Episode Transcript

Sharing the Beauty of Sharks with Mareike Dornhege

EPISODE 27

[INTRODUCTION]

[00:00:08] BS: Hi there, you’re listening to Love Your Enthusiasm, a show where creators, teachers, and explorers talk about what makes them tick and how they may space to pursue their greatest passion. I’m your host, Britt Skrabanek, and today, I have the pleasure of introducing you to Dr. Mareike Dornhege, who is a sharkiologist and one of the only women TV host to host Shark Week 2020.

In this episode, Mareike discusses her passion for sharks, which started at a very young age when she drew sharks instead of flowers and kittens. Mareike talks about why she’s on a mission to share the beauty of sharks with the world and she also gets into some shark myth busting, which was both fun and eye opening. And for those of you who might be like me, you don’t know a whole lot about sharks, and what you do know, it turns out a lot of misconceptions.

Quick disclaimer, before we get into things, we did have some audio challenges on this one, as Mareike was recording in a shared workspace. We did our best with optimizing the audio, but you may notice some background noises and some audio changes, but it is an awesome conversation. Totally worth your time. Please enjoy this beautiful journey under the sea with Mareike.

[EPISODE]

[00:01:38] BS: Mareike, welcome to the show.

[00:01:40] MD: Thank you for having me.

[00:01:42] BS: We are going to talk about sharks today.

[00:01:46] MD: I’m super excited. My favorite topic.

[00:01:49] BS: I’m so excited to talk to you about sharks because I know nothing about them. I imagine the listeners, what they do know, sharks, you are going to be busting myths left and right today about sharks because this is your world.

[00:02:04] MD: Yes, exactly. So, for me, it already became so normal that most people in my world, the thing with sharks are like beautiful, like puppies in the ocean. And then sometimes it needs to be brought back into the normal world where there’s still people who are actually afraid of sharks.

[00:02:20] BS: I would say the majority of people are terrified of sharks. I don’t know how I feel about them, to tell you the truth. And I’ve never seen one in person besides at an aquarium or something. But I grew up in Southern California and I respect the sea. The Pacific Ocean has almost killed me so many times just from splashing around in the water. But I have never seen a shark although I had a lot of surfing friends growing up who certainly had some close calls in some various places.

[00:02:58] MD: Yeah, actually, I went surfing myself in California and yeah, I luckily or sadly, however you want to see it. I’ve never met a shark in California and as you just said, you have huge respect for the ocean, because I think if something is going to kill you out there, it’s the ocean itself.

[00:03:13] BS: Absolutely. That is much more likely. Well, Mareike, this is interesting. So, you were one of the only female hosts of Shark Week 2020. So, talk about that a little bit. Why were you one of the only females? Is this something newer that’s happening?

[00:03:31] MD: So, there was an article that came out, written by men actually, who took it all apart. And he was like, this is how many scientists we have. This is how many actors, hosts, participants, we overall have and this is how many females we have. And the interesting thing is, if we look at shark scientists, overall, there’s actually a skew towards more female shark scientists than male now, especially if we look at the younger generation, but they’re just not represented on TV. And why is that? I don’t know.

So, in my case, the producers of my show contacted me and they were like, “We want you to be the host.” So, maybe I was just lucky. Maybe it’s because the place I was in, they wanted the scientists from Japan or sharp experts from Japan, and there isn’t many here and there isn’t many females. They didn’t seem to have any bias. But the overall is less than 20% of the scientists represented on Shark Week are females. And the overall is more than 50% of the shark scientists out there, actually females, so it’s definitely not an accurate representation.

[00:04:41] BS: Had you ever hosted a TV show before?

[00:04:43] MD: No, I haven’t. I’ve been on TV before more like cameo appearances or like I said a few lines. Actually, when I first came to Japan, I was also part time working as an actress, which we can talk about later if you want to. And I’ve been interviewed but I’ve never had a lead role. So, for me, that was super exciting, and I was absolutely down to do it. But it was also slightly nerve wracking because it was like, “Oh, wow. I went to straightaway being the host.”

[00:05:08] BS: Yeah, no pressure, right?

[00:05:13] MD: Yeah, exactly.

[00:05:13] BS: You’re like, “Sure, absolutely. I got this. I’ll figure it out on TV.” Did you do anything special to prepare for that? I know you mentioned that you have a life coach and was that a part of your sessions as you’re getting closer to that engagement?

[00:05:30] MD: A little bit. I mean, because, of course, I was nervous, but I have to say, the work with TV, everyone is just so amazingly professional. So, I had the US side production team in the US who were sending us scripts, they were sending us agendas, and everything. So, we knew exactly what was going to happen in each day. And also, as they were sending me scripts, not like don’t think of it as a work or work script, you wanted to say this, but like, please talk about this, please talk about that. So, you already know beforehand, what you can prepare for.

The Japan production team is, as you know, yourself, TV has editing. So, you just do takes again and again and again, until everything is right. And if you work with a very professional production team, they’re going to make you look good. They’re going to make you sound good. They’re going to be right there on set and they’re going to give you so much advice, where they’re like, “Hey, look over my shoulder, instead of this direction.” They’re going to readjust your microphone if it doesn’t sound right or sit right. So, I think in professional production setting, they just give you so much confidence that if something is not right, they’re going to tell you, like they’re just going to make it work. So, I think that really put me at ease, just the people I was working with.

