When TFUI knew we wanted to feature the sharks and scientists in the Maldives, we were excited to reach out to The Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP) to highlight not only the beautiful animals but the important science happening in that area of the world.
Thankfully for us, they said yes! And former infield coordinator- turned marketing manager Alexandra Childs is one of the people we were lucky enough to interview!
She came to the Maldives for a three month trial and instead has been with the team for nearly three years! From being out in the water with these gentle giants to talking about them in the classroom to interested students, Alex has done it all. Dive on in to learn a little bit about this organization, this beautiful area, and the wonderful research done by both scientists and the community alike...
The Fins United Initiative: First off:.. why sharks? What drew you to them?
Alex Childs: Honestly, I am not really sure.
AC: I remember watching them as a child and writing school projects about them, thinking they moved through the water so beautifully - so strange and otherworldly. I never really understood the hype surrounding them from the movie Jaws, nor the irrational fear so many people seemed to express at the mention of them. I guess it was only as I grew older that I realised the inherent wrongness of these sentiments and decide to try and change peoples minds.
TFUI: I think many people felt that way! And how did you get involved with the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP)?
AC: I was very lucky, I happened to be looking for a job in wildlife conservation and a mutual friend put me in contact with the MWSRP. I came out on a 3 month trial to help during a changeover of staff and knew within a week knew that this was where I wanted to be, and well, nearly 3 years on I'm still a part of the team!
TFUI: Wow! Talk about a great opportunity! So, in your opinion, do local people know enough about whale sharks?
AC: The trouble with whale sharks is that scientifically we know very little about them, but yes I believe the local communities who live in areas where whale sharks are seen know a great deal about them. There is much that we can learn from locals whose lives have been intrinsically connected to the ocean for centuries. Local knowledge, society and memory is a great untapped source of information in the Maldives.
TFUI: MWSRP has an app! Can you tell us a little bit about that?
AC: Yes we do, it's brilliant!
TFUI: It looks it!
AC: We are firm believers that information and knowledge should be shared, which was why it was created. It's free to download and has statistics about every whale shark that has ever been registered on our database, it also has an interactive map that allows you to see where your favourite whale shark has been encountered and live updates as each encounter is uploaded onto our database. It is a fantastic tool for anyone from scientific researchers, to guides hoping to show their guest the largest fish in the ocean, to those who are just interested in learning more.
TFUI: That is SO COOL. So why is MWSRP such a big advocate of ‘citizen-science’?
AC: Citizen-science is an incredible source of data and is vital to any research that is looking to track and study a species over a great area. Citizen-science is also a great way to engage people in a cause from a wide variety of backgrounds, it helps spread knowledge and love for the natural environment and encourages people to become more involved with conservation.
TFUI: MWSRP also has the "The BIG FISH Network." What is that?
AC: The Big Fish Network, or BFN, is our citizen-science programme. A few years ago we realised that our data was spatially limited as we were only able to survey the area around South Ari due to vessel limitations, yet we were frequently receiving reports that whale sharks had been sighted in other areas of the Maldives much further from our research centre than we were able to travel. The creation of the BFN allowed us to recruit contributors working in the tourism industry who are located at different points across the Maldives, or who have greater flexibility in their movement around the country's waters. Contributors to the BFN have all been trained by infield staff to help ensure uniformity and quality as we ask for a great deal of information for each encounter, they have become a vital part of our research as we are now gathering data from across the Maldives and are finding strong evidence that there is a great deal of inter-atoll movement.
TFUI: Why do you find the Maldives such an important spot for these animals?
AC: South Ari Marine Protected Area is one of the few places in the world where whale sharks aggregate year-round, and the population appears to be stable with individuals visiting repeatedly over many years. It is therefore a huge source of longterm data that is helping to shed light on this mysterious species. On a global scale, the Maldives also lies between many well studied aggregations on either side of the Indian Ocean and could prove to be an important area for the greater population that resides within this ocean basin.
TFUI: What do you love most about your line of work?
AC: Knowing that I am working towards a cause greater than myself and for the betterment of our planet.
TFUI: Do you think people in the Maldives have a good relationship with sharks?
AC: The Maldives is going through a period of great change, tourism (although it accounts for a huge amount of the countries income), is still a relatively new industry that has brought many Western influences to the country. Maldivians take great pride and joy in the beauty of their waters, those who work in the tourism industry rely on the biodiversity of the surrounding ocean to continue to draw in paying guests. However the Maldives is historically, and currently, still a fishing nation and used to have a large finning industry. Although sharks are now protected, the lack of data available on sharks in the Maldives before this came into effect means that we do not know if their populations are recovering. There are still many misconceptions about the roles of sharks in the Maldivian ecosystems, and gaps in the understanding of how all species are linked. Sharks often receive the blame for declining fish stocks when really, a large presence of sharks is a sign of a healthy and well functioning ecosystem.
TFUI: What do you think can be done to better this relationship?
AC: Institutional change is slow and it often struggles to keep up with peoples rapidly changing ideas and lifestyles, however things are changing and information is becoming more widely available through the hard work of dedicated NGOs and individuals across the country. Hopefully one day their lessons and messages will be incorporated into the wider learning of the country.
TFUI: Do you find the Maldives welcoming to women scientists?
AC: Women in science face challenges no matter where they are in world, in some places these barriers, or hurdles, are more overt, in others they are more subtle. Gender inequality is something that is often so deeply ingrained through the millennia-long traditions of patriarchy that we are not aware of it. Change can be frightening, and permanent change is a often a drawn-out battle for a future that its champions may never experience, but that does not mean we should give up the fight. The only way we can overcome adversity is through strength of unity, education and speaking out.
TFUI: I love that-- something many people can take to heart.
TFUI: What has been your favourite wildlife encounter so far?
AC: I am lucky to have had many incredible encounters, both in the water or on land, but two of my best were: meeting Mayo, a young whale shark new to the area, who was so curious I had to constantly swim backwards and make some quick and strange moves to try and get a useable ID photograph! The other was the privilege of being one of the first to meet a new-born black rhinoceros, Squirt, who was barely an hour old. His mother had been the victim of a poaching attempt that had left her blind and we had been caring for her ever since in the hope that she may regain some of her vision and be able to safely give birth. It was an incredible moment.
TFUI: Wow. That sounds magical! Speaking of magical - what is your favourite whale shark fact?
AC: My favorite fact has to be the unknown. I find it incredible that with all of modern day technology we still know so little about the largest fish in the ocean!
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK Alex FOR HER TIME AND
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
SEARCH BY CATEGORIES