Christopher Bird: How did I become involved in Ocean Sciences?

When I was growing up I was convinced I was going to be either a shark or a dinosaur. My parents were always very supportive of my career aspirations but it wasn’t until I started school that this dream was quickly snubbed out. Once I came to terms with this devastating impossibility, my chosen career paths were then largely dictated by my favourite films at the time. So there was archaeologist (Jurassic Park), fighter jet pilot (Top Gun), vet (Doctor Dolittle) and then subsequently a film director. I guess that lack of certainty is normal growing up though, but my studies were always under the same direction: “do the best you possibly can and you can choose to be whatever you want to be when you grow up”. Additionally, most important for me though, was to do something that I enjoyed.

chris 6As a kid I was always fascinated with the ocean. Here’s me fishing with a lollipop stick and fishing line circa 1996.

At college I took the subjects that I enjoyed the most: Media Studies, Maths, Biology, Physics and Chemistry. Initially with ambitions of still being the next Quentin Tarentino, I then toyed with the idea of medicine and veterinary sciences but decided the stressful nature of these jobs was not for me. I was naturally inquisitive about the world and how it all worked. It wasn’t too hard for me to decide to continue this fascination with my university degree.

chris 5Most things within the zoological world fascinate me. Giant Aldabra Tortoise

Initially studying undergraduate biology at The University of Manchester, I quickly realised my naturally affinity to zoology. Although most aspects of zoology fascinated me, it was the marine realm that really “hooked” me in. Now it doesn’t take a genius to realise that Manchester couldn’t be further from the ocean. It would take everything in my power to study marine ecosystems. On a two-month field trip to Ecuador, I studied the diversity of fish in a previously unexplored part of the Amazon. For my third year dissertation I was lucky enough to study the swimming capabilities of rainbow trout. Any flexibility in literature reviews and module essays, I would focus on marine zoology or more specifically, sharks.

chris 4Night fishing in the Amazon rainforest, Ecuador

Upon completion of this degree, I was determined to continue to explore my passion for marine biology and fish. It was then that I realised I could get very close to actually going full circle on my career ambitions. Now realising I couldn’t actually BE a shark, I was now in a position where I might be able to work with a life long passion of mine. It was then that I decided I would concentrate my future studies on sharks. Already clued up on shark biology from my undergraduate studies and my obsession with wildlife documentaries, working with sharks became a real obsession for me.

I took a year out to learn how to dive and gain experience working with these sharks. After learning to dive in the Red Sea, I took a volunteer placement at the Bimini Biological Field Station, Bahamas. Not only did I get some great hands on experience catching, tagging and tracking a broad range of sharks, it confirmed that this was what I wanted to do. Having already applied to study an M.Res (Masters of research) at Plymouth University, I would go on to contacting a professor there who was studying sharks; a person that I would end up working with for my masters research.

chis 3Wreck diving with fellow volunteers, Bimini Bahamas

Studying the spatial dynamics of blue sharks at Plymouth University, I found the combination of technology and biology remarkable and uncovering the usually invisible movement patterns of these large predators was very exciting. I then went on to meet a visiting Ph.D student who gave a talk about his work on shark movements in the Seychelles. After approaching him at the end of his talk, I was on a plane a couple of weeks later to help catch, tag and dive with sharks at a remote island off of the Seychelles. Working with a dive master and skipper we were able to install an extensive underwater receiver station, tag a large number of sharks and more importantly help establish a marine protected area around the islands.

chris 2Releasing a juvenile tiger shark, Bimini, Bahamas

Upon returning from a shark geeks trip of a lifetime I wound up working for a wildlife film company for a few months after completing a 2 week internship there. Whilst this line of work was of great interest to me, it didn’t satisfy me as much as the excitement and challenges of scientific research. I needed to do a Ph.D!!

After months of emails to shark biologists, meetings with prospective supervisors and Skype interviews with institutes around the globe I found a Ph.D project that suited the bill almost perfectly. It was working with sharks but within an environment completely new to me: the deep sea. On top of that it was at a world respected research institute with great facilities and opportunities: The National Oceanography Centre with the University of Southampton.

So here I am now, one year into my research. I have met some truly alien sharks and am now completely immersed in the mysteries of deep-sea shark and chimaera ecology. To all the people who said I would never grow up to be a shark…. I got pretty dam close.

chris 1Velvet belly lantern shark caught during latest trip to Balearic Islands

You can find Christopher on twitter here: https://twitter.com/SharkDevocean.
Ask him anything MOOC related and follow him for ocean and shark updates.
You can also find his personal shark blog here: http://sharkdevocean.wordpress.com/

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