[00:06:43] BS: I’ve only been on camera a couple of times. I’ve been behind the camera as somebody who interviewed the person who was in front of the camera, which is easier, but you also have to sometimes coax people to get on camera if they’re not used to doing it, because it’s really, really difficult. But I remember the one time that I was doing some marketing videos for this marketing agency I was working at and we had started getting the videos and, oh man, like I had a script and it was the weirdest thing. I could get it at first, and then the more takes we did, I would just start to unravel. So, it almost seemed like as I thought about it more, about what was really going on, I just got worse and worse and worse. So, it was like, “We got to get this take at the beginning, or it’s not going to happen.”

[00:07:29] MD: I think for me, what was also interesting, the producer on the Japan side of my show, she was also female. And she was just amazing at putting people at ease. And then also have to say the fixer on the set, who was her partner, her life partner, he was this really kind person as well. So, I don’t know. I think they they had it figured out that people need to be comfortable and emotionally at ease if they want to produce a good show, and they focus on documentaries. And then for me, it was actually I think the more tapes we did, the better it got and I can see the end result of the show. A lot of my interview scenes, a lot of the cases that made it onto the show that are like on Shark Week, on Discovery Channel, is actually from our last day together, because I think she calls it the “fuck it” attitude, like we were doing this from like 5 am until 6 pm or sometimes 8 pm every day for four days in a row. And eventually, you’re just got to be so tired of doing takes over and over again, you get this like “fuck it” attitude, as she calls it, where is nothing right, you’re just like, “Oh, whatever. I’m just going to do this.” And those are like were my best, my most actual takes. And this was when I was really enjoying myself.

[00:08:38] BS: Did you say the “fuck it” attitude?

[00:08:41] MD: Yeah.

[00:08:43] BS: That’s great.

[00:08:45] MD: She’s like, “You need to be like, whatever, fuck it” attitude, where you’re like, “Okay, whatever happens, we’re just going to do this take.” And then for me, they were honestly my most natural takes. And I just felt like I had a lot of trust in my production team that if they told me, “You look good”, or “You sound good”, or “This was great”, that they’re not flattering me. This is actually what it was like.

[00:09:08] BS: That’s great. And also having a “fuck it” attitude is my motto. So, that works well.

[00:09:12] MD: Actually, I have to say, it just occurs, my coach, she’s my career coach, she likes to call us, and she also said to me before, like, “Oh, you need like a fuck it attitude.” She often taught me, “You need to give less fucks and I want you like less fucks given, I want you to become unfuckable with.” So, all of this makes sense where your attitude shouldn’t be careless. But yeah, a little less. What would you say? Like be a little less nervous about the outcome or just like have more confidence that your outcomes can be good? Or if it’s not perfect, then, even if it’s not perfect, it’s still going to be fine. You’re doing fine. The result is going to be good.

[00:09:53] BS: Why are you on a mission to share the beauty of sharks with the world?

[00:09:58] MD: Well, Britt, that’s a really, really good question because I can’t even tell you when I started loving sharks. I don’t live at home anymore. I didn’t live in Germany anymore. But I remember one time when I came home, my mom was like, “Hey, I want to show you something.” She was like, “You painted this when you were eight years old.” And it’s just like really scientifically accurate painting of a blue shark. And I was like, “Oh yeah, the blue shark.” And she was like, “Mareike, other children are into like flowers or houses”, or they might be like, “Look, this is a whale. And you took a coffee table book on sharks. And you made a really, really scientific accurate, like a scientifically accurate painting.” And this is like when I was eight.

So, I can’t tell you when I started loving sharks. It started really, really early. I grew up close to the ocean. I grew up sailing a lot and I just found them amazingly beautiful. Always. And for me, also, I think I’ve always had like a love or the underdog. And now sharks get a lot of attention and I can see increasingly crazy poses of attention but it wasn’t always this way. And I think for me, it was just something I personally found beautiful. We’re also, like, “Oh, wow, sharks have an image problem. So, maybe that’s how it started for me.

[00:11:14] BS: That is so interesting. I definitely was one of those little girls that drew hearts and flowers and the occasional house with a little chimney, going out. I always lived in a condo or apartment. I never had a house with the fireplace and the chimney. So, you’re saying scientifically accurate shark. So, these weren’t like stick figure looking sharks then?

[00:11:42] MD: No. I was putting everything into it. And I was like, “How sharks are counter shaded because it helps them hunting.” How their underbelly is wide. And then the top side of sharks usually color like blue or gray. So, yeah, I was seeing those and then there was like the right amount of fins and they were like in the right place. That was my childhood drawing.

[00:12:00] BS: That is so funny. And I bet that threw off a lot of your teachers as well, because I just think about any sort of ocean scenes that I drew, I would always have a school of fish, but it sounds like your ocean drawing would be very different. There probably wouldn’t be any little fish in there because the shark would be there instead.

[00:12:19] MD: Yeah. Exactly. So, yeah, I think maybe it served my teachers. I mean, I had like a shark, I also a few whales. I think one time a teacher asked me, she said, “Can you draw something nicer?” And she was almost like a little bit accusing where she was like, “Hey, you know, all your friends draw these like pretty things. What’s wrong with you? Why do you have to draw the monster?”

