If you know whale sharks, then you have probably heard of Australian marine biologist, Dr. Alistair Dove. He studied zoology and parasitology (I didn’t even know you could be trained in that!) at The University of Queensland, and is currently living in the United States as Director of Research and Conservation at Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia. He has an extensive — and impressive — resume: including positions with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Cornell University, Stony Brook University; he was an adjunct professor at the University of Georgia and the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Georgia Institute of Technology, and an associate editor at DeepSeaNews (2012-2015), as well! Not impressed yet? He’s also the founding Chairman of the Board of Ch’ooj Ajauil AC, a non-profit conservation NGO (non-governmental organization) based in Cancun, Mexico (and yes, it has something to do with whale sharks).
He can be followed on Twitter at @AlistairDove and @Wheres_Domino, and YouTube.
The Fins United Initiative: Thank you for joining us, Dr. Dove. Well, let’s start: what are you currently up to now?
Alistair Dove: I just got back from the Galapagos, where I was part of an international team that is trying to understand why giant, apparently pregnant, female whale sharks pass by a tiny island in the northern part of the archipelago at this time of year. They aren’t feeding or giving birth, and they don’t hang around for more than a couple of days; it’s almost like Darwin Island is a sort of way point on a larger migration.
TFUI: Interesting. I can’t wait to see what comes out of that research.
AD: We’re also in full planning stages for our second expedition to the remote South Atlantic island of St Helena, where we are working with the UK government and local “saints” to help understand their seasonal whale shark aggregation, which definitely involves feeding and may involve some courtship or mating. That’s exciting, because these behaviours have never been scientifically documented in whale sharks before.
TFUI: Speaking of the field, what has been your worst experience out there? What did you learn from it?
AD: We’ve really been tremendously lucky, nothing more than a few bumps and bruises and the occasional mechanical problem. We have had some problems with deploying satellite tags that — for a range of reasons — didn’t return any data. That’s frustrating and really expensive.
TFUI: Ouch! Never a fun problem--especially with a big price tag attached.
AD: Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned from field work is that working with local partners is absolutely essential; their knowledge and experience is priceless. Other than that, expeditionary work really is ALL about preparation, good logistics, and contingency planning. That allows you to focus on the science once you’re in the field. I’m really lucky to have a great team that has that stuff down to a fine art.
SF: So what is one thing that we can’t find you without?
AD: A GoPro and a good pair of polarizing (sic) sunglasses.
SF: Important things to have in the field, that’s for sure! Especially when trying to spot things under the glaring sun, and for recording!
AD: Ok that’s two, but I’m rarely without either of them.
SF: Speaking of trips, what has been your most exciting discovery/trip?
AD: I think it’s a toss-up between being part of the group that discovered the extraordinary offshore aggregation of whale sharks in Yucatan Mexico, and leading the first St. Helena expedition.
SF: Both seem very hard to beat!
AD: The Yucatan event is now acknowledged as the largest whale shark gathering ever documented and when it is in full effect it’s just mind blowing. St. Helena was exceptional for its amazing 500 years of maritime history, very high animal endemism, and largely untouched remote nature. There are truly few places in the world so remote and pristine. It was brilliant.
SF: Wow. Both sound like amazing experiences. And sort of leads me into my next question… if not marine biology, what other field interests you?
AD: Anything that features diversity – of food, language, culture, animals, ideas, music. The more different types of something there are, the happier I am. I was born in the wrong century; I would totally have been one of those Victorian gentleman naturalist types, going on adventures and bringing back crazy stories and specimens of the weird and wonderful to a skeptical public. Diversity is interesting, and interesting is satisfying.
SF: [laughs] That mental image of you all suited up in the field is quite entertaining. But you’re right: diversity is indeed interesting and, in turn, satisfying. Bringing it back to sharks, however, what do you think needs to be done for future shark conservation?
AD: We have to continue to shift that warped public perception of sharks as mindless killing machines. We’ve had some great progress in recent years — like the work that Sarasota Fins is doing! But there’s still a ways to go. We need to dissuade media from reinforcing unhelpful stereotypes, and we scientists need to do a better job telling the true story of sharks, which is way more interesting than the 1-dimensional stereotype anyway.
SF: And if 2015 could change one thing for sharks, what would you hope it would be?
AD: A public epiphany along the line of “save the whales” that goes viral and results in concerted international action to protect our finny friends.
SF: Couldn’t agree with you more, Dr. Dove. Thanks for your time!
In this video from 2013, Dr. Dove describes advances in research and conservation with whale sharks. Talk begins at around 4:10.
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TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
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