Q&A Blog | World Whale Shark Day

Simon Pierce

Dive into this World Whale Shark Day Q&A blog with Dr. Simon Pierce, a marine biologist and conservationist with a profound expertise in whale shark research! Learn all about Dr. Pierce’s involvement in various projects to  protect these magnificent aquatic giants and the impact he has made in advancing our understanding and conservation efforts.

Q&A Blog

Published August 30, 2023

Stay up to date with Dr. Pierce’s work:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/simonjpiercephotography

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/simonjpierce/

Website: https://www.simonjpierce.com/

Photo website: https://www.naturetripper.com/

Marine Megafauna Foundation: https://marinemegafauna.org/

Could you tell us how you got started with wildlife photography, and what drew you to capture marine species, particularly whale sharks?

Growing up I was always a huge wildlife nerd, but I only really got into photography after I moved to Mozambique to start our whale shark research project. Whale sharks all have a unique pattern of spots and markings on their skin, which we can use to identify individuals, so I always had a small compact camera with me in the water for ID photos.

Over a few years, I started to get frustrated that gear was holding me back from getting the photos I wanted, so I blew all my money on a small mirrorless camera system in 2013. It’s proven to be a useful, and super fun way to share the scientific research going on to help learn more about and conserve whale sharks.

Underwater photography gets somewhat technical, especially once you add strobes (flashes) etc, as there’s not much colour or light at depth. I’m masochistic enough to enjoy that challenge.

As an expert in non-invasive research techniques, could you elaborate on the significance of photo-identification for studying endangered species like sharks and rays?
For some species – those that have a manageable population size and are individually distinct, with reasonably stable patterns – photo-identification has become a fundamental research technique. It’s being increasingly used to study endangered sharks and rays, such as Indo-Pacific leopard sharks and giant manta rays, as well as whale sharks of course. 
We use photo–ID to count the number of sharks present in an area, and we can move between sites, collaborate with other researchers, or enlist citizen scientists to take photos in other places to track individual movements. For instance, a few whale sharks swim the ~2,000 km between feeding areas in Mozambique and Tanzania, and some reef manta rays move hundreds of km between Nusa Penida and Komodo National Park in Indonesia. Photo-ID can be especially useful with species that are popular in tourism, as lots of people are taking photos of these animals, and are often happy to contribute their images to research efforts.
Those data can be used in population modelling, to assess if shark numbers are increasing or decreasing within or across different areas, and often we can use photos to monitor human-related injuries like net entanglement, boat strikes, or hook wounds. 
Machine learning and computer vision (Artificial Intelligence) systems are increasingly being integrated into this work, which really helps us manage the firehose of data that can be available for some species. For instance, the global database at Sharkbook.ai currently holds over 100,000 sightings of almost 20,000 individual sharks, contributed by over 10,000 people, so AI is a massive help.    
Jonathan Green from the Galapagos Whale Shark Project - Photo by Simon Pierce

How do you approach setting organizational strategy within MMF, and what role does public communication and fundraising play in supporting your conservation initiatives?

One of the benefits we have, as a small to medium-sized NGO, is that we can be quite flexible on the specific implementation of our organisational strategy. Our main focus is on evidence-based conservation of threatened sharks and rays, but we also do work on sea turtles, marlin, and dugongs. Our regional leaders have a lot of autonomy in selecting their own priority projects as, ultimately, we’re generally using similar research and conservation methods across these species. As we have a high level of technical expertise within our team, we’re often asked to advise other like-minded organisations and individuals that are trying to accomplish similar goals, and those collaborations have been a fantastic way to scale our impact.

We can possibly split communication into two areas – in-country ‘conservation communication’, which is focused on education, knowledge-sharing, and behavioural change to some extent, and the broader communications that support international fundraising and awareness. The photos help the latter a lot! 

Fundraising enables everything else we do, but it’s really hard. We’ve reached a size where a full-time fundraiser would be extremely helpful, but we don’t have the unrestricted funding needed to cover a position, so that’s a challenge. We do a lot of work in the developing world, and most countries don’t have national grants for science and conservation initiatives. Also, most grants don’t support staff to a significant extent, and there can be so much ‘unpaid’ work required to setup projects and do everything else; that’s very tough if people aren’t on some form of regular salary. 

Kiyomi Mastumoto collecting a blood sample in St. Helena

What advice would you give to young aspiring conservationists who want to follow in your footsteps and make a difference in protecting marine species?

I always advise people to work to their personal strengths, be it professional experience, talent, or interest. You don’t have to be a biologist – indeed, I’d say that a sole focus on science as a conservation tool can often be a slower path to success than media or policy work. It’s good to think about how you can use your own knowledge and skills to protect marine animals. Ultimately conservation is mostly about people, in that it’s often human behaviours that need to change, so everything from marketing or storytelling skills, to education expertise and diplomacy, can all be highly relevant. If there are opportunities to work with local conservation non-profits or grad students, getting some experience and exposure to real-world conservation is really helpful.

One risk I’d mention is burnout. Rather than being overwhelmed by all the various ‘bad things’ going on, I’d say pick a specific area or topic (at a time) in which you think you can make a difference. Focus on what you can do, rather than worry about what you can’t. Passion is good, and required, but I believe that you need to compartmentalise to succeed in the medium- to long-term.   

Chris Rohner identifying whale sharks in Tanzania

The marine environment can be unpredictable and dynamic. How do you adapt your photography approach to capture those fleeting and rare moments in the ocean?

It sure is! Basically, I’ll happily cheat as much as I can. When I’m diving for fun, camera in hand (always), I’m almost always in full manual mode, as it’s actually easier when you’re trying to balance natural light and strobes. When I’m taking photos of my scientific colleagues at work, I’m thinking far more about composing the shot rather than my camera settings. In those circumstances, I’ll automate my settings where possible – I often use fixed shutter speeds and apertures with auto ISO, with -1 exposure compensation, when I’m shooting with strobes. Similarly, I’ll often use auto ISO with natural light, as we’re moving around a lot – one second you’ve got the light behind you, then you’re diving under the shark, then you’ve got the sun in your face. Shoot in raw, and learn to love Lightroom 😀 

What role do you believe wildlife photography plays in raising awareness about marine conservation and inspiring others to protect these incredible creatures?

We find it hugely useful, and we leverage it hard! We always try to include good images (and video, if available) in our media releases, and that really helps ‘sell’ the conservation messaging. Similarly, having ‘wow’ visuals in public talks is a massive advantage. Photos and videos evoke a much more emotional reaction than graphs…

You can see our latest photo stories in our free MMF magazine, Ocean Giants.