It’s Monday, and I’m at my desk trying to prioritize my tasks for the week: After checking email, I’ll look for video clips of humpback whales feeding. Ten minutes into my search, I am called to a meeting in which we debate camera-stabilization rigs, drones and octocopters. It’s a typical day at my job as a researcher for the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol, England.
I found my way to this career through a combination of factors. A few years ago, after having just completed my honors degree in coral reef ecology, I was working as a field research assistant at the Lizard Island Research Station in Australia. I knew I was interested in pursuing a marine-related profession, but I still wasn’t sure of my specific career path. While visual media and the idea of communicating scientific information to the general public had fascinated me since my teens, I can safely say that I wouldn’t be in the role I am today without the incredible opportunity bestowed on me by the Our World–Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS).
The OWUSS Rolex Scholarship gives young people between the ages of 21 and 26 the chance to spend an entire year volunteering and exploring different marine careers, from diving to conservation science to filmmaking. After hearing about the scholarship from a friend, I decided to give it a shot and applied. Each year OWUSS offers three awards, and I was honored to receive the Australasian scholarship, alongside one European and one North American scholar, in 2012.
My year was a journey of education and adventure. Building on my background in marine biology, I participated in a range of marine-science projects and initiated long-standing relationships with academics globally. With the help of my scholarship supervisor, Jayne Jenkins, I planned expeditions that took me from the shores of Chowder Bay, Sydney, to the scorching red desert and effervescent reefs of the Red Sea. I was even able to make a submarine dive 300 meters (984 feet) into the twilight zone — an environment where 95 percent of the world’s fish biomass is thought to reside.
Having previously worked predominantly with small coral-reef fish, my first project identifying and tracking whale sharks took me far outside of my comfort zone, yet that was only the beginning of many practical field experiences. I traveled to Papua New Guinea, where I learned about the customary management practices locals use to conserve coral reefs, and to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California, where I gained an understanding of how to use remotely operated vehicle (ROV) technology to sample deep-sea fishes.
Scuba diving forms a large part of the scholarship, and OWUSS gave me the benefit of developing a range of specialties during my award year. Beginning with an introduction to white-shark cage diving with Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions, I progressed to complete my Evolution rebreather course with Pete Mesley in New Zealand. By recirculating exhaled gas and replacing it with fresh oxygen, rebreathers allow divers to observe animal behavior for extended periods in the absence of noisy, distracting bubbles. With cameramen increasingly using rebreathers while filming natural underwater behavior, learning this technology has been extremely valuable to my work as a researcher.
Visiting DAN in North Carolina to earn my Diving Emergency Management Provider (DEMP) Instructor certification was also an essential experience afforded to me by OWUSS. Not only did this allow me to teach first aid, but it also gave me the skills and knowledge to feel confident in dealing with potential diving accidents.
One of the most valuable elements of my scholarship was how it allowed me to spend time developing my underwater filming skills. OWUSS provided me with a small camcorder and an underwater housing to document the projects I undertook over the course of the year. With some help from experienced videographers, I produced a number of short videos about my volunteer work to post online. Through the videography project, I learned about my camera, how to use tripods and how to record audio underwater. The people I met taught me the importance of telling a great story to connect with the audience in a meaningful way. Having been a still photographer for many years, I enjoyed my education in new camera equipment and how to capture drama using a variety of shots. I also found the creative process of editing, especially using music to build tension and narrative continuity, highly rewarding.
OWUSS recently celebrated its 40th anniversary in New York City. Since the scholarship’s beginning, 86 individuals have passed through the program, many of whom have used their OWUSS experiences to become leaders in their chosen marine careers. Past scholars have made outstanding contributions to the fields of marine science, filmmaking, medicine and diving technology, and I’m proud to be part of such a magnificent community.
Without this scholarship it would have taken me decades to build such an extensive contact network or knowledge base. This experience laid the foundation for my current work researching marine species behavior all over the world. I know I will be eternally grateful for the exceptional opportunities I was given, and I’m looking forward to giving back in the future.
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The BBC Natural History Unit, which made The Blue Planet, is returning to the oceans for an ambitious and revelatory seven-part series to be broadcast in 2017. This series will cover all the major ocean habitats from the coral reefs to estuaries, coasts, open ocean and the deep sea and will incorporate species from invertebrates to fishes, seabirds and marine mammals. If you have ideas of novel marine behavior that may be visually stunning for this new series, please send an email to .
© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2014