[00:12:40] BS: Maybe she just really didn’t like sharks, and she was terrified of them.

[00:12:44] MD: Probably.

[00:12:44] BS: And they were so realistic when you drew them, so she just didn’t know what to do.

I’d love to learn a little bit about your productivity environment, if you don’t mind sharing, because I’ve seen some of your photos on Instagram, and you’re on the beach, or you’re on a boat and it just seems like your job is just very hands on. But you still have these things that you need to do where you’re on the computer and you have to be productive. So, do you have any sort of absurd demands for creating a productive environment, especially with as much as your productive environment looks like it changes?

[00:13:23] MD: No, I don’t have absurd demands at all. Let me do like a little image correction. I think all the shark scientists or marine ecologist, marine biologists out there, like our Instagram, or whatever our private profiles. What you see of us is always going to be something where you see like, “Hey, this is us doing field research”, or “This is us traveling to a location. This is us in the ocean, on the ocean.” But most of our time is not spent like that.

So, for example, when I was doing my PhD, yes, I spent a couple of months a year in the field. And that’s when I feel like really happy and I feel most alive. But we spend, I would say probably 80% of our time, scientists, they produce scientific studies, and the scientific study is produced in front of a computer. So, you need to sit down, and you need to analyze the data and you need to write that paper that you’re going to publish in some journal, or you need to write your PhD thesis, or whatever it is you’re writing on. And then later, if maybe you work as a professor, or you could be a consultant, again, you will be spending a lot of time, maybe some of your time on the computer. So, yes, the pictures of us on a computer and not on Instagram, because that’s not very exciting.

[00:14:32] BS: I can relate as a writer and a content marketer. I mean, you can only do so many of those before people are like, “Okay, what’s next?”

[00:14:41] MD: Yeah, they’re like, “Okay, we got it. You also have a desk job.” So yeah, a desk job, probably for most of us is 80% of our time. Some of these shark research, let’s say they’re like fisheries people. They might even spend almost 100% of the time in front of the computer and be just analyzing fisheries data. So, yeah, the love is there and I’m very sure they’re going to be taking their holiday trips like scuba diving somewhere, but a lot of us, we are in front of a computer.

So, for me, I don’t particularly like to be in front of a computer. And what I learned for myself, I can only write so many hours a day. I think I usually max out at around like four or five hours a day where I’m like in front of the computer and just doing writing or this kind of like, just by myself production work. And I have to start early. So, if I leave this until late afternoon, that’s not my productive timeframe anymore. So, the early I start, the better. And then I use the Pomodoro Technique. So, I’m sure you’re familiar with it.

[00:15:39] BS: Yes. But you can go ahead and talk about your way that you use it because some of the listeners may not be familiar, or it’s always interesting to hear.

[00:15:47] MD: Yeah, so for me, I use the Pomodoro. So, you do like a 25-minute concentration block and then you take a 5-minute break and you do another 25 minutes. I do blocks of three. So, I do like three Pomodoros of 25 minutes. So, I have like a 90-minute block. And then after my 90-minute block, I take a bigger break, and then to do another 90-minute block. And then I got to lunch. And then after lunch, I do another 90-minute block. And then I’m kind of maxed out on my very strong difficult tasks for the day. And then the rest of the day, I usually like to spend with an easier task, maybe I’m researching something, or I’m doing emails, or I have a meeting where I’m just talking to someone. So, that’s how I like to do the rest of my day.

And really, I’m trying to get the heavy writing done in the morning. And I heard us for a lot of scientists, we were thinking like, “Oh, people with a PhD is so smart”, but it doesn’t come easy to us. I think every single person I know who’s written a PhD thesis, they said it was extremely difficult for them and maybe they got it done by writing the PhD thesis, like two hours first thing in the morning before they get the rest of the day. So, yeah, even for us, it’s extremely, extremely difficult.

[00:16:55] BS: Mareike, let’s talk a little bit about go back to your childhood again. Okay, so you’re drawing sharks. You’re drawing strangely accurate sharks as a young girl. Did you have any other childish curiosities that led you down this path?

[00:17:15] MD: Oh, I think it definitely did. So, I always loved animals. I grew up in the countryside. So, it’s like very easy for me to be around animals to be around nature. I had a lot of pets. I had the cat that my grandpa found for me on the roof. And then we had a dog and I had a guinea pig, and I have fish, no sharks, fish, and frogs. I had all these animals. And then I grew up sailing a lot. So, I’m from Northern Germany, plus the ocean, a group on the lake. Water was always there for me, or like water was always part of my life. And I was from a sailing family. So, that’s how I grew up. But then already when I was 14 years old, I was like, “Dad, I want to learn scuba diving.” At that time was kind of like the minimum age you have to be to scuba dive. And my dad was like, “Okay, you want to scuba dive, then you’re going to learn scuba diving.” So, I started really, really early. And by now, when I tell of course, like I go diving a lot. It’s a hobby on holidays. And then when I tell people like, “Yeah, I’ve been diving for more than 20 years.” They’re like, “What?” I think I had, besides loving shots, there was always a lot of ocean love and marine sports, like water activities and wildlife and animals.

