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Big Fish, Little Knowledge.

It’s a common dream held by many. Quit your day-job, move to sun drenched shores and spend your life making a difference, saving the world. A dream that is often dismissed by those same many, as unattainable. But that is exactly what Biologist and researcher Stella Diamant did in 2016.
Her project to protect and study Whale Sharks in Madagascar, the first to study this population, is now a registered foundation working with local people to raise awareness and establish codes of conduct, allowing the resident shark populations to thrive.

In 2016 I founded my own initiative called the Madagascar Whale Shark Project. It is now a registered foundation focusing on studying endangered whale sharks in Madagascar, in order to better inform local conservation initiatives and raise awareness about the species which is endangered across the world. I manage the project, so I actually spend a lot of my time in front of the computer, however I do get the occasional chance to swim with sharks in crystal blue water, so there’s that.

Originally from Belgium, I visited Madagascar for the first time at 21, after obtaining my BSc in Biological Sciences from Warwick University. I spent three months in a remote fishing village as a volunteer with WWF in order to raise awareness on coral reefs. People’s complete reliance on nature to survive, combined with the sheer positivity of the Vezo people, made me think twice about life's comforts, and changed me forever.

“The current state of the planet and the environment is a daily worry for me, as I know it is for many other young people…”

On a second trip in 2014, I visited Nosy Be (where I currently work) and ended up seeing my first whale shark. I was blown away by their size, beauty and gentleness. As a biologist I had always been fascinated by large animals, in particular sharks and whales, and secretly cherished the hope to study them one day. This interest, coupled with the fact that no research was focusing on whale sharks in Madagascar at the time, triggered a desire to initiate local efforts and find partners to collaborate with. It took me a year to establish the right partnerships before I decided to quit my job, in plastic pollution at the time, in order to get some experience with experts in the field and to work towards securing funding. In September 2016 I led my first field season in Madagascar, and have been focusing all my time on the project since 2018.

The current state of the planet and the environment is a daily worry for me, as I know it is for many other young people. To be able to work in the field and tackle issues directly is a real privilege, for example we initiated an education program amongst local schools last year, now the kids are making video clips about ocean plastic. I need to be outside in nature, working on a topic I feel passionate about, to fully commit. The fact that the sharks, who I have known for a few years now, are just out there, is a wonderful thought. Our team is small, mainly comprised of volunteers, but we share this passion for the ocean and the sharks, and all compromise on one level or another to work on the project. There is something highly exciting, in this day and age, about doing research that hasn’t been done before, on a species so widely studied yet still so mysterious.

Whale sharks are currently an endangered species on the IUCN Red List, and we estimate that half of the global stock of whale sharks have disappeared since the 1980s. As they grow so slowly, it is critical that whale sharks survive to adulthood in order to reproduce. Sadly, due to plastic pollution, entanglement in fishing nets, illegal fishing and accidental bycatch, whale sharks often don’t make it to this age, estimated at 30 years old. The oceans are not a safe haven anymore.

“I feel strongly connected to the ocean, and being in the water has a soothing effect on me. I crave it when I am away from it … your breathings deepens and a new world opens where suddenly there is no noise, no judgment, instead space and eerie lights.”

My ocean connection came late in life, following my first trip to Madagascar. Yet, having learned to swim early as a child, I always feel relaxed being in the water. As I trained as a freediver in order to collect data on the sharks, I started spending a lot more time in the water. I feel strongly connected to the ocean, and being in the water has a soothing effect on me. I crave it when I am away from it, and what I enjoy the most is how your mind blanks once you are near water, your breathings deepens and a new world opens where suddenly there is no noise, no judgment, instead space and eerie lights. In particular, I love interacting with marine creatures, especially mammals and sharks as they are incredibly curious. With wild animals you need to be constantly aware and present, and I thoroughly enjoy the peace of mind that comes with it. These experiences are very humbling and trigger my sense of responsibility, which is ultimately why I do what I do. To protect and safeguard these incredible ecosystems that I love.

The Madagascar Whale Shark Project (MWSP) is a research and conservation project focusing on whale shark occurrence, residency and population structure in Western Madagascar. To do this we mainly collect scientific data during the whale shark season through freediving, we also collaborate with other scientists and institutions on endangered species research, such as our recent paper on Movements and habitat use of satellite-tagged whale sharks off western Madagascar. We are continuing to explore new whale shark hotspots through partnerships with travel agencies and by running volunteer programs to collect more data.

The project also has implemented a code of conduct since 2017 to regulate interactions between boats, swimmers and whale sharks, as well as an education program to raise awareness about ocean life. We strongly support the development of effective local initiatives, as whale sharks are still, to this day, unprotected in Madagascar, however we hope to have the code of conduct listed as a law in the country in the coming months. 

“I need to be outside in nature, working on a topic I feel passionate about, to fully commit. The fact that the sharks, who I have known for a few years now, are just out there, is a wonderful thought.”

In 2019 we have become a registered foundation. Aside from our local staff we all are volunteers, and as you can imagine, it is incredibly difficult to secure funding to run a project year-round. We are hoping to find donors through the foundation who can help us, either financially or in-kind to fulfil our goals.

One of the main issues we face is that our work is attracting a lot of people to the area, who come specifically to see the sharks. On one hand this is great, as it is bringing more tourists to Madagascar, who are spending money there to see whale sharks in their natural habitat. On the other hand, the growing tourism industry is potentially a threat to the sharks, as more boats mean more collision risks and behaviour changes for the sharks. Since 2017, we have tackled this by establishing a code of conduct and providing training for operators, which has led to great results, safer interactions and generally better atmosphere on the water. We are also recording socio-economic data on the sharks to show how much they are worth, alive, to the community and the country. Another argument to protect them and make sure they come back to their feeding grounds year after year!

At this point I feel we should all try to take a stand for the planet, and use our expertise to be of use to the different topics that currently need attention. I feel lucky to be dedicating my time to a cause that matters, but there are so many more issues that need our help. I have come to realise that for projects to succeed we need specialists, who are very good at what they do. So even if you don’t want to quit your job and follow your dreams, you can still make a difference by actively helping NGOs and grassroots projects. I strongly encourage everyone out there to join a cause you care about, and get involved: whether to volunteer for at weekends, to adopt single steps that make a difference, to use sustainable operators on your holiday. There are so many options out there!

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You can follow the Madagascar Whale Shark Project on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook on @madawhalesharks and at www.madagascarwhalesharks.org 

 

Pictures by Nick Riley, Peter Marshall and Stella Diamant