I’ve had the please to catch up with marine biologist, Simon Pierce, to ask him some questions I’ve always had about whale sharks, conservations, marine biology as a career and more! Here is our conversation, and feel free to ask him anything else in the comments below!
-So Simon, thanks for letting me take up some of your busy schedule. Can you tell us a little about yourself, your qualifications and what you do?
Thanks Justin, great to chat! I’m a marine conservation biologist from New Zealand. I grew up obsessed with wildlife and conservation, studied ecology, then I decided I wanted to focus on marine life and moved over to the warmer waters of Australia. I did my honours and then doctoral research on sharks and stingrays at The University of Queensland.
I became great friends with one of my labmates, Andrea ‘Queen of Mantas’ Marshall, at UQ. She was studying manta rays for her PhD. Andrea asked me to help her set up a research program with her in Mozambique, way back in 2005. That was when I first started studying whale sharks.
Together we formed the Marine Megafauna Foundation, based in the US, and I now lead a global whale shark research and conservation program at MMF. I’m also a regional co-chair for the IUCN Shark Specialist Group and a science advisor to the global whale shark database at www.whaleshark.org.
-So how did you first get interested in marine biology as a career? Because I also thought about it but its a huge commitment right? Tons of years in school. What made you want to pursue it?
Well… I was totally unsuitable for anything else, so that’s probably part of it. Biology and conservation was never a conscious choice for me really, it was just what I was always going to do. It’s more of a calling than a career decision.
Years of school weren’t a downside – I viewed my PhD as a guaranteed three-year job to learn stuff and play in the ocean with sharks and rays. Seemed like a solid life plan. I worked hard, of course, but I thoroughly enjoyed most of it.
-What was your focus in school? did you always want to study whale sharks, or did you study a little of everything? What was your thesis about?
Arriving at ‘whale shark researcher’ as a career destination was fairly random to be honest. I was interested in threatened species conservation, and originally planned to study reptiles. After I learnt to dive, I started thinking a lot about marine biology. I narrowed it down to crocodiles or sharks, so Australia seemed like a good option.
I emailed the ‘croc guy’ and the ‘shark guy’ at the University of Queensland. The croc guy was taking a sabbatical the following year, so he couldn’t take on any new students. The shark guy made some vaguely encouraging noises, so I started emailing him every week – literally – until I wore him down and he told me to come over.
Once I got there, I became really interested in stingrays after I realised that hardly anything was known about them. I developed a PhD project around that, looking at the fisheries and conservation biology of coastal species in Queensland. To be honest, I wasn’t that keen on working on the larger ‘charismatic’ shark and ray species at the time, as it seemed like there was a bunch of people already talking about them on TV etc. Meanwhile, some of the smaller, lesser-known, species were quietly disappearing.
When Andrea sounded me out about working with her in Mozambique, I humoured her and looked up what was actually known about whale sharks. I was surprised to learn that hardly any scientific work had been done on the species, and that targeted fisheries were pushing them towards extinction. Fast. Screw that. With that in mind, I got on a plane and moved over to Africa.
-Knowing what you know now, would you recommend kids go for the same career? What advice would you give to those who have decided to do so, that helped you a lot coming up?
My job rocks. I love it. I’ll always encourage people to follow their interests. Whether I’d recommend marine biology as a career depends on the person. Lots of people fall in love with the ocean and its inhabitants, and think that studying marine biology is the only way to help them. The reality of being a marine biologist is that you’re a scientist first. It’s less swimming with dolphins, and more statistical modelling.
Once people learn that, they often redirect their career aspirations. There are loads of jobs where you can get paid (usually much better than a biologist) to spend time on or underwater, or to help conserve and protect ocean wildlife.
For those that are set on becoming a biologist, it’s a good idea to pursue postgraduate work in a supportive lab and university that has a good reputation in the field, and to get practical experience wherever possible. There are plenty of formal volunteering opportunities out there, but there are also lots of students and local organisations that could use reliable help in the field or lab. If you can develop a reputation for being genuinely interested, helpful, and smart, opportunities will open up for you.
I do get a lot of questions on the topic, so I’ve written up a big article with advice for people that are interested in marine biology as a career, that you can see HERE.
-So, whale sharks. I’m glad I get to have this conversation, because I am fascinated by whale sharks, and I am in complete awe when ever I get to dive with one. My biggest concern is conservation, as I travel to so many locations that I can see a lot of negative impact everywhere I go, for the oceans. What are the biggest threats to whale sharks right now in history? Or are they even considered endangered?