[00:18:30] BS: I’ve always loved the ocean. But I’ve never gone scuba diving, because that is something that scares me. And you told me that you don’t mind being deep in the ocean, but you’re afraid of heights, which is interesting.

[00:18:47] MD: Oh my god, I’m so afraid of heights. So, I always jokingly say I’m afraid of heights because I was born below sea level. You might know that a lot of parts of the Netherlands and also parts of northern Germany actually below sea level. It’s completely flat where I’m from. I mean, if you want to go hiking, it’s just like flat. Like we ride more bicycles. So, I think I’m just not used to heights like mountains. And yeah, I’m already afraid when I need to step on a ladder to decorate a Christmas tree, that’s just as high as I’m going to go.

[00:19:15] BS: Oh, man. So, it’s like a for real fear of heights.

[00:19:21] MD: I did a little challenge like a few weeks ago, we went hiking here in Okinawa, which are the southern islands of Japan. And we did this, what would you call it, this hike through a river and then eventually there was – you could either do a jump or you could climb. IT was like a little cascade. The jump was about seven meters or something. So, for me, it’s super high and then my friends persuaded me to do the jump. And that was like, for me, this is like the kind of meteor fear challenge very, very much. But yeah, I’m not afraid of deep at all. So, I know people get claustrophobic underwater.

[00:19:52] BS: That’s my problem. And I love swimming and I could swim underwater and all that’s fine, but the idea idea of going really, really far down into the ocean and being reliant on this equipment to be able to survive. It’s just a no go for me.

[00:20:12] MD: So, for me, I’m also a dive master. So, dive masters are people who assist with teaching scuba diving courses or they guide people on their scuba diving tours. If you were you on a holiday and you are scuba diving in a boat, you will have like a dive master who like guides, your scuba diving trip. So, that’s like another thing I do. And I actually love helping people overcome their fear of the ocean. Because during my work as a dive master, I’ve seen people who started crying while they’re still in pool training. You give them the regulator, the thing you breathe from when you are scuba diving, and we just say like, “Hey, put your head under water and breathe from your regulator.” And I’ve seen it made people cry.

So, I understand people have like really, really strong fears and people, they’re just really uncomfortable underwater and they’re like fidgety with their mask. And I don’t know, like I love helping them overcome it because our equipment is so safe, our procedures are so safe, and loves the time when we scuba dive and we scuba dive in really, really shallow water. So, there honestly isn’t much that could happen to you. But I’ve seen people where I’m just like, “I’m adjusting your mask a little bit.” I talked them down a little bit and like, “Okay, now you want to hold hands on the water?” Okay, we’re going to do this dive and you’re going to be holding my hand if it makes you feel better.” And then I see them on the next dive and then they’re doing so much better and they’re like swimming further away from me, maybe it’s like the mother like watching the child and like, “Oh, look, she’s adventuring out.” And I just love seeing that, when it can make people fall in love with the ocean or make them feel more confident in the ocean or more comfortable in the ocean.

[00:21:46] BS: I started snorkeling for my first time a couple years ago. And I don’t know how I went my whole life. Although, actually I can tell you, the reason why I was able to go my whole life without snorkeling in Southern California is because it’s not a good place to snorkel. The water is not very clear down there and then it’s pretty choppy. But my husband and I, we went to Hawaii and we were kind of just like, “What the hell, let’s go snorkeling.” And I mean, it tripped me out, when I actually looked underwater for my first time, and especially Hawaii, that’s one of the most beautiful places to go snorkeling, there was just this whole other world in the ocean that I had never experienced. And that kind of made me panicky where I had to come up out of the water and be like, “Wow, what am I really looking at here?” Because looking at it in person is so different from looking at it in a movie or in photographs.

[00:22:42] MD: So, that’s why I love it so much. When I had the chance to try to do free diving, snorkeling, scuba diving almost every day, and that’s what I feel like when I got in, when I submerge myself, I’m in a different world. And that’s why I love it so much. That’s also why I said I don’t understand why us humans, we spend so much more money on space exploration than on ocean exploration and we’re dependent on the ocean for our survival. And it’s right here, right in front of us, like why are we not paying more attention to it?

[00:23:13] BS: That’s a really good point. And I did not know that. That doesn’t seem to make sense at all.

[00:23:20] MD: Yeah, exactly.

[00:23:23] BS: I was wondering with all of the times that you have scuba dive, especially because you’ve done that since you were 15. If you could talk about one of your most magical moments under the sea.

[00:23:36] MD: Does this going to involve shark?

[00:23:38] BS: I assumed it would.

[00:23:43] MD: I think one of my most magical moments is one time when I was scuba diving in Thailand, we had surprised whale sharks. So, of course, like I think everyone has seen like beautiful shots of whale sharks on Instagram. And oftentimes, like people go to specific locations where they know like, whale sharks are migrating here and now’s the season to see them. And then you go on this dive and you’re going with – let’s see a whale shark. And of course, it’s amazing. But one time we were scuba diving, and close to Ko Tao, in Thailand, and there were very, very beautiful reefs, it was like a wall and a deep drop off. And there were all the tropical fish and the coral, and we were just cruising, enjoying the beauty of the ocean. And then this huge thing appeared. Visibility, it’s not very good in the ocean and you can see maybe sometimes 10 meters or 20 or 30. And then you can kind of make out shadows beyond that. I just knew something really, really big was coming and it was two whale sharks. And for me that was just magical because they were just there, it wasn’t planned and they were just like gliding below us. And that was so beautiful. So, I definitely like the surprise effect.

