With over 20 years of diving experience, Kathleen Russell is passionate about our oceans.
Going beyond sharing her hobby with others by teaching people to scuba dive, she’s now pushing for more awareness on marine conservation and education around local species. Editor Rachael Perrett sits with the Chinese-Canadian diver to find out more…
You’ve been diving in Abu Dhabi for 18 years. What do you like about the underwater life here?
You can dive year-round – the water temperature doesn’t get too cold, though it can get too warm!
We also have a lot of special corals and there’s a lot of coral conservation and research that’s going on here, so it’s phenomenal to be in this area where we have really resilient coral communities. There’s still a huge threat to them but at the same time we know that we have something special in the Arabian Gulf.
We also have a flagship species, which is the dugong – we have the largest dugong population outside of Australia and they are highly protected here… Then you also have the heritage of pearl diving, so it’s a very sea faring community.
You recently became an ambassador for the Shark Educational Institute (SEI). Tell me more about your role…
[Dive Mahara] has been shark advocates for a long time, but this year we wanted to do more for shark conservation, and what better way than to partner up with SEI?
We do talks at schools, and we also incorporate the dugong. Ours is a very visual presentation because we want to show students the dugong’s seagrass habitat and the importance of preserving these areas. The kids love learning about things that are under threat that they can protect.
We hope to create more awareness about the species, specifically the bamboo shark within the coastal waters of Abu Dhabi, as this is where we’ve actually encountered them underwater. We’ve been able to get a measurement of size but not yet distribution, so one thing is to do a monitoring scheme, working with local shark experts.
The second thing is to build awareness that the distribution here is limited, and also that works with the conservation side because every time we go to fish markets, we’re seeing a lot of sharks being landed – sometimes you’ll see hammerhead sharks, too – and sold for meat or shark fins.
What is the impact of selling and consuming sharks?
People don’t understand the importance of sharks being the apex predator in our oceans. If we create an extinction, then there’s going to be a huge eco-imbalance in our marine ecosystem, and that has a huge detrimental effect that we won’t know until it’s too late. It can cause the imbalance of different fish populations, then we might all of a sudden get an explosion of jellyfish or algae. It’s a trickle effect, so what happens with our apex predator can affect the rest, and we already have a lot of stress and pressure on our marine ecosystem because of coastal development.
Once you start to learn about the marine ecosystem, you understand the bigger picture of why sharks are there. They’ve been around for over 200 million years and they’ve just in the last few decades [started to come under threat] by man.
What can people do to lessen their impact?
I think just being aware and making certain choices, such as avoiding products that contain shark, manta ray and seahorse ingredients – some Eastern medicines contain these.
Another thing is marine debris because that’s connected too. When we understand what we need to protect, then we take more action such as keeping our beaches and waterways clean.
People can also join in underwater and mangrove clean-ups – in the past we’ve found turtles wrapped up in debris and lots of batfish in ghost nets. Every clean-up that we do, we have global data collection sheets and we send this to the global conservancy agencies as well.
Everyone thinks, ‘I’m just one person, what difference can I make?’, but everything counts. That one piece of plastic, if you pick it up, it could have been eaten by another bird, or bits of plastic could have become entangled around a turtle.
Ultimately, we are connected to the sea so what happens to the sea is going to have an impact on us.
To find out more about Dive Mahara and join in upcoming clean-ups, visit: facebook.com/diveabudhabi