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Interview: Lindsay Graff, Shark BIologist

Posted by David Diley, Director, September 2, 2015

Lindsay Graff is a shark bilogist who has worked across the globe with a variety of incredible shark species, including the bull sharks of Shark Reef in Fiji - the stars of Of Shark and Man.

Interview: Lindsay Graff, Shark BIologist

Hi Lindsay, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Firstly, who are you and what do you do?

My focus is within the field of shark biology, which has been my passion since I was a little girl. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked all over the world with various shark species, and have spent parts of the last four years working in Fiji with Mike and the amazing crew at Beqa Adventure Divers. This fall I’ll be switching it up a bit and heading to Cape Cod to spend some time focusing on the seasonal great white shark population with Dr. Greg Skomal and The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.

Tell us about your background, how did you end up where you are today?

I have always known that I wanted to pursue a career as a shark biologist, which I know seems a little strange since I grew up in the beautiful, but land-locked state of Vermont; but my childhood was spent outdoors, always connecting and exploring with nature and I was fascinated by the ocean and marine creatures. Using that focus and passion, I spent a lot of my time studying abroad and centering my undergraduate and graduate education around the field of marine and shark biology. I’ve been lucky enough to have studied everywhere from the Bahamas to South Africa and to have researched a variety of shark species and aspects of shark biology over the years. I’ve also spent time with amazing mentors in the shark research field, and those collaborations are always a huge source of inspiration and help me define what I hope to achieve in the future.

What exactly is BROADREACH and how does the work you do in Fiji relate to sharks?

roadreach is an amazing company out of Raleigh, NC that concentrates on combining international travel experience with intense educational studies for high school and college students. Most of their programs focus on combining scuba diving with field-based college-level academics. I have spent the last four years leading their Fiji Shark Studies program which partners with Beqa Adventure Divers to provide a once-in-a-lifetime shark experience. For three weeks, the students spend every morning diving with BAD on Shark Reef Marine Reserve, and then spend the afternoon learning about everything from internal and external biology of sharks to the threats that sharks face to current research being done on sharks around the world. It’s a priceless educational tool to lecture about external shark biology and to then be able to take the students 30m underwater to have them see for themselves the dermal denticle pattern found on bull sharks, or how the heterocercal tail shape allows for blacktip reef sharks to quickly dart in for food while Manasa is feeding them. The program also spends a lot of time immersing the students within Fijian culture, and through homestays and time spent with the crew of BAD, the students gain close personal relationships and friendships within the local community.

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You have a lot of experience diving on Shark Reef, what is it that makes it such a special place for you?

There are numerous reasons why the shark dive on Shark Reef Marine Reserve is such a unique experience, and it’s the combination of all of these reasons that makes it extraordinary. Shark Reef Marine Reserve is a slice out of shark diving heaven, and it truly takes your breath away to be consistently surrounded by 45-50 bull sharks, tawny nurse sharks, sicklefin lemons, grey reefs, whitetip and blacktips on every single dive, along with an assortment of green sea turtles, moray eels, humphead wrasse, and other marine creatures. Beqa Adventure Divers realized long ago how special this location was, and due to their hard work through education, research, and diligent outreach, they have effectively protected their unique shark populations. When you dive with BAD, it’s so immensely clear that they are proud of the work that they have done on SRMR, and are honored to have the opportunity to share their love with every diver that joins them. They are just as excited as your are to dive down and to see which of the 160 named and identified bull sharks will be visiting that day during the feeds, and their excitement and appreciation for every day and every moment with the sharks is truly infectious.

You work a lot with people who may have previously never seen a shark before. Do the kids you work with all come with an existing fascination for sharks or have you seen that develop over their time in Fiji?

I would say that every single student who comes on the trip has some sort of pre-existing fascination with sharks, and this is the first opportunity given to them to actually spend time focusing on that fascination, and to build upon their limited shark-based education. Few schools in the United States offer courses in marine biology, while almost none offer the opportunity to study shark biology. It’s an invaluable option to be given three uninterrupted weeks to focus on a field of study that you are passionate about at a young age, and while not every single student will continue to pursue that field of study in the future, every single student will leave the program with a lifelong love and appreciation for sharks.

The Shark Dive on Shark Reef is a baited dive, this can be quite a controversial issue, where do you stand on the issue of shark feeding dives?