[00:24:59] BS: Quite the surprise. My hands are a little sweaty. As you were telling that story, I did get a little nervous. I think it was the whole combination of claustrophobia, and just picturing this presence that you can’t see. And then it’s like, “Oh, it’s a couple of whale sharks. Okay, here we are.”

[00:25:19] MD: Okay, I’m going to tell you something else. I love sharks and I’m a shark researcher. But I’m also aware, like incidents sometimes happen with sharks, and they don’t want to eat us because they’re not interested in us. We’re just not on their menu, but things can happen. And then if I would be in the ocean alone, and I would meet a very, very large shark, I would also be – definitely my blood pressure would go up. And I would also be like, a little bit worried or would make sure like, “Okay, how can I manage this situation?”

And one time, I was snorkeling in Hawaii, and Hawaii has a very large population of Tiger Sharks, as you might know. And we know from the data, we can see when we collect the data, like, “Oh, well, these sharks are around humans all the time.” So, we tag sharks and then we have like radio transmitters. So, when you go to the radio transmitter station you collected, you see where the sharks are, and you can like overlap it with the shark data points with the human data points. We’re like, “Oh, wow, they’re swimming right on the super popular beach at Russia and no one noticed this.”

So, we know they’re together a lot. But still, if you see very large shark in the ocean, it might be a little nerve wracking, and there’s one time I went snorkeling when nobody else was snorkeling, so there was just me and my friend. I was very far off, because that’s how I like to go, because probably where you see more interesting things. And then same thing. I kind of lost my friend, it was just like me in the ocean. I’m looking around, and I see this big, gray lumbering thing. Even for me, I was like, “What the hell is that?” So, it was very, very big. It was probably four times bigger than me and as it comes closer, it’s a monk seal.

So, you’ve been to Hawaii, you know what monk seals are, they’re the only species of tropical seal. They’re very large, like a few months, around 200 kilos. And they’re also the most endangered species of seal in the world. And then I went from like, “Oh, my God, what is this” to like, “Oh, my God, it’s a monk seal like. I’m swimming was one of the most endangered animals, one of the rarest animals in the world.” And then one of them appeared, there was a pregnant female and then two more appeared from the side. And then I realized, “Oh, they’re hunting.” So, they were hunting together and there was like a school of sardines. So, there was me in the school of sardines, and then there was the monk seals, hunting. It was like, “This is National Geographic live moment.” But even for me, as a shark researcher, if I would have been in the ocean, and it would have been like a huge Tiger Shark, and just me, I would be very careful how to manage this situation, for sure.

Even for me, as a shark researcher and I love sharks, if I’m in the ocean by myself, and I meet like a very, very, very big shark, there’s going to be a lot of respect. And I would be very careful how to handle the situation. I think for me, it’s not like, “Oh, my God, this big shark is going to eat me or attack me because I know, it’s not what they’re doing.” But sharks, they’re extremely curious creatures. So, a lot of times when I’ve been scuba diving or meeting sharks, they will swim up to you, and they were like, check out who you are. And for me, it’s like, amazing. I’m like, “Oh my God, this shark is coming over to give me a hug.” If it’s a small shark, like smaller than me, or two meters or something. I had, for example, gray reef sharks swim up to me and do that, or I had zebra sharks swim up to me do that. And I’m like, “These checks are completely harmless. They would never ever do anything to me.”

But if a very, very large shark would do that to me, maybe like a four-meter Tiger Shark, I would also be more careful. So, I think for me, then it’s not like fear, like, “Oh, god, this monster wants to attack me.” It’s more like, “Okay, let’s not create a situation where there’s a misunderstanding between me in the shark.” So, like, “Let’s not look like a wounded animal” Maybe I’m in the shark’s territory, so some sharks can also be territorial, for example, Tiger Sharks. And then if you would have a pregnant Tiger Shark, and you were in its territory, maybe it just wants to push you out.

So, I think, for me, it would be like, I’m reading the shark’s body language. Okay, does it want me to back off. Okay, I’m going to back fin. I’m going to keep my eyes on a shark because you can’t take your eyes off them. They really like that because they’re like, “Okay, and you’re not even looking at me, now, I can dominate you.” So, it’s all these like little behaviors, but definitely for us, maybe not so much fear, but a lot of like alertness and respect, if we meet sharks in the ocean.

[00:29:37] BS: Very cool. Do you mind talking a little bit about some common shark myths? Because I think that would be really interesting to hear your perspective. I’m sure a lot of us that don’t know anything about sharks. We have a lot of misconceptions about them. Even earlier, you said something kind of funny where you’re like, we’re not on their menu. I thought that was great. So, if you don’t mind talking a little bit about some of the common myths and how you might bust those myths.

