Career is a good word. It can either refer to your occupation, or “to move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way in a specified direction.” Both work fairly well in the context of my life.
I grew up close to New Plymouth, New Zealand, living on a farm outside the city. I watched nature documentaries on TV, read books about exotic animals, and explored the farm a lot… particularly the muddier bits.
Being completely unsuitable for anything else, following school I moved to Wellington and studied Ecology for my BSc.
Although I was initially obsessed (and I don’t use the word lightly) with reptiles, during my undergraduate studies I felt increasingly drawn to the ocean. I learnt to scuba dive, then decided to move over to Australia for an Honours degree.
I emailed the “shark guy” and the “crocodile guy” at The University of Queensland in Brisbane. The crocodile guy was going on sabbatical that year. The shark guy was keen to chat.
And thus I ended up in Professor Mike Bennett’s lab at UQ for most of the next decade… sorry, Mike.
Life could have been very different!
I ended up working on stingrays for my BSc (Hons) at UQ. I liked the little critters, and thankfully Mike took me on for a PhD to work on the ecology and conservation of inshore sharks and rays. I still like the little critters.
Stingrays, which ended up the main focus of my PhD studies, are rather underappreciated. Sharks were pretty uncool, too, at least when I first started working in the field (apart from showboating white sharks), but even now people are little aware of the importance of rays.
Stingrays have a key role as benthic predators. They structure major ecosystems through their feeding habits (using water jets to excavate prey from sandy or muddy substrates). They’re also valuable in fisheries, and even tourism in many countries.
One of my tagged Coral Sea maskrays
I surveyed the shark and ray communities living within intertidal waters in Moreton Bay, a huge embayment near Brisbane. I focused on the biology and ecology of two of the species that were most common along the southeast Queensland coast, the estuary stingray (Hemitrygon fluviorum) and the Coral Sea maskray (Neotrygon trigonoides).
Following the completion of this work, I nominated the estuary stingray for listing on the Queensland Nature Conservation (Wildlife) Regulation. It was added as a Near Threatened species, so that was great.
Measuring and tagging a wobbegong shark with some good hair & Dr Susan Theiss
I’d been friends with Dr Andrea Marshall for a few years by 2005, and she invited me to come over to Mozambique for a few months, help her with the fieldwork for her PhD on manta rays, and assess the potential for starting a research program on whale sharks based at Casa Barry Beach Lodge in Tofo Beach.
Andrea and I, probably arguing
Casa Barry Lodge in Tofo, Mozambique
I’d never even seen a whale shark at that point, but hey, why not.
Not much was known about the elasmobranch fauna over there at the time. We did some work on shark fisheries, identified an out-of-the-way ray for the first time from the Western Indian Ocean (the smalleye stingray), and of course spent lots of time with the whale sharks and manta rays.
Andrea completed her PhD on manta rays in 2008, and I submitted mine shortly afterwards. I moved over to Mozambique full-time immediately afterwards to expand our whale shark studies.
Initially, it was just Andrea and myself sitting in a grass shack. Surprisingly quickly, other people joined us in the shack. The program expanded rapidly to the point where we thought it would be best to make it official, and with help from a group of amazing people in the US the non-profit Marine Megafauna Foundation was formed.
As our research expanded, both Andrea and I started spending a lot more time outside Africa. Most of my work continues to focus on whale sharks.
If you’re not familiar with them, know that these sharks are huge. And deadly. If you’re a zooplankton.
If you’re not, then whale sharks are placid, and completely harmless.
I feel that it’s important to emphasise, though, that in terms of sheer numbers of victims, whale sharks are vicious predators. Okay, so their prey tends to top out at about the length of your little finger, but still…
Despite this, whale sharks need our help. Their numbers have been dramatically reduced by fisheries, accidental captures in net fisheries, and ship strikes. If the current declines persist, we are going to lose this real-life Big Friendly Giant forever.
To ensure that doesn’t happen, I work with a brilliant team of dedicated researchers, educators and conservationists on projects in a number of countries. My primary interest is in developing effective conservation initiatives but, at this stage, we still don’t have answers to some rather fundamental questions, such as:
- Where are the baby whale sharks?
- Where are the adults?
- Where are the FEMALES?
- You could read my blog.
- Check out my upcoming public research expeditions.
- I’ve been interviewed about my work quite a few times now.
- Check out some photo essays.
- Find out more about our latest research.
- All my scientific publications are available for download here on the site.
- I’ve written up my best advice on how to become a marine biologist.
- My photo gear is listed here, my travel equipment is on this page, and my scuba diving kit is here.
Over the past few years, I’ve discovered that photography is a fantastic excuse to visit some of the most interesting parts of the world. I love being able to use photographs and videos to show people what we do and see while in the field. I post regular photos and updates on Instagram and Facebook, so definitely say hi on those sites.
If you would like to get in contact directly, don’t hesitate to shoot me a message at info ‘at’ simonjpierce dot com.
Thanks for reading!
Like geeky animal facts and dad jokes?
I write a few articles just for my mailing list. They normally focus on something interesting, and possibly hilarious, that I've learnt about sharks (or other random animals) that week. There may also be groan-inducing jokes.
Real talk: there will be groan-inducing jokes.