Shark feeding is a really divisive subject and for me, I see shark feeding in a very similar light akin to aquariums; both, when utilized properly with a focus on details and proper training/care, are incredibly important educational and outreach tools for people who would not necessarily gain access to the presented marine creatures. On the flip side, when protocol is not followed or care is not shown, there can be dire consequences for the fish and/or the humans involved. Mike started the Global Shark Diving group to bring together other shark diving operations from around the world that, like Beqa Adventure Divers, share the same high standards for marine and diver safety while also focusing on shark conservation and research. This helps easily discern between good and not so great operators that are utilizing baited shark feeds within their dives, and will hopefully help raise the bar for shark diving standards around the world.

Since most shark species are very elusive and shy (and want nothing to do with any human activity), baited feeds are usually a necessity in order to gain any underwater time with these creatures. As soon as the feed is over at Shark Reef, the sharks disappear within minutes. Research done on the bull sharks feeding at SRMR has shown that these sharks are not solely relying on the hand-outs from the dives, it’s more of a stopping off point where they can grab a snack before continuing on their underwater route.

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You’ve seen Of Shark and Man and having lived with the people involved for so long, how do you feel the film portrays the story?

The film does a great job of portraying a really beautiful and remarkable story of conservation and passion within Fiji. They have a unique shark population with a unique story, and it’s wonderful that people who might not have the opportunity to come to Fiji and Shark Reef, can still experience it all from watching the film. Everyone in the marine conservation/dive/research world should take a moment to learn from all of the work that Mike, Juerg and BAD have done throughout the years to turn Shark Reef into such an amazing example of conservation and ecotourism at it’s finest. For me, the film really touches home because it highlights this group of people that have become my family over the years, and this special place that has become my second home. You did a great job of portraying everyone’s individual personalities; from Mike’s dogged tenacity to Manasa’s amiability and Rusi’s quiet adoration for his Shark Reef shark family.

There will be people out there who think you have one of the best jobs in the world, what advice do you have for anyone out there who might want to do what you do?

I would definitely have to agree with them, although to be able to do what you love takes a lot of hard work and perseverance. When it comes down to it, I would be spending my days in the water with sharks whether or not I was getting paid for it, or whether or not there was a documentary to film or photos to take- it’s simply what I love to do and what makes me the happiest. Getting to this point in my early career has taken years, and lots of time has been spent learning from others within the field, educating myself, and knowing that it will be a long journey, but one that I hope to be on for my whole life. My best advice would be to find what you love, and to pursue that with whole-hearted determination and courage.

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Do you have a particular stand out memory from a dive on Shark Reef?

Anyone who has been shark diving on Shark Reef knows that every single dive there is a memorable and original experience. I’ve been on 250+ shark dives over the years and there’s been some with humpback whales singing in the background, visibility as clear as glass so you could see the feed from the boat, a newborn tawny nurse shark pup, stealthy sicklefin lemon shark visits, oblivious sea turtle meanderings, and every day brings about a new behavior or personality from the sharks. My absolute favorite dive was in June 2014, and Rusi and Mike had just given me the biggest honor and had named a feisty new female bull shark after me. It was my first shark dive after the honor, and I was sitting at the 15m feed with Rusi and Mike when “Lindsay” the bull shark swam by, and I almost cried with joy underwater. It was a really special moment to share with two people who had become family to me over the years, and it was a moment that I’ll look back upon for the rest of my life.

Why sharks? What was it that made you so passionate?

Whenever someone asks me the “why sharks” questions (which is a lot when I’m home in Vermont), I always want to say how can you not love sharks? Why isn’t everyone passionate about them? Doesn’t everyone realize how incredibly amazing they are biologically, how vital they are to their marine communities, and how vast and varying all of the shark species are around the world? I’ve always been fascinated by them, so it’s hard to understand that other people don’t always share that same passion and intrigue. Through outreach and education, I really enjoy sharing my passion for sharks with others and it’s incredibly rewarding when that passion can rub off on another student, diver, or individual.

Finally, this is the bit where we give you a platform to say anything you like, what would you you like to say to the people out there reading this?

What I love about this film is that you found a rich and beautiful story about a small group of people passionate about shark diving, research, and conservation, located in a tiny, remote country tucked away in the South Pacific, and you were able to share it with the kind of audience that this story deserves.

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Posted by David Diley, Director