Why Sharks?

A passion for the ocean and an activist-researcher for abandoned animals, Sarah Oxley Heaney works in the second field and has based her anthrozoology PhD project around the first. Sarah believes that more-than-human animals have intrinsic value and do not exist solely for our use; scuba diving with sharks, which is a passion she was fortunate enough to begin over 20 years ago. Additionally, Sarah is passionate about contributing her voice to those who fight for sharks, their aquatic environments and the effect their population decline has upon eco and planetary systems, through scholarly activism. Moreover, although Sarah is careful to not ‘speak for’ more-than-human animals, she does wish to add to literature reflecting more-than-human animal biographies and their lived experiences. Sarah can be contacted on and www.kissingsharks.com

Scuba diving changes your life. If you fall in love with diving, it can capture your imagination and redirect your life substantially. Not only does the sensation of being submerged underwater sublimely alter your sensual worldview, but your perspectives of the nonhuman animals, landscapes even plants that can be encountered on our spinning planet undergo serious metamorphoses.

Since I learnt to dive, in the UK in 1996 I have been fortunate to dive in many locations around the world: UK, Palau, Egypt, Colombia, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Sulawesi, Lembah Strait, Bunaken, Myanmar, Thailand, Egypt, Yap, Tobago, Malpelo and intend to explore many more places. My first encounter with a live shark was with non-captive sharks in the Maldives, where we saw many on most dives. I became mesmerised. ‘They are not interested’, ‘can they smell me?’, ‘will they come too close?’ The answer to the last question is in my dreams! Trying to dive with sharks has become a quest, to see them close in their own environment, but, in this quest have come to question their experiences of life, this is not, or should not, be about me wanting something from life without giving back.

The Maldives was my first international trip following cold-water dive training, sometimes in 6 deg C quarry water and a 99% of the time in poor-viz, cold water, big wind UK diving. Exhilarating and exhausting. We always rewarded ourselves with chips, mushy peas and a pint! UK diving can be incredible and I have been fortunate to have amazing, memorable dives with seals and other marine life, but there is a big difference between cold-water, drysuit, UK diving and encountering the Maldives tropical diving! The scenery above and below water took my breath away. I knew very little about tropical marine life on that first trip and seeing such colour and abundance (pre 1998 coral bleaching events) I was hooked! I realised that seeing sharks on that trip did not evoke the emotion that many people seem to feel about sharks, i.e. somewhere on the apprehensive to terrified scale, in fact to see any was incredibly exciting.

Without too much consideration for the sharks I was to encounter, I dived in a tank in the UK with tiger sharks. For my own entertainment, I am rather ashamed now, but, it helped lead me to this PhD, so perhaps there can be a giving back to those sharks’ free entertainment-for-humananiamals-labour. What I remember most was that the sharks were not at all interested in me. They were big, 8ft long perhaps? They swam over my head, with the distinctive ragged teeth, without looking at me. I had to duck a few times so they didn’t bump into me. It struck me, although this was an amazing experience their disinterest in me and their surroundings seemed unnatural. I am not sure what I expected at the time, perhaps I thought they would come over, ‘investigate’ this new presence but they just passed by. Were they displaying learned helplessness (Seligman 1972)? I don’t know, I don’t know enough about shark behaviour, but, I do know, in the oceans they keep their distance. They do not sneak up and bite people in the stereotypical way the media portrays. At that time I didn’t consider the sharks’ origins, although I do now as I wonder what their experience of life has been, how mentally and physically comfortable or uncomfortable they are. What are their biographies, their journeys to that tank? Their disinterest however, was not only a surprise and but an instant comfort to me as a diver as I immediately felt I would never have a fear of diving with sharks. I am still ambivalent about this experience, my perception of sharks was instantly cemented, possibly to the benefit of shark species in some form of conservation awareness, but at what cost to the shark? My research, in some ways, is payment to those unknown sharks. To offer some sort of recompense in trying to tell the stories of their Selachimorpha families.

Eventually, on our diving expeditions, my husband and I sought out diving with sharks, taking long, gruelling journeys to reach famous global dive sites. Simultaneously, I embarked on a journey of understanding, becoming aware of the dangers faced by sharks globally, as species and as individuals. My undergrad study taught me about oceanography; MA in Environment, Policy and Society introduced me to ethics. My MA in Anthrozoology continued that teaching and gave me tools to learn how to tell the stories of animals, how sharks and human-animals shape our planet and to look at shark-human encounters through an symbiotic-ethical, anthrozoological lens. These passions, diving, sharks, anthrozoology, the human effect on our planet and my believe that animals have intrinsic value, overlap and the intersection creates a space for my PhD research.

