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Interview: Jillian Morris, President of Sharks4Kids

Posted by David Diley, Director, September 16, 2015

Jillian Morris has been working with sharks for the last 13 years, and is a passion which has dominated per professional life.

Interview: Jillian Morris, President of Sharks4Kids

First of all Jillian, let me say thank you for taking the time to speak with me! Let’s start with an easy one, who are you and what do you do?

Jillian Morris-Brake Founder and President of Sharks4Kids, a Florida based shark education non-profit. I am a shark conservationist with an animal behavior ( focus on marine animals/marine science) degree, a professional videographer & photographer and am completely obsessed with sharks. I have been working with these animals in some capacity for about 13 years and feel blessed to do so.

2. Tell me about your love for the ocean and in particular sharks, how did it develop?

I grew up close to the ocean and was lucky enough to have parents who would take me there quite often. I can’t remember not loving the water and was absolutely fascinated by marine creatures from a very early age. I knew I wanted to work with them by the time I was 5 or 6. I saw my first shark when I was snorkeling in Florida at the age of 8 and I was amazed. I still have a letter I wrote for school when I was 9 discussing why I wanted to be a marine biologist. As I got older the fascination continued and evolved into a more focused approach to sharks and working with them.

I did several shark related internships and then research projects during and following university and always wanted more. I have always been happiest in the sea, so I worked to create a life that revolves around it, specifically around sharks.

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You live in Bimini which to me, is my idea of the perfect place to live and most people’s idea of paradise, how did that come about?

My husband and I bought a home in Bimini because we had both fallen in love with the island. The diversity and population of sharks is remarkable and the island is a truly special place. I visited for the first time in 2004 and will never forget the experience. I worked with the lab on a couple of offsite projects, but didn’t return again until 2009. I collaborated with the Sharklab on a few projects while Duncan ( my husband) was the media manager. When he left the lab we stayed on island for a while and then set off on almost 3 years of steady travel. We keep finding our way back and it always felt like we were coming home. We decided to get married here in 2012, with a shark themed wedding, of course and then buying a home was the next obvious choice. I see every day and that makes me a very happy person! There are tradeoffs to being on a tiny island, but they are all worth it just to spend any given day in the crystal clear waters of the Bahamas with sharks.

Tell me about your experience of Shark Reef

Fiji is a magical place and there really are no words to describe Shark Reef that I feel will truly do it justice. From the moment we arrived we had quite the adventures. Duncan had finished a big shoot off the coast of Antarctica and I had just finished a filming project in Australia, so after a bit of time tagging sharks in Australia we decided we had to visit Fiji. We rented a house and a car and let the adventure begin. We had decided to make it a “surface” holiday, so had not toted heavy camera equipment ( this is by far one of our biggest mistakes in life). We did some dives near Sigatoka and then spoke with Mike Neumann about diving with him.

We only had one dive day, but wow, Mike rolled out the red carpet. I just remember sitting on the bottom and trying to take it all in. It was overwhelming and an experience I will never forget. Watching Rusi and his bull sharks was like watching a beautifully and eloquently choreographed ballet; a perfect marriage of beauty, power and understanding. When your mind goes back to watching an individual shark you realize just how BIG they are. I have seen and swam with a lot of bull sharks in the Bahamas and Florida and they look tiny compared to the bulls of Beqa.

Duncan and I shot a video about the Shark Free Marina Initiative, a program Fiji has set a global standard, giving us a chance to speak to many of the staff. They all spoke so passionately about the animals and their own connections to them. I was in tears a few times just hearing their stories. Mike himself is an absolute legend and although our time with him was short, we cherish it and have promised to return to Fiji.

Big sharks, passionate people and a stunning backdrop; shark diving at its best.

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What do you think makes Shark Reef so special?

Short answer: there is no place else in the world like it. The island, the people and the sharks are in a league of their own! To see such passion, education and community involvement is amazing and is model other dive operations around the world should follow.

How highly do you rate Shark Reef as a location to film sharks and give reasons for your answer.

10/10

– Big sharks and lots of them.

– Multiple species with a stunning coral backdrop.

– Professional staff who are incredibly passionate about the animals

The story of Shark Reef is so inspiring, why do you think nobody really knows about it?

Mike, his staff and the local community are just doing what they are passionate about and believe is right; quietly protecting the amazing sharks of Beqa. People who have been to Fiji know the story, but it is not something you see on Shark Week each year, so the general public are sadly unaware of this remarkable story and the people who make it a reality each and every day

Do you think the conservation model at Shark Reef is something which would work around the world?

Yes, and it is definitely something other regions should take a very close look at.

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Tell me about Sharks4Kids:

Sharks4Kids is a Florida based 501 (c) 3 non-profit. Our goal is to create the next generation of shark advocates through education, outreach and adventure. After spending a lot of time visiting classrooms and speaking about sharks, I decided I wanted to create a program for teachers and students to help bring sharks into the classroom on a larger scale. I sat on the idea for 5 years and then in 2012 decided it was time to make it happen. I enlisted Duncan and my best friend Dr. Derek Burkholder to help me bring Sharks4Kids to life. We worked for nearly a year to create curriculum and build the website and on Nov, 7, 2013 we went live. The site offers a dynamic range of curriculum, activities, videos and more for educators, teachers and kids of all ages. Out outreach programs involves classroom visits both in person and via Skype and we have connected with over 30,000 students in 27 countries and 43 US states since we started. We also offer family friendly shark snorkels in South Florida. Our newest program, and one I am most excited about, is a 2-3 intensive shark program for middle school girls. We have teamed up with Seacamp ( Big Pine Key, Florida) and Dr. Jeff Carrier to create a program that hopefully inspires more girls to explore not only marine biology careers, but also STEM ( Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) careers. They learn about shark biology and conservation and then get to participate in real shark science through a tagging program. During our most recent trip, which coincided with Shark Week, the girls were able to tag 16 sharks including 4 blacktips, 2 lemons and an 8 foot bull shark. We have lots of new programs and adventures planned for 2016, so stay tuned!

What are your hopes for the future, both personally and in regards to shark conservation?

Sharks4Kids was something I created because I genuinely believe kids can make a difference. Duncan, Derek and myself all want to inspire the next generation, so they have the opportunity to see sharks in the wild. I believe the tide is turning and perceptions are changing. Every time I feel heartbroken or frustrated in the world of shark conservation, I work with kids and they remind me that the is hope. I want to see our programs continue to grow and reach as many kids as possible both in the classroom and in the field. Healthy oceans need sharks and we all have the responsibility and opportunity to make a positive impact, no matter how young or old we are. I would love ( and know we will see) to see more marine protected areas and shark sanctuaries established. They are making a difference and have a hugely positive impact on the oceans and the economies of the nations putting them in place. This is the movement forward.

Finally, is there anything you’d like to add or to say to our readers? Anything at all...

Thanks David for sharing the Shark Reef story! It is an incredible place like no other on the planet and you told the story with passion and beauty, so thank you.

Posted by David Diley, Director