[00:30:12] MD: Yeah, I mean, let’s start with the most common one is like sharks are monsters. No, they’re not. They’re just existing in the ocean, swimming in the ocean, and sometimes they eat. And we have over 500 species of sharks and most of them, they’re so small. These sharks, they’re like maximum size is 50 centimeters, and most of them are kind of like one to two-meter range, they’re smaller than us and they would never attack us. The number of sharks that could actually be dangerous to humans is less than 10. So, they’re definitely not monsters.

And then, I think maybe next myth is sharks are aggressive. So, they’re also not aggressive at all. Anyone who’s ever been snorkeling or scuba diving, knows that sharks are not aggressive at all. They swim very gracefully and very calmly. And yes, they sometimes come over to investigate if they find you interesting. But actually, if you are scuba diving, sharks don’t like bubbles. They kind of seem to be afraid of bubbles. They usually just stay away. So, definitely no aggressive behavior or even if we look at cases where there were incidents with sharks, it’s often that the shark made multiple approaches before it decided to attack a person. Or often also, what might be labeled as aggressive behavior could have just been curiosity or it could have been even defensiveness. As I said before, like we could have pregnant sharks who are trying to defend the territory. And humans are very large and if they don’t know what you are, and you’re not backing out of the territory, they might be like, “Oh, I have to defend myself and my future young.” So, they’re definitely not aggressive.

Then another myth is sharks eat humans. There’s actually not a single recorded incident where a shark has eaten a human. It’s never happened. So, sharks sometimes bite humans by mistake, but they don’t eat us. So, of course, sadly, for us, if they bite us, it’s probably already too late. The damage has been done. So, yes, we get bitten by a large Tiger Shark or by a large Great White. That’s pretty bad for us, but they don’t do it to eat us. So, they might mistake us for something because the water was murky. They couldn’t see clearly or it might have been behavior they wanted to out of the territory. But it did bite and they let go. They don’t devour humans, it’s just absolutely not happening.

[00:32:37] BS: And so, if somebody dies in that situation, is it from blood loss, or maybe drowning? Because they are going to shock and just drown?

[00:32:48] MD: Exactly, exactly. So, I think we usually have like one or two, I mean, there’s the shark attack file, and you can look up all the statistics. And the shark attack file is managed by a shark researcher who’s based in the US. So, you can look up everything. But yeah, usually we have one or two people die due to shark incidents a year. And then we have maybe 10 or so more who have recorded attacks, but they didn’t die. So, they sustained injuries. And then if we compare that to so many other things that can happen to us, like that’s a very, very low chance, especially if we look at the billions of people who go into the ocean every year to serve and scuba dive and snorkel or just swim, so really, really rarely ever happens. You’ve probably heard this before, you have a much larger chance to be struck by lightning. If a much bigger chance to be bitten by another human in New York City, than be bitten by a shark in the ocean. You have a much better chance to have a vending machine following you and kill you than a shark kill you.

[00:33:49] BS: And because of these misconceptions that people have about sharks, does it cause people to act angrily against sharks unnecessarily? You mentioned something about sharks being poached. And you know, some of the species being endangered.

[00:34:06] MD: I think yes, and no. I think we are seeing a lot less of the angry or like retaliating behavior against sharks, than we have say, even 10 years ago. So, I think now or maybe I’m also a little bit biased. As you can imagine, like my news feed or my other social media is full of like, pro shark or like shark loving content. And there’s a lot of social media videos where people peacefully swim with sharks or even from your home in Southern California where like a fisherman pulls out a baby Great White, and he’s like, “Oh, damn, like I have a 1.5 meter and a small Great White on the end of my hook”, and then they’re just like carried back into the ocean.

So, I see a lot more of this content where it seems like the word is getting out there like beautiful animals and not monsters, but it’s definitely still happening in some part of the world where, for example, we have shark culls. There’s a couple of countries that have so they kill sharks and purpose, that’s definitely still happening. Retaliation behavior. Sometimes we do see also like the negative stories on a news where people seem to be killing just like wanton killing or sharks because they hate them. But what’s actually a lot. The most dangerous thing to sharks is actually being caught as bycatch in fisheries.

So, as I said before, we have over 500 species. They exist in all oceans. They exist in all ecosystems from tropical to Arctic, and they’re in the open ocean, they’re on coral reefs absolutely everywhere, and then wherever fisheries take place, they can be caught as bycatch. And that’s actually a lot more dangerous to them than being called on purpose for for shark finning, which is also a shrinking market, luckily. So, if we want to save sharks, best thing we can do is eat less fish, or push fisheries to employ fishing methods that are more gentle on the ocean, of course, less bycatch, and that are less wasteful overall.

[00:36:01] BS: I appreciate you sharing all of this because I grew up with the movie Jaws. And to take that a step further, it was going to Universal Studios where they actually have that part of the ride. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that.

[00:36:18] MD: Oh, I’ve been on that ride.

[00:36:19] BS: Have you? Yeah, when you’re on that tour, and then they kind of angle the vehicle toward the shark that comes out of the water, just crazy. That’s where it begins.

[00:36:34] MD: It is funny. I’ve been on that. Actually, I went with my friend from Florida. Florida, as you know, is also a big shark state. There’s a lot of sharks in Florida and a lot of interaction between humans and sharks in Florida. And then it was really funny because we’re on the right and then wherever we are part of the right, like somehow the shark always seem to be popping up right next to me. And then she was like, “God, even the sharks are the Universal Studios love you.” I just thought it was funny.