So now, in my second year of my part-time anthrozoological PhD with some shark-reading under my belt I begin to reach out and reveal my intended research plan. Watch this website or @kissingsharks on social media for the next stage in my multispecies ethnographic journey!

PGR Profile – Raul De La Fuente

Name: Raul De La Fuente Pinto

Discipline: Renewable energy/electrical Engineering

Location: Falmouth

What is the working title for your research project?

Development of a reliable active network management system

Can you describe your research project in more detail?

I am researching the main technical issues of integrating renewable energies in rural areas, especially in South Africa, where the main power grid is unreliable; thus, the communities are frequently experiencing power cuts and blackouts. The project is in partnership with South African companies and the council of a small village called Doornkop, 100 miles northeast of Johannesburg, and the aim is to develop an actual microgrid. The village will be fed by the main grid when available and by a PV solar plant and batteries otherwise.

The main task of the research is to find a novel solution to tackle the challenges that power electronics devices face, such as voltage sags, inrush currents, the transition between grid-connected and standalone working modes. The solution will protect the electronic components of the device and provide electricity without interruptions.

I research the current solutions available in the literature to inspire myself and develop a holistic solution applied to an industrial inverter to achieve the goal.  I carry out the research using analytic and numerical methods through simulations models in MATLAB/SIMULINK. In subsequent years, I will test the solutions in an experimental prototype to finally go to the village in South Africa to make the actual micro-grid.

… and can you explain it in a single sentence?

Develop a universal inverter controller to seamlessly supply a South African village with electricity, preferably from renewable energy sources under any possible perturbance.

What is a typical day like?

I start my day generally at 7 in the morning, I meditate and go for a  run. After that, every other day, I practice yoga. After the exercise, I take a shower and I have breakfast.

Then I start my computer and start planning the day. I used to attend the SUAW group two times a day because I found it very helpful to make progress in my daily tasks. I have a break for lunch, and sometimes I like having a “siesta”. Then I continue working until I get tired. I usually spend the evening doing gardening or DIY projects, for example, converting an old bike into an e-bike, doing projects with the Raspberry Pi, building a greenhouse,etc.

We make dinner about 1900h and watch Netflix. When I am in bed, I like reading any book to feel sleepy.

What would you say is your proudest moment during your research journey so far?

When I did the mid-year presentation because I had the opportunity to explain the research and plans. I was pleased with the presentation and the feedback was excellent.

What do you like to do when you are not researching?

I like to try new things to do and discover new places to go. Maybe that’s why I do many different things when I am not researching. For example, I do taekwondo twice a week because, like all martial arts, you do physical exercise, but at the same time, you have to keep your mind alert to remember the attack defence patterns.

Depending on whether the activity is different, I like going to the beach or going for a stroll to the woods on sunny days, but I prefer to stay at home playing some board games or watching a film or reading a book with a cup of tea on the rainy days.

If you could start again, what would be your advice to yourself as a new postgraduate researcher?

Well, it is only 11 months since I started, and at the moment, I wouldn’t do anything differently. My advice for a new postgraduate researcher would be to trust 100% in your supervisor and always be honest with them. They are not there to judge you but to give the best guidance for your success. I would recommend at the beginning to try to have as many meetings with them as you can to keep committed to your research.

And finally- can you explain your research project in 5 emojis?

 South Africa – it is the country where the project is going to be implemented

Handshake – It is an international cooperation project between different parties

Battery – is a part of an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) important component within a microgrid

☀️Sun – The photovoltaic panels extract the solar irradiance to generate electricity

Electric plug – At the end of the project, the dwellings of Doornkop will have electric power 24/7 to improve their quality of life.

Working well with your supervisors

Dondu Sarisen is a third year PhD student in Centre for Water System, CEMPS at the University of Exeter. After few years working in a company in Turkey, she decided to pursue her career in academia.

Working on a PhD project is like taking a journey. With your proposal, you know where to go / or where do you want to go, but you don’t actually know how to go. If you come across road closures, then it is your responsibility to change your approach, and sometimes this change might require you to wander entirely new foreign roads. Supervisors are there to make your journey easier by guiding you.

They will question your work, challenge you, and their expectation will increase in time. But I have gradually realised that all of those led me to somewhere that I can see the rest of the road clearly.

There are many times I was anticipating the roads to be straight, but the reality proved to be the opposite, resulting in struggling across sinuous roads. Going through this contributed to my development both as a researcher and as a person. Sometimes I only focus on the progress that I have made and think that going through all these roads without reaching anywhere, without getting any results, is just a waste of time. In fact, they are all necessary to be able to walk faster. In this way, your progress speeds up in the late stage of your PhD.

