Emer is a zoologist from London who has spent her career so far as a field researcher with large marine vertebrates. She has spent the past year in La Paz, Mexico with Eco Migrations. Thanks to Emer for sharing her shark story with us!
Emer McCoy in the field ( LAMAVE)
What is/are your favourite sharks/rays and why?
Whale sharks have a particularly special place in my heart, because they are the reason I love Elasmobranchs as a whole. I didn’t know anything about sharks and rays until I started volunteering in the Philippines and collecting data on them. Whale sharks are very docile animals, seemingly content cruising through the ocean, and when they aggregate in shallow coastal waters to feed, we have a unique opportunity to swim with them. There is a lovely quote by the author Maya Angelou, which is quite analogous with being in the water with these awesome animals, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. The initial adrenaline rush, the striking sense of awe and then the incredible tranquillity in the ocean with such large creature, is a profound experience. It is feelings like this that people don’t forget, and can ignite a respect and passion for something you knew nothing of before.
What is one thing you wish people knew about sharks?
Their huge diversity is fascinating! If people knew the diversity in what sharks look like, their habitats, their prey, how long they can live and how they reproduce, then people can begin to appreciate how important they are in our oceans and why they need protection. As humans we rely enormously on the ocean, and as technology develops, we are able to access more areas of the ocean than ever before for resources. However, this also means that we are potentially disturbing or damaging populations of sharks, and important habitats for sharks, that we still know little about.
Can you tell us about your past research on whale sharks in the Philippines?
I was lucky enough to spend the best part of 5 years working with the Filipino NGO, LAMAVE (Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines). Most of the research I was involved with was identifying and understanding key whale shark aggregations across the country, regionally developing catalogues of the individuals, and identifying some of their movements between the different study areas. My main study area was in Donsol, where we collaborated with WWF-Philippines to analyse 10 years of data. We were able to show that Donsol was a unique aggregation within the Philippines, as the individuals were significantly larger, on average, than the predominantly juvenile aggregations at the other whale shark sites, with many of the individuals displaying strong site fidelity, returning almost every season, and importantly including several adult females. ( Read more about this STUDY)
Can you tell us a little bit about your current work in Mexico?
With Eco Migrations in La Paz, Baja California Sur, we are working to develop research-based camping trips for Grey whales and bottlenose dolphins. The waters surround the Baja California peninsula are incredibly abundant with marine megafauna, including several species of whale and dolphin, sea turtles, Mobula rays and whale sharks to name just a few, which makes it a very special place indeed, and we want to share this with people. Our aim is to create a long-term study, working alongside universities, researchers, students and citizen-scientists, in order to develop baseline data on these species, and to work to ensure that the animals are minimally disturbed as tourism continues to grow.
What has been the most amazing experience you have had or coolest thing you have learnt since studying whale sharks?
This is such a hard question to answer! One of the best things about working with wild animals is that you can never really know what is about to happen – every time you get in the water it is different. Having 5 whale sharks zooming around you out of the blue to feed on the plankton bloom at the water’s surface, makes your heart jump! And just swimming alone in the water with a 9m adult whale shark for time that feels timeless is the most peaceful, tranquil, happy place to be. I also think the fact pregnant females carry more than 300 pups is crazy cool.
Did you always want to be a shark biologist? If not, what inspired you to start working with sharks?
It was an accident to be honest, and the best one at that! As I was just starting in the marine biology world, I had been meeting people and learning mostly about marine mammals, and had thought that during the few months volunteering with LAMAVE I would be doing more work with dolphins, but as it turns out, the whale shark projects were really taking off. Embarrassingly, I didn’t really know what whale sharks were! When I turned up, I met the most wonderful, passionate, fun people, who encouraged you and nurtured you to grow. It’s been these people who I have been lucky enough to meet in my life who sparked the passion and why I fell in love with sharks and marine conservation.
If you could provide any advice for future female scientists, what would it be?
Be supportive to all the other female shark scientists out there. Be a team, learn together, work together and grow together. Provide a helping hand and a foot up where you can. I have been lucky to meet a lot of incredible women within marine and shark science, who I’m very proud to call my friends. They have provided me with encouragement, support and opportunities, which has been invaluable. It’s really positive to hear from UNESCO that the number of women in marine sciences is significantly rising, we just need to work together to continue to broaden the diversity within marine sciences.