An interview with Maya Higgins, shark researcher
Using Tourism as a Tool toward Shark Conservation
All photos in this Ocean Voice piece were taken at Darwin in the Galopagos Islands by Nelson Martinez Munoz
"I believe we should save sharks because they deserve an ally and are beautiful and extremely intelligent creatures. However, I know that many people don’t share this view. To them I would say that if not for the benefit of sharks, we need to save sharks for the benefit of humans."
— Maya Higgins
SeaWeb: What is your favorite shark species and why?
Maya Higgins: My favorite shark species is definitely the whale shark. I was lucky enough to dive with whale sharks while in the Galapagos Islands and I had the most incredible experience. They are enormous and so majestic that when they swim next to you underwater, you can do nothing but stop and stare in awe. I had one dive in particular with them that just ended up being a perfect dive. I had a great dive buddy, a good guide, and was surrounded by amazing marine life the entire time. In addition to the whale sharks, we saw huge schools of scalloped hammerheads, Galapagos sharks, and silky sharks. We also saw a lot of green sea turtles and moray eels. Throughout the dive I completely forgot about life above water. It was an unforgettable experience.
My second favorite would definitely be any type of hammerhead shark. I think they are beautiful and I have loved them ever since I was a little kid. They were actually my motivation for diving in the Galapagos in the first place…the whale sharks were merely a bonus!
SW: What was your first and/or most memorable experience with a shark?
MH: My first experience with a shark was only seven months ago. I grew up in New Mexico and didn’t spend much time near oceans until this year (wow, I was missing out!). In January I became PADI Open Water scuba certified in Australia. Everyone was talking about wanting to see sharks and I thought they were crazy. All I had ever heard about sharks growing up was that they are vicious and will attack people. Like most people, I was afraid of them. I learned how to dive on a liveaboard and one of our first dives as certified divers was a night dive. There were some reef sharks circling the boat as we jumped in. At first I was scared. I had no idea that they are actually very timid and beautiful creatures that are more afraid of people than we are of them. When a gray reef shark swam by me towards the end of the dive, I couldn’t stop staring at it. I wanted to spend more time in the water with the sharks. In that moment, I completely shed my fear of sharks and decided to do whatever possible to learn more about them.
SW: Congratulations on completing your Thomas J. Watson Fellowship! Your focus was on ecotourism and climate change, but you became very involved in shark conservation. How and why did sharks fit into that picture?
MH: After I learned how to dive, I spent five months in the Pacific (two months in Yap and three months in Palau). Palau is one of the top diving destinations in the world and it is famous for its abundance of sharks. It was actually named the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2009. Since most of the tourism in Palau is diving tourism, I couldn’t study the impacts of ecotourism without looking at the impacts of divers. A local dive shop helped me with my study and let me dive at no cost so that I could observe diver behavior underwater and could interview tourists about their motivations for coming to Palau. A lot of the people that I spoke with had come to Palau specifically to dive with sharks. In fact, the second week that I was there, one of the dive shops had a whole week dedicated to shark conservation education. Several shark researchers and enthusiasts came to speak about sharks every evening and the speeches were always heavily attended by divers eager to learn more about sharks. It was in that week that I realized how important sharks are in maintaining Palau’s reputation as a top diving destination. They are essential to Palau’s economy. In fact, there was a recent study done in Palau that demonstrated that each shark has a value of about $2 million dollars throughout its lifetime since shark tourism brings in over $20 million dollars a year to Palau’s economy. This was one of the first examples that I had discovered during my study of a way that tourism could help encourage conservation. Without tourism, Palauans wouldn’t have much motivation to protect sharks.
While in Palau, I interviewed a lot of marine wildlife photographers, researchers, and avid divers. I also had several discussions with Dermot Keane, the main advocate for the Palau Shark Sanctuary. He taught me a lot about the threats facing sharks and about the importance of sharks in the marine ecosystem. The more that I learned, the more appalled I became about how little correct information I had learned about sharks throughout my lifetime and in my biology classes in college. I became determined to learn more. Once I learned about shark finning (from the film Sharkwater), I realized that I had to do something. So, I altered my project slightly in order to learn more about shark finning and try to educate others about the severity of the population decline of sharks.
SW: Sharks are crucial to the marine environment, yet their numbers are dwindling. In your experience, have you seen how their disappearance is affecting the ocean?
MH: I haven’t done any concrete studies myself on water chemistry or biodiversity abundance in our oceans. However, from what I have heard from the islanders that I have lived with this past year, the number of sharks has declined dramatically in the last few decades. I know from my background as a biologist that the disappearance of sharks from the food web would dramatically alter the composition of the marine ecosystem and would likely lead to a sharp decline in phytoplankton. This would result in a decrease in oxygen production and would directly harm the human race. Furthermore, the disappearance of sharks would destroy several island economies that rely on them for tourism. Many of these islands have no alternative methods to boost their economies and would suffer severely from a decline in tourism. As an animal enthusiast and an avid diver, I believe we should save sharks because they deserve an ally and are beautiful and extremely intelligent creatures. However, I know that many people don’t share this view. To them I would say that if not for the benefit of sharks, we need to save sharks for the benefit of humans. Without sharks, the health of our oceans would decline. Since we rely on oceans to produce oxygen, regulate climate, and provide us with food, we need to keep our oceans healthy. To do so, we need to do everything possible to save sharks.
SW: How will the results of your fellowship further shark conservation?
MH: The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is committed to the development of people and not projects. I am the product of my fellowship rather than a thesis or other such written conclusion. What has resulted from the fellowship has been a commitment from me to help improve the future of shark conservation. I have already started telling everyone that I know about the importance of saving sharks through my blog (http://islandhoppermaya.blogspot.com) and have started writing letters to various politicians in order to encourage them to ban shark finning. I know that I have already convinced a few people to change their opinions about sharks. That may not sound like much, but I think that changing the attitudes of individuals about sharks is the first step in convincing them to support shark conservation efforts. At this point, improving shark education and spreading awareness about threats to shark survival are my two most important goals. I believe that even small efforts to help save sharks will have a large impact. Change won’t come until more individuals decide to help protect sharks. Right now, I’m hoping to increase the size of the shark conversation team.
Maya Higgins was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 2010 she graduated from Scripps College in Claremont, CA with honors B.A. in Organismal Biology and Ecology. This past year she was awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship (http://watsonfellowship.org) to live on islands around the world studying the potential for ecotourism to serve as a conservation strategy. She lived in Madagascar, New Zealand, Yap, Palau, and the Galapagos Islands and volunteered with researchers studying lemurs, penguins, manta rays, and sharks. As part of her research, Maya became a PADI Open Water, Advanced, and then Rescue diver and has now completed 100 dives. Next year she will be living in Chiang Rai, Thailand as a Fulbright Scholar, where she hopes to continue to learn more about marine conservation and to change the world’s perception of sharks.