Meet Conservation Scientist Arzucan "ZuZu" Askin
Arzucan "Zuzu” Askin (FRGS)
Arzucan is an interdisciplinary conservation scientist and technical diver specializing in research and media projects focused on endangered shark species in remote areas. Specifically, her work looks at the intersection where sharks meet society, covering topics such as illegal wildlife trafficking, tourism and human-shark relationships. She holds an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management from the University of Oxford (with Distinction), where her research examined the impacts of anthropogenic disturbance of whale sharks in small island developing nations with Dr Lisa Wedding’s Seascape Ecology Lab and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program.
Driven by a passion for innovation and impact, her focus is on developing transformative solutions for the protection of sharks and the livelihoods that depend on these predators. Arzucan is a Member of Minorities in Shark Science, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG) and the recipient of the 2021 European Rolex Scholar of the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society®, spending a year traveling around the world to conduct shark science and gain further diving qualifications. As the Co-Founder and Scientific Director of the Fuvahmulah Shark Research Program, she currently studies injuries in Tiger sharks and is in the process of setting up the first long-term monitoring program for endangered pelagic thresher sharks and scalloped hammerhead sharks in the Maldives.
Thanks to Arzucan for sharing your shark story with us.
Credit Alex Mustard
1. What is your favorite shark/ray and why?
That’s a very difficult question! Do I really have to choose? Well, let’s see… I love all sharks, but if I had to pick one favorite shark it would be the thresher shark. They’re absolutely beautiful and very unique in their appearance and behavior. They use their long caudal (tail) fin which equals about half the total length of their body to stun prey. However, I also deeply love whale sharks (I wrote my Master’s thesis on them) and have a special spot for Tiger sharks in my heart. I met the love of my life during a Tiger shark dive and observing learning behavior in Tiger sharks inspired us to found the Fuvahmulah Shark Research Programme.
2. What is one species of shark you would like to see/study?
I would like to study endangered pelagic thresher sharks more. There is so little known about these beautiful animal, critical habitat identification for them is still lacking and their numbers are declining rapidly due to targeted and accidental fishing. Their appearance, grace and behavior sets them apart from other sharks and I would be absolutely humbled to continue to spend time with them in the water.
3. Can you tell us a little about your research?
My research looks at the intersection where sharks meet society, specifically the impact of human activities on sharks. That means I research the “human” side of sharks, covering everything from illegal wildlife trafficking of sharks, to the impact of tourism on sharks, human-shark relationships in different cultures, questions around the extinction of these amazing creatures, human-shark conflict, all the way to shark charisma. I am trying to better understand how humans harm sharks, why they are loved in some parts of the world and feared in others, what conservation lessons we can learn from these insights and how we can better protect sharks. I recently founded the Fuvahmulah Shark Research Programme, together with my partner Jonathon Allen and two of our inspiring Maldivian shark conservationists Basith Mohamed and Hamna Hussain.
Fuvahmulah is a small island in the Indian Ocean that is home to a very large group of resident Tiger sharks, thresher sharks, different species of reef sharks as well as schools of hammerhead sharks that pass by in the water. No coordinated research effort has been dedicated to the sharks of this amazing island and over the next years we will be training up more local Maldivians as research assistants to start long-term monitoring and research into the different sharks there. Our big goal is to conduct novel studies in the area, such as using portable ultrasound scanners to examine the pregnant females and diving to 60m using rebreathers to place camera equipment in the deep where the sharks aggregate. I also plan on writing my PhD on the Tiger sharks there. Many of them have injuries from interaction with fishing vessels and I would like to examine how these injuries impact their behavior and residency around the island. Given how large the percentage of injured sharks around the island is, one of the Master’s students currently collecting data out thinks the area might serve as a “rehabilitation station” for weak and injured sharks and we would love to explore this more. It’s all very exciting and I cannot wait to get started properly once we manage to secure enough funding to purchase all our research equipment and train up our local collaborators!
4. Can you tell us a little about your experience as a OWUSS/Rolex Scholar?
My year as the 2021 OWUSS EU Rolex Scholar has been unforgettable and filled with many learning opportunities. I spent the year, conducting research on the impact of tourism on endangered whale sharks with the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme, supported the Manta Trust in the field during an expedition studying endangered oceanic manta rays and even sailed a small sailing boat to 80 degrees North to conduct acoustic monitoring of elusive blue whales in Arctic sea ice! I got to dive in uncharted polar waters, learnt how to operate cinema cameras underwater, helped with reef monitoring projects in the Maldives and Bahamas, and even started cave diving. I am most excited about finishing my year scholarship as a fully qualified technical diver and a Extended Range Trimix CCR diver. That means that I can now use specialised breathing gas mixtures and high-tech diving equipment to dive longer and deeper! This is very important for my research work, as hammerhead sharks and thresher sharks are scared of the bubbles made by open circuit scuba divers - the rebreather doesn’t make bubbles and is silent, meaning that animals will come very close, allowing me to take ID photos and videos to study their behaviour!
Credit Kewin Lorenzen
5. What has been your most amazing experience with sharks?
My most amazing experience with sharks was on a small island named Fuvahmulah in the Maldives, where I observed a very large Tiger shark pick up a huge rock and swim away with it. It was so heavy, she used her pectoral fins to push herself off the ground. We all ducked down, fearing she might drop in on our heads, but she continued holding the rock in her mouth and swimming off into the blue. It was a a very puzzling moment and a reminder that there is still so little we know about the behaviour of these animals and how they never cease to inspire more curiosity. Another experience I will never forget was during a wall dive. We had over 20 mostly juvenile Tiger sharks swim up to us slowly from the deep underneath our fins and watching their beautiful stripes shine against the dark blue waters was absolutely magical. Every shark dive is humbling for me, especially knowing how threatened these animals are in many parts of the world. I feel very lucky to have access to the ocean as a diver and to be able to spend time with these living dinosaurs.
6. What is one thing you wish everyone knew about sharks?
Did you know that in many cultures what sharks are named “starry back fish” or “night sky fish” because of their spot pattern that resembles a night sky... and that the traditional names given to these sharks centuries ago make sense scientifically? Many whale shark scientists now actually use a software adapted from NASA’s star matching software to identify whale sharks. The spots on each shark are like our human fingerprint - no two sharks have the same - and by mapping the constellations of their spots (like stars!) we can distinguish them!
7. What advice would you give other young women who are interested in marine biology?
My biggest piece of advice for young women interested in working with sharks would actually be to not only consider marine biology, but to realize that we also need many other “blue” disciplines to engage with sharks! Sharks face many threats around the world from illegal fishing to unsustainable tourism, plastic pollution and entanglement, all the way to the loss of important ecosystems. They’re used in the design field for experiments, their liver oil is still commonly found in cosmetics, a lot of medical research uses sharks for the development of vaccines and cancer treatments. Sharks touch all aspects of our human society. With that in mind, I would love to see more young people studying economics, politics, environmental governance, law and using the power of these disciplines to help sharks! Likewise, we need more creatives - artists, filmmakers, photographers - focusing their talent on sharks to move away from this depiction of them as “man-eating monsters” and the many documentaries that use very dramatic or scary music when depicting them. Sharks are graceful creatures fulfilling the most important functions in many marine ecosystems, and it would be so wonderful to see that complexity and beauty highlighted more in the creative field.