[00:37:00] BS: That is funny. Have you even seen the movie Jaws? Or did you have to stay away from that?

[00:37:05] MD: No, I love all the Jaws movie. So, even before I ever decided, “Hey, I’m going to do a PhD in sharks.” I watched all the Jaws movies. I love them. I’ve watched a lot of cheesy shark horror movies. And for me, they’re fun. And of course, I also hope that like people can kind of separate fiction and reality. And actually really, really interesting, the guy who’s written the original book, thatthe Jaws movie is based on. He’s a scuba diver. And then, years later, or decades later, he actually realized unknowingly how much damage he’s done to sharks and to the image of sharks with the book and the movie. It was not his intention. And then he wrote another book detailing his adventures with sharks. So, his interactions with sharks as a scuba diver and as a seafarer, and how much he loves sharks and how they’re actually not dangerous at all. So, he felt like a lot of remorse after for what has happened, because of the Jaws movie.

[00:38:06] BS: Can you talk a little bit about an expert in your space that had a profound influence on you?

[00:38:14] MD: So, when I was a child, I always said, “When I grow up, I want to be David Attenborough.” So, he definitely had a huge influence on me, because I just admired all his movies and documentaries, and the beautiful places he went. But then more than that, I also just – what I really loved about him is how he talks about our natural world with so much kindness, and gentleness. And he just came out with, I mean, absolutely amazing views. He’s already over 90 years old, and he’s still around and he’s still making documentaries. So, he just released a new documentary on Netflix, which means basically, almost everyone can like just watch it for free, where he talks about him watching the progression of the influence humans had on the natural world over the last 60 years, kind of when he first went to Borneo, when he first went to see coral reefs and the 1950s to or 1960s and to what they look now.

I found him very inspiring how – first of all, he’s a scientist from Cambridge, and then I’m a scientist from Oxford, so close enough, and then how he’s not only a scientist, but he also shared this was like very, very general audiences. He was sharing the beauty of nature and his love for nature. I thought that was very, very amazing. Just like the way he does that, that he also went from, “Oh, it’s just beautiful” to like later on, the older he got, like always infusing it with a method. And again, he is beautiful, but if you want to retain the species, you have to do something for it or we have to preserve this.

[00:39:50] BS: I want to go back to talking about fear a little bit more. I tend to always ask guests on the show about fear, rejection, and I wanted to talk to you a little bit more about fear because of what you do. And you mentioned some interesting things earlier about body language and eye contact and misunderstandings with a shark. So, I thought all of that was just so interesting because it just relates to human behaviors and human interactions in so many ways.

[00:40:22] MD: I’ve never even thought of that. Yeah, absolutely. Humans also have a lot of misunderstandings, because we interpret signals the wrong way, like we could see someone and think they’re aggressive, or they don’t like us, just because of certain signals they’ve given us that we didn’t interpret right. I’ve never even connected the two.

[00:40:44] BS: I kind of hadn’t, either, until you were telling a story. And it’s so interesting, because misunderstandings and the way fear can come from that. And I think now, especially as more things have become digital with communication, where it’s even harder to get those cues from other people, because even if you’re doing video conferences with other people, it’s still difficult to get those same cues and really understand what they’re thinking and what they mean even. So, anyways, but you talked a little bit about fear, is anything else you wanted to add about ways that you’ve learned to manage fear when you’re in those situations, like you were talking about where it’s you and a presence that suddenly is around you in the water and how you’ve learned to overcome some of those moments?

[00:41:40] MD: To be honest, I think I’ve managed my fear of sharks, if there ever was such a thing. Okay, I learned how to read their behavior. I learned to correct responses to certain situations and that made me confident. I think my fear of sharks is much more well managed than my fear of a lot of other things in life. And I think one thing I can tell you, being in the ocean has given me so much self-confidence, not only self-confidence, in like, “Oh, I’m a good diver. I’m a good swimmer.” In all areas of my life. When I grew up, I was actually really shy. And I wasn’t very confident at all. And I grew up in a family that we always treated each other very gently. But also, on the other hand, like a lot of like conflict avoidance where I never really learned how to stand up for myself, or what to do in difficult situations. And that’s something, that was for some reason, for me is like, much more difficult than, for example, swimming with sharks.

But as I kind of progressed through me becoming researcher and getting PhD, and most importantly, actually becoming a dive master, I learned that I can do things I didn’t think I could do. So, I’m like physically not a very strong person and when you’re a dive master, you have to be actually physically very strong because scuba tanks are heavy and now you have to help other people, and now you’re responsible for other people, you have to swim in strong currents, you might be in slightly physically challenging situations. And I was like, “Oh, amazing. I can do all these things that no one ever told me. I can do. But I can just do them.”

And then yeah, also, yes, I learned how to be around sharks safely and then somehow, magically, all these things that made me more confident when I go into meetings. And I had, for example, super tough meetings with Japanese government officials. I had to like talk back against them or some I had to like manage to get permission to get my research results published. I don’t know daily situations where I’m like, “This person isn’t talking so nice to me, I think I need to stand up to them.”

