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My Dream of Working with Sharks

Category: General Article

Back to Tracking Sharks on the Great Barrier Reef

Date: Monday, August 28, 2017

Submitted by: Dr. Michelle Heupel, Senior Research Scientist and Team Leader for Ecological and Biological Monitoring, Australian Institute of Marine Science.

When I was 14 and living in Colorado, I decided that I would be a marine biologist, not just any marine biologist, a shark biologist. Why a marine biologist? I don’t really know, it just came to me. Maybe it came from watching Jacques Cousteau on TV; or maybe from swimming competitively and being in the water all the time. It was just what I decided was the right thing for me.

Why sharks? Because I was a tomboy and most girls loved dolphins. I wanted to be the opposite of that, so sharks suited me perfectly. After reaching my decision and announcing it to anyone who asked, you can imagine the response. Almost everyone said I was crazy. Almost everyone – this is a key point. My parents are amazing. While everyone else was telling me I was crazy may parents consistently said – don’t listen to anyone else, if this is what you want to do then put your head down and go do it. They supported me all the way, even when I decided to move half way around the world to study in Australia.

So how did I get from Colorado to the Great Barrier Reef? I started off by getting a good science grounding in college. My undergraduate degree is in zoology which gave me a strong foundation in science and animal studies. I studied in state to save money with plans to go to graduate school somewhere on the coast in the US. During my senior year at Colorado State University, I came across an exchange program to Australia and looked into spending my final semester overseas to experience another country.

It turns out I couldn’t do that and still graduate on time, but the student exchange office told me I could go to Australia and do a one-year degree that might earn me credit toward a Masters degree in the US. So I signed up for that and got accepted to study at the University of Queensland working on epaulette sharks. The project let me spend time on Heron Island in the southern Great Barrier Reef, catching these little catsharks to see how far they move, how long they live, what they ate.

At the end of the year, I was offered a place in the Ph.D program and a scholarship, so I stayed. I spent the next three years chasing epaulette sharks around Heron Island and learning everything I could about these beautiful little sharks that are famous for walking along the bottom on their fins. This was a really fun, but busy time of my life. I worked hard and wrote as many publications as I could to boost my resume and get a job. My hard work paid off with a postdoctoral position at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida where I studied how young sharks use nursery areas. This led to years of catching and tracking sharks along the coast of Florida.

After 10 years in Florida, I came back to Australia and back to where I started. I am now studying larger, more mobile species than epaulette sharks, but I have been back to Heron Island many times as I try to understand what reef sharks are doing and what we need to do to conserve them. My career has had an unusual and interesting path, but it has been very rewarding and thrilling to work with these amazing animals and some amazing scientists along the way.

So here I am, a shark biologist with almost 20 years’ experience and sometimes I wonder – who was the crazy person all those years ago? I don’t think it was me.

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Map of Australia and the Great Barrier Reef (PDF)

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A Cooperative Program

This virtual exploration is made possible through the kind cooperation of the Australian Institute of Marine Science. To learn more about the institute's work, visit them online at www.aims.gov.au.

A Note About Dates and Times

Due to time zone differences between the United States and Australia, please be aware that responses to any online questions to Dr. Heupel may be delayed by several hours or more. Thank you for your patience and understanding.