It is official: I am a Master of Science! To be more precise: A Master of Tropical Marine Ecology Science! Alongside most of the ISATEC cohort from 2014, I have successfully completed the ISATEC Master Program (International Studies in Aquatic Tropical Marine Ecology) – a joint initiative of the Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Ecology and the University Bremen. I finished the Master with my thesis titled “Characterizing a potential multi-species nursery area – Environmental drivers of juvenile shark distribution within a tropical estuary at Ba, Fiji” under the supervision of Prof. Martin Zimmer (ZMT) and Prof. Ciro Rico (USP).
It has been intense two years, but if I had the choice I would do them all over again. The first year of the Master Program is an intensive lecturing time with many long and exhausting days. We presented countless presentations and completed many dozens of daily project works. More than 25 lecturers passed on their knowledge and wisdom and although most of the courses were tightly packed due to the very restricted time frame of this highly interdisciplinary Master Program, I welcomed the huge variety of courses (e.g. System Analysis, Mangrove Ecology, Statistical Analysis, Conservation Modelling, Fishery Science, Aquatic Pollution and and and … ). And as no Master Program is perfect (well, actually I have no clue, but I can hardly imagine) there are surely certain issues that call for improvement. But all in all, I would surely study ISATEC again and I can definitely recommend this Program to fellow aspiring marine biologists and ecologists (use the search function in the header of this page to find more posts about ISATEC)! Of course, the topics delivered during the ISATEC Program can only be discussed superficially as most of the lecturers do not even have five days to deliver the main messages and most important facts in their field. BUT again, the variety of courses offers us students the chance to get a glimpse in many directions (and thus stimulate inspiration) and once we have decided which path we will be taking, we can and will intensify our own research and knowledge build-up anyway.
The freedom of this Program concerning the master thesis is something I especially enjoyed. The Master is structured in two main parts: the first year is dedicated to the lecturing and presents a wide array of possible study directions, whereas the second year is spent with six-month field work and another six month of data analysis (or lab work) and the thesis write-up. With my shark nursery project in Fiji I fulfilled a personal dream and opened many doors concerning possible future plans! What you – as a fellow ISATEC Master’s student – should know (or would want to know): the world is open to you and your thoughts, desires and ideas. Besides the condition of conducting the field work in the tropics (well actually not even that is true, since we had one student working on respiration experiments in Portugal) there is not much else limiting your thesis choice. It is all about you: whether you want to work in the lab, investigate coral reefs, study heavy metals, conduct social studies in Africa or work on shark conservation in Fiji – you have to find a supervisor willing to back up your project either at the ZMT or the University of Bremen and then you are basically good to go. And of course, you can also take one of the many offers by ZMT associated programs and collaborations as most of the ISATEC cohorts do.
During my seven months stay on the Fiji Islands I was able to capture tons of images – many of them during my shark research project. As my passion for photography is older than my passion for science, I knew long before I started studying biology that I want to capture the world we are living in with my own eyes. With the years one very important message became the center point of my photography: “Look at this beautiful world and learn to love mother nature and all inhabitants we share the planet with, look how we depend on nature and her services (and how she doesn’t need us) and understand why we need to protect this world”. In one word: C-o-n-s-e-r-v-a-t-i-o-n (or better two words: Conservation Photography). To spread the message I subsequently founded livingdreams.tv in 2013 – at that time still very different (some of you might remember my old design). By now dozens of days’ work have been put into my baby (my page, guys) and livingdreams keeps growing. I am looking forward to its development in future – and I am extremely happy for any suggestions concerning ups and downs of my page! So, please leave a comment below or drop a message!
A few weeks ago my beautiful fieldwork on Fiji was topped with some incredible news: I was contacted by the chairman of the Bild der Wissenschaft photo competition and received the fantastic news that I am winner of the reportage category 2016! The German Price for Science Photography is a renommated national price and connected to a lot of exposure. My six award winning images depict the “shark kindergarden project” I was working on and thus put tons of people into contact with a topic they might not have come in contact with otherwise: SHARKS.
Well, they probably might have, BUT as usual in a negative context: “Another deadly attack by killers of the oceans”, “Monster shark kills in Australia” and so on and so forth. To me, as a shark scientist, it is extremely important and a matter of heart to change that public perception. The idea, that a shark is an evil creature from the deep dark ocean just waiting to kill innocent humans swimming by is not only false and silly, but also dangerous. By only associating sharks with evil teeth, blood and fatal human tragedies, there is not much hope for this extremely diverse group of animals. Sharks have not been roaming our oceans for the past 400 million years to wait for us humans to appear and kill us all. They are an integral part of the oceans’ ecosystems by, for example, controlling prey populations and removing sick, old and dead animals and thus keep diseases from spreading. In short: we need sharks in our oceans. IF we continue to relentlessly kill them by the millions (around 100.000.000 sharks are killed each year and yes, that number with all these zeros means 100 million) we will run into trouble. Some species might disappear before we even know there were here. Sharks behave similar to mammals in many ways: they mature rather late (many sharks with around 15 years), get very few young (sometimes only 1 or 2 pups every second year) and have long gestation periods (the spiny dogfish carries its pups for almost two years, yes, 24 months, isn’t that incredible??). All these traits make sharks as a whole very vulnerable to overfishing.
Click on the image to get some more information –>
How do we change that? Well, that is a very complex question but in my opinion it is imperative to create a lobby for sharks, i.e. make the public and decision makers aware of sharks, their importance and the threats they are facing! I am extremely happy and fortunate to be contributing to that. The science photography price set a few stones loose that started rolling and then delivered lots of media exposure: I had several interviews with local and national newspapers and magazines, such as BILD, TAZ, Kreiszeitung, spent a day filming for the local TV Program Buten and Binnen (see the video below) and was invited to three different radio shows (see/hear for example here and here) to talk about my work, photography and sharks in general.
Now, priority lies in writing a good paper, get the knowledge out there (to the scientific community via the paper and hopefully to everyone else via this blog, my reports and all my other social media actions) and to inspire future research (in the coming days I will post a little summary report to wrap-up my shark nursery research series on this blog). End of this month I will be presenting my research at the European Elasmobranch Association (EEA) conference in Bristol (which I am really excited about!!), where I hope to meet a few exciting and inspiring shark scientists from all over the world. I am very eager to start a PhD by the end of next year and continue to research sharks and to publicly advocate conservation – not only shark conservation but conservation in general. We cannot live without our planet, but as you all know, our planet can very well live without us (and is far better off, too).
At the moment my life is all about getting in some money to pay rent and food, edit my documentary on sharks and my field research in Fiji (I have a lot of footage that I brought home from the Pacific Island) and to collect ideas for a PhD Proposal. Besides that, I am trying to come up with a new commercial website that I hopefully launch by the end of this year. This all consumes a lot of time and the problem is that I am simply not getting paid for any of this – for all the love in the world that I have for what I do, somehow I need to get that basic money in to cover my expenses. But as usual: I am sure, I will find a way!
I have just come back today from a beautiful long weekend in the Harz, a very photogenic mountainous area in Germany’s north. This site of the world, fall is just starting and turns forests into colorful arrays of red, green and yellow making it a very interesting time to hike the mountains and forest trails here in the Harz! Stay tuned for a little report on our travels and the photographic highlights of the trip! Until then: keep spreading the message and hakuna matata!
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Tom Vierus is an award-winning photographer, filmmaker, and marine biologist based in Suva, Fiji Islands. This blog is dedicated to his assignments and to sharing some behind-the-scenes footage.