So, I think often we learn, it’s very much like, read a book, stand up for yourself, positive affirmations, like everything’s very much in your head, and or the techniques that people apply to, “Oh, I want to become more confident”, it’s very much in your head. And for me, that didn’t work at all. I needed to be in my body to be more confident and that’s what actually made a shift in my life.

[00:44:12] BS: Basically, what we’ve learned is that people are scarier than sharks.

[00:44:18] MD: Yes.

[00:44:19] BS: I could see that. I could see where you’re coming from.

[00:44:19] MD: Sharks, they’re animals. They have like a one-track mind, so to speak. They’re not going to act out of line. They’re very easy to read. So, if you see a pregnant Tiger Shark, and she’s arching her back, and have been so down, she’s probably unhappy. You’re in her territory, just back off and keep your eyes on her. It’s very simple. But humans are so much more complex, so I find them a lot harder to manage.

[00:44:48] BS: Mareike, if you met someone who was considering becoming an ecologist, but they were unsure about their path, what would you say to them?

[00:44:58] MD: I would say just do it. Because no matter where you’re from, or your gender, or I’ve seen marine researchers who love sharks or seals or dolphins or even tiny fish in the ocean, just do it. Because definitely, if you have the passion for it, it sounds to me like it’s your calling, and you need it. And the first thing, of course, would be to, yeah, you’re probably going to get a degree in the field, you’re going to specialize in marine ecology or marine biology. And I would say like, just fully unashamedly, go for it, because there’s so many specializations. And I think if that’s what you’re here, you want to do trust the process, and go for it. Because that’s something that had been blocking me. I think it has maybe to do with the birth country I’m from.

So, I was born and raised in Germany and Germans are extremely careful. And I think Americans are familiar with the expression German angst, where like, they kind of refer to like Germans over careful. And when I voiced early on, it’s like, “I want to be marine biologist.” My teachers and my career advisors and my parents were kind of like, “Are you insane? You’re never going to have a job. And you’re never going to make any money. Is there something else you like?” And I was, like, deterred, they very much from pulling this pass. And then the first degree I studied was not marine biology. I studied communications, because they were like, “Oh, isn’t this something you also like? You’re very extroverted, and you’re good writer. So, you should just do this.”

But I wasn’t really happy and then always that kind of came back to it, I was working in an advertising agency and what was I doing in this advertising agency? I was on the NGO team, and I was doing the campaigns for WWF, Germany, and then eventually, I kind of slammed my fists on the table, like, “This is bullshit.” I like ended up anyways, where I wanted to be, and I just knew I wanted to be a scientist, and I wanted to be closer to it. And then I changed my undergrad degree to include some like environmental management courses. And then I did a graduate degree in environmental management, and eventually did a PhD and like full on heart sciences.

So, I think if that’s your path, that’s going to happen anyways. Don’t be deterred from it. But one thing is, how the dots often connect once we’re looking backward. So, I pick up these other skills alongside, was what I was doing. For me, it was communication, so I knew a lot about writing, professional writing, and knew a bit about content management, media production, and so on, and those go really well together. Because I think there’s not so much space anymore for maybe a scientist who’s nothing but a scientist, and who’s like a taxonomist, or something like that. Maybe there isn’t so much space. But if you have someone who’s very passionate about sharks, or about any other scientific subject that they also have other skills they can combine it with, then I think you will definitely make your way in the world. Follow your passion. Look for your talents. And yeah, for me, it was always like, yeah, I want to do what I love, but also like, what can I give back to the world or to the system? And for me, I think it was very much that I wanted to communicate to people how much I love sharks and how wonderful I think sharks are.

Also, for example, when I became a dive master, very much love the ocean. And I realized other people don’t love the ocean so much not because they hate it, but because they’re a little bit scared. And I was like, okay, maybe I can communicate to them. It’s not scary, or I can show them how they can be more confident and that’s kind of what worked for me.

[00:48:24] BS: Well, it’s great. everything that you’re doing. I love it. And I have learned so much from you during our conversation. Mareike, do you mind just sharing how the listeners can stay in touch with you and find more info?

[00:48:39] MD: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think the easiest is my Instagram. So, if you want to follow me on Instagram, that’s very welcome. I’m actually trying to be more active on Instagram. Because since Shark Week, I realized people start following me that I don’t know. And then I felt like, maybe there’s another way for me I can give to people instead of just having projects right here in Japan or like being in the ocean right here with people. I’m just going to assume you’re going to put the handle on your podcast.

[00:49:08] BS: I will. I’ll have it in the show notes. So, you don’t need to spell it out. And I will say that I’ve greatly enjoyed following your Instagram, so I’m glad that you’re sharing more of those kinds of behind the scenes pictures of what you do with the world. I think that’s great. Thank you so much, Mareike. I really enjoyed our time together today.

[00:49:26] MD: Yeah, thank you.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:50:05] BS: Hey, thanks for tuning in to Love Your Enthusiasm. Any links and resources mentioned during this episode can be found on loveyourenthusiasm.com. While you’re there, subscribe to get the latest episodes delivered straight to your inbox. And if you want to show your love for the show, I would be very appreciative if you would rate, review, and share on social. Take care and I look forward to hanging out with you next time.

[END]

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