Modest Recommendations Working with Supervisors

A PhD is your trip, and supervisors are there to help you; bear this in mind all of the time. Supervisors are aware of everything as they have lots of experience. They have done the PhD before, so they can easily empathise with you. They have also worked with or working with other PhD students so they know when to pressure you to work hard or when to give you some time off.

Here are some of my suggestions regarding working with your supervisors:

  • Some of you may find reporting to supervisors regularly stressful, but believe me, it is beneficial. You never know where the discussion goes and how useful it would be
  • Don’t skip any meetings even if you don’t have a lot to discuss. Show them what you have worked on and what are you planning to do
  • Don’t hesitate to discuss the topic. Supportive discussion contributes to your project
  • They may forget what you have discussed in the previous meeting. So remind them
  • Don’t expect them to know everything related to your project. You are the expert in this field
  • Write down everything that they advise you and try to stick with them by considering your own opinion
  • Be concise and to the point writing the email as they don’t have too much time to read
  • Be kind and patient. They are very busy, and your project is not the only thing they focus on

Remember, this is your journey, but you do not want to lose the opportunity of having an opinion of a wise person during your trip.



A fieldwork based PhD during the pandemic

Joanne Morten (@joanne_morten) is a third year PhD student in the biosciences department. Using biologging technologies such as GPS tracking devices, Joanne researches the foraging and migratory behaviours of two water bird species: arctic terns and oystercatchers.

The first lockdown started as I was preparing for my 18 month upgrade. With one successful field season for each of my study species in the bag (oystercatchers during the winter in the Exe Estuary and arctic terns during the summer in Iceland), everything seemed to be going to plan. I was excited for the key second arctic tern season in June. GPS tracking devices had been carried by arctic terns since the previous breeding season and were recording the routes taken during their migration from Iceland to Antarctica, which is the furthest migration recorded of any animal! The aim of the second fieldwork season was to find and retrieve as many devices as possible. These data would be the basis of my PhD, and any data contained on the devices are unobtainable without re-capturing the birds.

Despite there still being many restrictions in place at the beginning of June 2020, my supervisor, Lucy, our Research Assistant, Lee, and I travelled to a deserted Heathrow, boarded a practically empty flight and flew to Iceland where we entered a very strict two-week quarantine. However, with the exception of being unable to go food shopping, there was very little difference from the field season the year before! We lived in a house less than 20 m from the nearest arctic tern nest, and spent the days slowly cruising through the colony in our vehicle, with any venture outside being greeted by dive bombing or pooping arctic terns! (This quarantine was far more enjoyable than the two weeks spent in my flat in the UK upon return!) After our quarantine ended, we went on a celebratory trip to a bakery, which was full of people and came as a complete shock to us all. Iceland had so few cases of covid that life within the country was minimally restricted. The field season flew by and we even successfully deployed devices for a week to monitor foraging behaviour during the breeding season.

By the time the June 2021 field season rolled around, I didn’t imagine that we would still be wondering whether we could leave the UK or enter Iceland. But thankfully, with consideration by the university and travel exceptions granted for researchers by the Icelandic government, we could live and work in the arctic tern colony once more. By then, international travel had adapted to covid and despite a slight hiccup at the airport with the wrong form (quickly rectified at the check-in desk!), our team once again reached the arctic terns. This time I was joined by another member of the lab group, Jess, and Lee once again for his third trip to the colony. In 2021 our quarantine was shorter (only five days and a negative PCR test were needed), but we still had a post-quarantine celebration excursion. This time to the erupting Fagradalsfjall volcano, just down the road from our field site!

Arctic terns have a very short breeding window, and our only chance to catch them is whilst they are incubating their eggs. There were ethical concerns that if we didn’t reach Iceland, terns that had been carrying devices since 2019 would be burdened for another year. With the clock ticking and the first week of June approaching, our application for international travel was approved by the Research Restart Committee with little time to spare. As a PhD student whose project is entirely based on data collected during fieldwork, I was exceptionally lucky that this could go ahead. With a huge amount of gratitude to the Research Restart Committee, my supervisor, the Director of Research, our Icelandic collaborator and everyone who helped us through the mountain of forms, we travelled internationally TWICE during the pandemic affording the best opportunity to try to recapture terns who had carried tiny GPS backpacks across the world.

Arctic tern with leg flag for identification

The 2021 field team visiting the Fagradalsfjall volcano (L – R Lee, Jess and Joanne)

Arctic tern with the GPS device antennae just about visible!

Arctic terns in flight

The biologging devices (plus an example leg flag and ring on the right) deployed on arctic terns. All weigh less than 3% of the mass of the terns with the smallest only around 1 g!