Sunday 12th November marked the first day of White Sharks Global, a conference dedicated to all things great white sharks and hosted in Port Lincoln, Australia. I got back a week later and planned to write a journal entry immediately. This plan ended in failure.
The last edition of this conference was over ten years ago, hosted in Hawaii back in 2010. I’d only been in the whole ‘great white shark world’ for a couple of years at that point, so words like ‘conference’ and the implied social context were nowhere near my radar.
But since I completed my Masters this year, I thought what better time to travel to the other side of the globe to engage in all things great white sharks?
I mean, it did mean leaving Anna at home on her own with the spawn for a week and a half. Right at the time he was learning to be especially loud and disagreeable to the whole concept of bed time. So yeah, she could’ve probably thought of numerous other times that would’ve been better.
Unfortunately for her, her man is a monster.
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Awesome great white shark research
As you might expect, great white shark research was at the heart and centre of White Sharks Global 2023. As you might also expect, there was a metric fudge ton of the stuff.
I think we had 60 talks altogether spread across the first two days (day three was cage diving/tourist stuff, days four and five were all about workshops) each at 5 to 7 minutes each. It was an immense amount of information to digest and in all honesty, the vast majority went over my head.
Holy shiz, there’s a lot going on
The sheer diversity of work being done was pretty awe inspiring. Far more work going on in the Mediterranean than I realised, some interesting applications of machine learning (I’m very curious to see how much of a role AI is actively playing in white shark research by the time the next conference comes around) and a helluva lot of tracking. That was really cool to see, actually. When I started in white shark research manual acoustic tracking was a known, regularly used tool – but to nowhere near the extent that it is now. The amount of data being collected from these animals compared to a decade ago is staggering.
I would like to give proper attention to some of these researchers and their projects, but we’d be here all day. Instead, I hope/plan to perform more of a deep dive into such work via a new platform that’ll be launched sometime in 2024.
Progress. Actual, real progress.
What was perhaps most exciting for me from a research perspective, was seeing work being done by people I last met perhaps 10 years ago on either the Oceans Research or Marine Dynamics internships, or went through one of them in the years after I left.
That was always my hope for those programs, that if we could fast forward a decade, we’d see folks with projects, PhDs and programs of their own, with their experiences in South Africa having provided them with a foundation.
I knew I’d be catching up with people from a long time ago, but I was surprised by just how many I either knew from ‘back in the day’ or had some way been touched by the projects I’d been involved with.
It just goes to show that sometimes, you really can’t know the impact of what you’re working on until you know the impact of what you’ve worked on. You can plan, hope, second guess, live in your head and hypothesise as much as you want – the action you take is what ultimately counts.
More on all this stuff in the new year… he says.
Sharing my work
As mentioned, a significant motivation in attending the conference was to present my own work. This has been an ambition since June 2013, when we (the Dyer Island Conservation Trust) presented our work on Gauging the Threat.
I didn’t want to just rock up to something as someone riding on the coattails of those far better and more consistently active within the area. Call it ego, call it having standards, whatever – I wanted the first shark conference I attended to be done as someone bringing work of their own, irrespective of scale or complexity.
So that’s what I did. In addition to putting a poster together that summarised the method and results of my Masters, I took the same version of the game along that was built as part of it. This gave me the opportunity to better demonstrate the underlying principles and my thoughts on how systems within the natural world could be used to create compelling… well, at the very least ‘functional’ gameplay designs:
Shark Games Feedback
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t harbour some degree of nervousness about bringing the game and project to this particular audience.
I’d discussed my ideas with friends and colleagues before, all of whom were supportive of the idea and interested to see where it would go. However, this was the first time I’d really created anything based on these principles and things don’t necessarily turn out in reality as you would expect (or hope) in theory. Furthermore, if one group of people were going to be paricularly scrutinising over the idea – it would be this lot. These folks know great white sharks inside out (literally, on some cases), they owe me nothing and would be comparing my work alongside that of countless other Masters, PhDs and Postdocs.