Whale sharks are endangered. I led the current global conservation assessment for the species a couple of years ago, and we think that overfishing has wiped out half of their population since the mid-1980s. The major fisheries ran out of sharks to catch within just a few years.
A lot of countries have now protected whale sharks, but they’re still being caught on purpose in a few places, and accidentally elsewhere. Boat strikes are also an issue in some areas.
-Before I ask more questions, I just watched Blue Planet 2, and didn’t you say they used some of your footage from Galapagos?
They used a couple of my photos, and I gave advice on a couple of locations. They did film ‘our’ whale sharks in the Galapagos, so that was cool!
-Also on Blue Planet 2, it looked like they almost found out where whale sharks are giving birth, when they followed one down to 600+ meters with a sub. I know we talked about this topic and you said that its a huge mystery where they are giving birth and breeding. Could this be a break through or is it old news in your circles?
It’s still fairly new, but Jonathan Green – who is leading the Galapagos project, and was featured on Blue Planet 2 – has been studying the whale sharks over there for a few years now. The film team got some amazing footage.
Most of the sharks that swim past Darwin Island in Galapagos are pregnant. It’s hard to determine how close to birth they are, but other team members are currently developing underwater ultrasound techniques that could help answer a lot of questions.
Darwin is one of the sharkiest places in the world, so giving birth to small, slow-swimming whale shark pups close-by seems like a poor strategy. We’ve tagged quite a few sharks over there now, and they usually move on from Darwin within a day, so I suspect the pups are being born further out in the Eastern Pacific. I’d be surprised if there’s a highly specific area, but there’s a big productive zone above the equatorial current, and that’s where the sharks often head.
-You also told me that the only other pregnant whale shark to ever been see outside of Galapagos Islands was around Taiwan, where they hunt them a lot. Do you think they are also giving birth in that area, or are they making the huge trip for some reason? If I recall correct, thats around 12k-15k kilometers, which would take a really long time to swim. Are they even pregnant that long? Also the water temperatures are much different in the two, so thats weird.
We don’t often see pregnant whale sharks. Once whale sharks hit adulthood, they seem to move offshore, and it’s hard for us to research them out there. Volcanic islands like Darwin seem to act as navigational waypoints for them. Based on our tagging results to date, they’re highly mobile but probably don’t cross oceans often. The pregnant sharks we’ve photo-identified and satellite-tagged off Baja and Galapagos have all stuck to the Eastern Pacific so far. There are probably a lot of adult sharks out there, well offshore, that have never crossed paths with people.
The only pregnant shark that has ever been examined by scientists was harpooned off Taiwan in 1995. Almost everything we know about whale shark reproduction comes from that singular animal. She was 10.6 m long, and contained 304 little pups up to 64 cm in length. That’s almost twice as many as has been recorded from any other shark species. That is the only pregnant whale shark recorded in the fishery over there, which closed when Taiwan protected whale sharks in 2007.
-This is pretty interesting stuff. So what areas or countries would be the best places if people want to see whale sharks in the wild? I bet you’ve been to a bunch of them.
In your neck of the woods, Southern Leyte or Puerto Princesa are good ecotourism options in the Philippines.
Further afield, places like Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, Mafia Island in Tanzania, Nosy Be in Madagascar, and Tofo Beach in Mozambique are all excellent areas with solid tourism management. Darwin in Galapagos is amazing on a dive liveaboard, and the area north of Isla Mujeres in Mexico has lots of sharks.
Whale shark tourism has been a really positive force for whale shark conservation, and I thoroughly recommend swimming with the sharks as an epic, fun and safe experience. Do choose your location carefully – I prefer areas where the sharks are acting naturally, rather than being fed – and choose an operator that supports research and conservation efforts..
-So 7 years ago I was in Tofo Mozambique where you were giving lectures about whale sharks and manta rays, and tagging them, as well as dolphins and humpback whales. What is the significants about Mozambique for these big guys? Thats pretty far to travel so I assume there must be big numbers there. Why there? What about right across the channel in Madagascar?
Mozambique is a lovely place alright. The Inhambane coast, and particularly the area close to Tofo, has a narrow continental shelf, and oceanographic conditions make it a highly productive area. There’s lots of food for planktivores, like whale sharks and manta rays, and the humpback whales migrate through every winter. Lots of whales rockin’ out when you’re diving there over the cooler months.
We’ve started working in northwest Madagascar, off Nosy Be, more recently. There are a lot of whale sharks off there – we’ve already identified 240 – but so far they’ve all been ‘new’, none of our friends from Tofo, or from Mafia Island in Tanzania which is closer.