happen) when we recycle and it is inspiring a wave of refusal to use single-use plastics, which is so important. ‘We don’t need a handful of people doing zero-waste perfectly- we need millions of people doing it imperfectly.’ -Anne Marie Bonneau
  2. I would like everyone to try swimming with sharks. I have worked on a lot of tourism boats and have talked to so many guests who, after just one encounter, start to ask about shark fishing and conservation and what we can do to improve our oceans. Just spending half an hour in the water with my fishy friends can truly change your view on a lot of things. It is hard to want to protect something you have never met, and I believe this is an important step.
  3. Those who care about the environment and our future need to be put in power. I won’t go into this too much because there is one question left and I don’t want anyone to fall asleep before they get to it.. but to an extent, not much will change if the people who want change are too busy fighting to be allowed to use the term ‘climate change’ to educate the world. I think you know what/who I’m referring to here!

Last but not least: It is 2050 – What is Catherine doing and where? And will the world be still green and blue?

Nuri!! What a question! I can’t even tell you what I will be doing in 2020 and that’s in a couple of months! If I’m still living my life just like I am now, making a tiny difference and simultaneously spending all my time with friends in the ocean, I will be a very happy bunny. That said, I am very sceptical about what the world will be by then. I have  seen too many reliable statistics that the oceans are going to be empty by 2048, which I think is one of the main factors inspiring me to ‘live in the now’ and make the most of the ocean as it is today. I suppose it doesn’t matter where I will be working, as long as I am still helping!

Follow Catherine on her adventures:

https://www.instagram.com/catsharks/

 

COPYRIGHT OF ALL PICTURES BELONGS TO CATHERINE CUSHENAN.

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