Into The Industry: Shark Conservation
This week we caught up with professional scuba diver, amateur free diver and shark enthusiast Clara Calatayud. From studying Biological Sciences in Barcelona to founding The Shark Odyssey, keep reading to find out how Clara's been working tirelessly to protect sharks in Mexico's waters.
Hey Clara! Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am a marine biologist born in Barcelona, who is passionate about sharks, a professional scuba diver and amateur free diver. I pursued a career in Biological Sciences at the University of Barcelona, majoring in marine Zoology and Ecology. In 2006 I travelled to the Seychelles to work for the Marine National Park as sea turtle nesting project leader, on the un-inhabited Curieusse Island, where magic encounters with reef sharks and whale sharks became a reality.
I continued my work as a Marine Biologist / Underwater Naturalist on a tall ship while completing my Masters degree in Oceanography and Marine Ecology. After finishing the Masters program, I enrolled in a pre-doctoral internship studying shark ecology with the Pelagios Kakunjá team in Baja California Sur, México. My study focused on diver-shark interactions in Revillagigedo Archipelago and how implementing an appropriate management plan for recreational shark diving can set up a new concept of shark diving research.
In 2015 I founded The Shark Odyssey, a citizen science program for shark research in Baja California Sur, where participants cooperate with local eco-tourism operators to gather data on shark populations. I am also the current director and science coordinator of Mexico Azul Foundation which fosters marine conservation programs with a special emphasis on sharks of Mexican waters.
You’ve built your life around the ocean. What drew you to it in the first place?
Since I was a little kid I knew my career would be in marine biology. My first motivation was the feeling of freedom I felt whenever I was close to the ocean. I was shocked by the first anti-whaling Greenpeace Campaigns, and later Jacques Cousteau’s TV series got deep into my brain. When I started diving at age 15, I realised I could never think about studying anything else but marine biology. Marine biology has always been my vocation.
What does your role involve?
My role is to work towards marine conservation, especially shark conservation, from several points of views: research and fieldwork as well as ecotourism and citizen science. I am trying to combine several disciplines that can be relevant to protecting marine biodiversity, and especially sharks, in Mexican waters. I believe ecotourism is a great conservation tool and Mexico has great potential for it.
What does a day in your life look like?
My day as Director and Science coordinator of Mexico Azul can be totally different from week to week. I try to divide my time between office work and fieldwork research. I usually spend 2 weeks in Mexico City where I hold meetings with potential partners and collaborators and coordinate different tasks with the rest of the team at the office.
The other 2 weeks of the month I travel to Cabo San Lucas to perform a shark monitoring data record program with a local operator. I go out at sea with the operator and its clients and I record the data for the shark monitoring program we are developing together. Part of my job here is to lecture participants on shark biology, conservation and behaviour. We are setting the baseline for shark population dynamics in the area.
Tell us about The Shark Odyssey, and why it’s important.
The Shark Odyssey is one of the programs of Mexico Azul to enhance citizen science for shark research. During our 1 or 2 week programs, participants become part of a scientific team recording basic shark population data at 3 locations in Baja California Sur: La Paz Bay for whale sharks, Cabo Pulmo Marine Park to spot bull sharks, and Cabo San Lucas for pelagic shark encounters. The goal of the program is to introduce the general public to shark research, create new scientific datasets and quantify the socio-economic value of shark tourism in Baja Sur.
How is Mexico Azul’s Foundation working to protect the marine environment?
We work on 3 basic strategic lines:
Sustainable fishing: We are developing a mobile application to promote sustainable seafood consumption in Mexico.
Plastic pollution: We work with other NGO’s and volunteers to establish beach cleaning operations at several locations in Mexico. We also launched an Instagram campaign called #desnudalafrutamx (#stripthefruit). We encourage consumers to post over-packed fruits and vegetables.
Shark Conservation: The Shark Odyssey is not the only one of our activities related to shark conservation, we are also developing a baseline for Cabo San Lucas and we are developing further citizen science options for sharks in Baja California. From Mexico Azul we also work with other NGO’s in order to change environmental laws regardingshark protection.
Where is your favourite diving/free diving spot, and why?
There is a little pinnacle between Cabo Pulmo and Cabo San Lucas where the water gets totally transparent and visibility can reach up to 40 meters. It is an isolated spot and silky shark aggregations take place during summer. The first time I was here, I swam with more than 60 silky sharks and a massive school of jackfish surrounded us and the sharks. It was magical!
Which ocean species is on your bucket list to see?
I have never seen a sperm whale, blue whale or great white shark.
Whose work has influenced and inspired you?
I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Jacques Leon Theodor, who helped me with my scientific career. He transmitted his passion for invertebrate taxonomy and diving to me Following his research path, I did work with deep sea gorgonians for some time.
During my studies in Baja California I worked under the supervision of Dr. Ketchum and Dr. Hoyos, who inspired my love for Baja California and its sharks. Working with their team, I got to know the best shark diving locations in Baja and The Shark Odyssey is the fruit of that inspiration.
And finally, what advice would you give to people who want to get into this career?
I would advise them to study hard, have clear goals regarding their future in marine conservation and go for it. It can be a very competitive world but it’s worthy. I would also tell them to follow what they feel they can do best, even if it sounds impossible. I never thought I could work with sharks because in Barcelona that did not look like much of a feasible option, but it is! I was always told I could never work as a marine biologist, at least not in a paid job, and I do. Just believe in your vocation, and in your guts.