Fortunately – the feedback was great. I for sure got a few raised eyebrows when I summarised my work but once I got into a bit more detail on both the experiment framework and results, there was a lot more enthusiasm for the idea than I initially expected. To such an extent that I even won the award for ‘Best Poster at the Conference’. Not only does this mean I can now add ‘Award Winning… whatever’ to my title on Linkedin, but it’s given me further confidence that there may be some scientific or at least, educational merit to the idea.
So yeah, I honestly can’t complain about the feedback and to be fair, I’d need another five or so Journal entries to better outline the sorts of feedback I got. I’m saving such levels of granularity for a later project (see below), let’s just summarise by saying that as far as my own interests are concerned, the entire trip had been made worth it by the feedback I got on the first evening.
If you’re interested in grabbing the full, high resolution version of the poster, you can do so by visiting ResearchGate via the image below:
To cull, conserve or compromise?
A week or so before the conference, I received an email advising that as part of the ‘Conserve, cull, compromise’ workshop, I was required to pick a perspective to argue in favour of. The idea of this was that each group would present an argument and we’d all then work together to produce a paper bringing those arguments (and some conclusions) into one place.
As you might expect, no-one had signed up to present an argument in favour of culling… no-one except me. On the one hand, I thought what better way to make a first impression among some of the world’s best white shark researchers than by arguing that we need to wipe their favourite animal off the face of the earth??
On the other, I’m a proponent of empathy and steel manning opposing arguments as being the best way to improve your own. Particularly in 2o23 where activism so often takes the place of personality and victimhood is the most sought after currency, actual understanding of broader context and the ability to identify shared ground is becoming as rare as it is invaluable.
Right, so how did that go – genius?
When I arrived at the conference, I discovered that Oliver Jewell had also signed up to this group – the fudging legend. We’re so used to being the most unpopular people in the room that it’d almost be a shame not to continue that trend here.
I’m not going to get into the details of the presentation, discussions or conclusions drawn. Like I say, this is all going to be part of a publication and so it doesn’t make sense to go sharing spoilers here. Plus, I’m lazy.
But it ended up being a very, very productive session. Our 20 minute slot went on for 45 due to how much conversation, debate and productive discussion came out of the points we raised. Obviously it was a relief not to just get lynched the second our intro slide came up, but it also helped validate my previous point that there’s only so much progress that can be made from within an echo chamber.
I look forward to sharing more on this once the publication is available. In the meantime, I did want to highlight this as being a particularly positive aspect of the conference… mainly because Oli and I survived to tell the tale.
Shark diving at the Neptune islands… with not so many sharks
One of the added benefits of this trip being at Port Lincoln, is this is essentially (if my historical knowledge serves me correctly, which it probably doesn’t) where great white shark cage diving was invented. The Neptune Islands have featured in countless documentaries and are as iconic a visual element in the white shark language as the dorsal fin, or shark alley in South Africa. So obviously, we were all going to go great white shark cage diving.
This was a bit of a dream come true for me. For some reason I’d never thought Australia would be a place I’d actually end up visiting. Perhaps because all my white shark work to date has been based in South Africa
Unfortunately, on the second day of the conference we were advised that sightings had dried up over the last week or so. This isn’t unexpected, most places of white shark activity have quiet periods and with nature being as unpredictable as it is, predicting if and when such periods will occur is… well, tricky.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of attendees still wanted to go out to sea, even if there was only a 0.01% chance of actually seeing a white shark. I’m certainly not the only one for whom the three hour journey to the dive site at the Neptune Islands would be justified by seeing the islands and nothing else.
It’s a shame we didn’t get to see any great white sharks (six years and counting, for some of us) but the trip was still awesome and massive props go to Calypso Star Charters for running such a tight operation.
Certainly not a bad trip
So as far as a first shark conference could go, I’m considering this a success.
I got to finally meet a few people whose work I was familiar with, reconnect with old friends and get a real ‘refresh’ on where great white shark research was up to.
Hopefully it’s not going to be another ten years before the next White Sharks Global Conference and I’ll definitely be attending some other sharky conferences in the years between.
Who knows, I might even take the family along!
Oh, and have a great New Years!